D.B. McNeill, TD, MSc, PhD, FInstP (1911-2010)


D.B. McNeill, TD, MSc, PhD, F Inst P, died in his 100th year on 8th August 2010 in Movilla House, Newtownards. Throughout his life he had a wide range of interests and pursuits, from physics, transport, rowing and history to education, the army and the church. He held senior positions as varied as his interests:  Major in the Royal Corps of Signals, Esquire Bedell and Assistant Dean at the University of Southampton, Founder of Queen’s University Belfast Boat Club, Chairman of the McNeill Group and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Ulster Museum.  His collection of transport books and ephemera was amalgamated with that of his brother-in-law to form the ‘McNeill-Green Collection’ in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.

His first transport article was accepted for publication by the ‘Railway Magazine’ while he was still boarding at the Portora Royal School, Enniskillen. After that he wrote many more articles and books, including two volumes on Irish steamships and three of the seven transport handbooks produced by the Ulster Museum.  His final transport book, a joint publication on Ulster buses, was published in 1997. This was not his last work as his comparative study of Presbyterian church hymnals was published in 2008.

This dedication to study began young as he essentially taught himself physics, since it was not a subject then offered at advanced level at his school. He succeeded in reaching the level needed to enter Queen’s University Belfast for which, in 1936, he was their representative at the Tercentenary celebrations at the University of Harvard in the USA.

Five years earlier, in 1931, he had been one of the group including J.W. Rigby, F. Maunsell and J.F. Doggart who rekindled the University Boat Club, which had lapsed since the 19th century. He was elected Vice-Captain in the founding year and Captain in 1932. His natural interest in research led him to keep records of rowing at Queen’s and in 1987, whilst President of QUBBC, he compiled at history of Rowing at Queen’s from 1864-1951. Much of this material can be read in the “About Us” section of the queensrowing.org website.

His interest in rowing lasted all his life, during which time he coached crews at Queen’s and Southampton University as well as BCBC, BRC and RBAI. He personally funded a number of boats over the years.  The bow of one, which bore his name, reputedly ended its days adorning a pub wall in Henley.

He joined the staff of University College Southampton in 1938 where he remained until 1971. His most acclaimed work while there was the production, with Dr Jerrard of ‘A Dictionary of Scientific Units’ that, between 1962 and 1992, ran to six editions in four languages and is still cited as the authority in this field by the Oxford English Dictionary. In 1953, as Esquire Bedell, he was actively involved in the formal conversion of the University College into Southampton University. He later became Assistant Dean of Science, though he preferred the more modest title of Faculty Secretary, a position he held for many years. He was deeply interested in his students, especially those in  rowing and physics, with whom he often communicated as if from his talisman – and ice breaker – ‘Jumbo’, a large pink inflatable elephant that resided in his rooms. It was the days when academics were supposed to seem a little eccentric.
His university career was interrupted by the Second World War where he put his science to good use in the Royal Corps of Signals. In late 1939 he was attached to the 53rd Welsh Brigade who were sent to Northern Ireland in March 1940. After the Fall of France there were real fears that Germany would invade Ireland. If that were to happen, there was a plan in place for the British to assist the Irish government in repelling them. D.B. McNeill was to lead his troops to a pre-determined location to the west of Dublin. In the event he never had to leave Northern Ireland on duty until he was sent to Yorkshire and then to North Africa where he became the Chief Instructor of Signals. Not long after he had followed the fighting to Italy he was made senior technical support to Army Broadcasting from which he was finally released in December 1945 to resume university teaching. He remained in the Territorial Army until 1954, playing an active part in the Southampton OTC and maintaining support of Queen’s OTC for many years thereafter.

In 1974, after he had retired from Southampton, his brother Sean McNeill died so DB became Chairman of the McNeill Group, the Belfast based engineering and construction firm his father had founded at the beginning of the 20th century. This, in turn, led him to being invited onto the Board of Trustees of the Ulster Museum whose Chairman he subsequently became (1978-83). 

He was involved with churches in both Southampton and Newtownards, where he settled on retirement. Although he was for some time an Elder in the Presbyterian Church, he liked also to attend the Church of Ireland.

He had life memberships of Belfast Boat Club, Belfast Rowing Club and Lagan Scullers, as well as being a past president of Queen’s. It will be as a coach that DB will be most vividly remembered – cutting quite a figure and cycling, well into his 70s, in his brown leather jerkin, bicycle clips and red woolly hat, megaphone in hand to give words of encouragement to his usually novice crew!

In 1950, DB brought over the ‘Irish Four’ from the university boat club in Southampton. They were the first team from Britain to compete in Irish events (Dublin, Belfast and Carrickfergus regattas) for 17 years, and were feted, accordingly, with a formal reception from the Lord Mayor of Belfast.

Although age brought with it frailty, he continued his avid interest in the progress of all the Lagan clubs, and enjoyed attending Lagan HOR and Queen’s Regatta right up until this year. He will be sadly missed and remembered with great affection at Queen’s.

He never married and is survived by his sister, sister-in-law and their families. His Memorial Service will take place at Regent Street Presbyterian Church, Newtownards, on Saturday October 2 at 3 pm.

Posted In,

1 Comment

  1. I recall this gentleman very well as I served in the McNeill Groupin the 1970s and acted as his “driver” when he visited DublinA real Gentleman RIP

Leave a Reply