David Patrick Huddie from Shercock.

Sir David Patrick Huddie (1916-1998): Shercock’s Aero Genius

In his latest Times Past column, Jonathan Smyth recalls David Patrick Huddie of Rolls Royce who was born in Shercock...

Sir David Huddie’s career began with Rolls Royce in 1939. The development of better aircraft engines helped aviation soar to new levels, from winning the Second World War, to ushering in an era of relative peace across most of Europe and enhancing the lives of the common person who availed of the growth in commercial flights.

By joining the EEC (European Union) in 1973 the Irish could holiday on a borderless continent. People found themselves captivated by new dreams, hope and opportunity.

Engineers like David Huddie are betimes the forgotten heroes of the last century. Perhaps we ought to take a leaf from the Victorian ideal which treated the engineer as though a celebrity, for without their like we never could achieve solutions so needed in the world today. Indeed, bigger, and bolder advancements on the engineering front may help to enhance broken elements of our environment and reduce the gasses that currently are disturbing nature’s natural balance. One such development is carbon capture whereby an aircraft sucks in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. United Airlines are backing this project.

Shercock roots

On September 1, 1898, James Huddie, a young constable at Cootehill barracks, married his love, Miss Catherine Wilson, of Co Leitrim, at the parish church of Cloonclare, Manorhamilton. The presiding minister was the Rev Matthew J. Porteus.

James had previously been constable in Belturbet and Swanlinbar where his ‘impartial manner’ was reflected in the discharge of his duties. The civil registration shows that David Patrick Huddie was born to James Huddie and Catherine Wilson Huddie, in Shercock, on March 12, 1916. James who worked for the Royal Irish Constabulary was promoted to Shercock’s sergeant around 1910. James Huddie was the son of John Huddie, a farmer and Catherine Wison was the daughter of Edward Wilson of Donagh More, Manorhamilton.

Other children born to the Huddie’s included, Hannah Elizabeth, born in Coroneary, Knockbride in 1900 (her father was still police constable in Cootehill); Robert John, born in Bailieborough, in 1901 (where his father was again serving as constable); Kathleen Maud, born in Bailieborough, in 1903; Sarah Jane, born in Bailieborough, in 1904; Edward Wilson, born in 1907, Bailieborough (where his father was then promoted to acting sergeant); Ethel Mary, born in Shercock in 1910 (her father was the sergeant in Shercock at this stage); James Thomas William, born in 1912; and Ernest Francis, (1919).

Sergeant Huddie’s time in Shercock coincided with the War of Independence and a report in The Anglo-Celt from 1920 explained that he claimed £199 for furniture damaged during the deliberate burning of Shercock barracks. Days before the event, Mrs Huddie had received a threatening letter and the sergeant, acting on instinct, had removed some items from the barracks in advance of the fire. Sergeant Huddie received ‘a further sum of £12’ owing to the ‘destruction of beehives’.

Trinity College

According to the Dictionary of National Biography, David Huddie attended Sligo Grammar School. A highly intelligent young man, he went on to Trinity College Dublin where his brilliance in the field of mathematics was upon his graduation in 1938. Many years later, and by then, as Sir David, he was awarded a Doctor of Science degree by Trinity and on that day in December 1968 he accepted the honour in good company, standing alongside Mr Cecil Day-Lewis, the English Poet Laureate (father of Mr Daniel Day-Lewis, thespian), who was awarded a DLitt, and Professor F.S. Dainton, vice-chancellor of Nottingham University, who received his D Sc.

A ‘successful’ failure

In 1939, Huddie joined Rolls Royce and helped develop the Merlin engine, designing components and testing its effectiveness. The Merlin engine was used to power three types of bomber airplane - the Spitfire, the Hurricane, and the Lancaster. In 1941, Huddie married Wilhelmina Betty Booth and they had three sons.

In March 1968, Britain received the tremendous news that Rolls Royce’s RB 211 engine had been purchased by the United States to power its Lockheed 1011 Trijet airliner and announcements were made in London at a conference and in New York. The company was contracted to supply Eastern Airlines with fifty aircraft, and Trans World Airlines with 44 airplanes. The deal was described in the news as the ‘biggest sales order’ in the company’s history and the largest order to have been placed with Britain’s Aerospace industry at the time. Huddie’s name was in the Queen’s honours list, and they knighted him for his service to the industry.

Sadly, success soon soured when in 1971 Rolls Royce collapsed in ‘spectacular fashion’ as the New York Times wrote on August 26, 1973. A report about the company, had unfairly, it may be added, placed personal blame at the feet of the men who had led the way for the company’s most successful deal, Sir Denning Pearson and Sir David Huddie. The 450-page document named the two engineers, whom they ‘faulted’ for not having alerted other directors to the ‘magnitude’ of the serious situation that led to the business entering a short receivership.

The New York Times stated that: ‘The problem was a technical one. Rolls engineers quoted an unrealistically low price, gambling on a technological breakthrough in the use of an unproved carbon fibre material in the engine’s blades. The gamble failed, and another material was substituted.’

In June 1998, David Huddie’s obituary in the Independent recalled that following Rolls Royce ‘temporary government ownership the engine came to fruition as a notable success which, over subsequent decades, brought Rolls-Royce into the front rank of world engine builders.’

The engineers had provided the correct engine and Huddie later said that the so-called ‘failure’, brought worldwide success to Rolls Royce.

In 1971, Huddie joined Imperial College, London where he and Sir Hugh Ford worked together on the development of a ‘total technology course’ in the college’s Mechanical Engineering department. He retired from the College in 1980.

Huddie gave a lecture at P.J. Carroll’s Grand Parade Building, Dublin in 1971 at which the Irish Independent aptly called him an ‘aero genius’. This indeed described him best and Shercock can be proud of David Huddie.


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