NI’s Carpet King, the tycoon with a speedboat and helicopter, who brought his rich and famous pals to Donaghadee
Producer John Deering spoke to Shirley Lord, former wife of the late Cyril Lord, for a fascinating programme for BBC Radio Ulster's Stories In Sound
Shirley Lord lives in style in a third floor apartment in New York's uptown Manhattan. The 86-year-old is elegant and vivacious, as befits a woman who has been at the forefront of the beauty and fashion world all her working life - beauty editor of Harper's Bazaar, fashion editor of Vogue and a vice-president of Colgate.
She's a friend and confidante of America's leading politicians, business people and film stars and she has a particularly soft spot for Ballymena-born Liam Neeson.
In fact, she has a soft spot for anything to do with Northern Ireland and never misses an opportunity to talk up its tourism and investment potential.
Now, Shirley has been interviewed at length for the first time for BBC Radio Ulster's Stories In Sound series on Cyril Lord. The two part series on the Carpet King, produced by Yamal Productions, will be broadcast over the next two Sundays.
Shirley's love for here began in the 1950s when her job as a London gossip columnist took her on assignment to interview Lord, a self-made millionaire, a textile genius and the most charismatic and colourful businessman of his generation.
The interview ran hours over the 20 minutes that Lord had allotted to it. The next day Shirley got an invite to lunch - "it was more like a summons", she says - and despite the fact that she was 26 years younger and a couple of inches taller than the small, balding, stocky businessman, she was smitten.
"He had a very big personality, great sense of humour and his knowledge fascinated me."
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
They were both already married but soon became a couple and it wasn't long before Shirley made her first visit to Northern Ireland. "I was stunned," she says. "I couldn't believe how beautiful it was, that road going from Nutts Corner airport and then the hill and then you see the lough and then Belfast. It's magical. Cyril had really fallen in love with it, and particularly Donaghadee."
That's right, Donaghadee! Cyril had chosen the small North Down seaside town as the unlikely headquarters for Europe's largest carpet factory.
He introduced affordable, synthetic fibre carpets to the British market and persuaded the post-war, rising middle-class to throw out their rugs and linoleum and replace them with something warmer and much more stylish.
Cyril sold directly to the public and he made full use of the new commercial television channels to advertise his carpets with the jingle: 'This is luxury you can afford by Cyril Lord'.
Cyril Lord had worked his way up in the cotton mills of his native Lancashire. He first came here as a textile adviser to help improve productivity in the Second World War.
By the mid-Fifties Northern Ireland had the highest unemployment rate in the United Kingdom and the Stormont government, desperate to create jobs, agreed to build Lord a new factory in Donaghadee and provide grants for the machinery.
The plant produced five yards of synthetic, tufted carpet per minute.
Two more, smaller factories followed at Carnmoney and Rathgael and at one stage Lord was providing around 1,500 much-needed jobs.
By the time Shirley arrived on the scene - they subsequently got married - Lord was already the talk of Northern Ireland. He had an ultra-modern house with swimming pool on the coast road at Donaghadee. He had a top of the range speed boat, called the Sea Lord, two Bentleys and a helicopter.
With Cyril's business connections and Shirley's showbiz contacts, the house at Donaghadee became famous for its weekend celebrity parties. Shirley recalls: "David Frost, Gracie Fields, the actor Jack Hawkins and his wife, Alan Whicker... they all came. It was a real treat for them to come from London and stay beside the great Irish Sea."
The Lords treated their guests to day trips to Scotland in the Sea Lord, tours of country houses, fine dining and swimming parties and musical evenings. People from near and far would drive past for a glimpse of the comings and goings at his luxury bungalow. If they were lucky, they might spot some of the rich and famous popping into town for a newspaper or an ice cream.
A visit to the ultra-modern carpet factory was also a must for the guests. "They were fascinated by it," Shirley says. "They could watch the whole process of turning the yarn into carpet in one massive work space."
Despite his many other business interests and his hectic social life, Cyril Lord was never far from the factory. Former worker William Stewart says: "I think he must have been an insomniac. The factory was running 24-hours a day at one stage and Cyril would occasionally get up in the middle of the night and walk across the fields to check that everything was okay. Some of the guys at the far end of the hall thought they'd maybe seen a ghost!"
Cyril Lord workers also received a very welcome perk: discounted carpet. But William says: "We were restricted to a couple of carpets a year. Cyril didn't want half of Northern Ireland being carpeted at 20% off!"
Lord branched out into the hospitality industry. At one stage he owned the Ballygally Castle Hotel on the Antrim Coast and the Pig 'n' Chicken restaurant, in Templepatrick. He opened Belfast's first American-style burger bar. The Lords became a very influential couple here. Shirley was even appointed a commissioner to the new city of Craigavon.
She says: "It was a great honour but I was terrified, overwhelmed with it. The meetings were all about planning a whole new town, deciding about garbage disposal... where to put the traffic lights, way out of my league.
"I certainly made suggestions, but at that time I was probably beauty director of Harper's Bazaar, so I was more interested in thinking about lipstick and mascara!"
However, the good times didn't last. By 1967 Lord was in severe financial difficulties. A major South African textile venture flopped. New product lines failed. The competition was catching up and the creditors were at the door. Lord's health broke down and he was persuaded to leave the company.
The workers demanded that Stormont step in. Northern Ireland was losing one of its highest profile employers just as the civil rights protests were getting under way, making the region an increasingly unattractive place for investors.
Brian Faulkner, then Minister for Commerce, held weeks of talks with creditors, bankers and potential buyers before the company was taken over by Carrington Viyella. It survived on a gradually reduced size until the early 2000s, but a few workers managed to get over 30 years' employment from it. "Cyril Lord raised my family and carpeted my house," says former lorry driver Vincent Wilson.
Still a wealthy man, Lord retired to Barbados, where he built a beautiful villa and struck up a close friendship with legendary West Indian cricketer Sir Garfield Sobers. He and Shirley got divorced. He remarried and died in 1984, aged 72.
Shirley moved to New York, where she continued her career as a top fashion and beauty writer and married Abe Rosenthal, managing editor of The New York Times and one of the most celebrated journalists of his generation.
Shirley Lord last visited Northern Ireland some years ago and was saddened to see that the factory and their beautiful house had been demolished.
But back in New York she remembers Donaghadee with great fondness and many older residents of the town vividly remember Cyril Lord, the Carpet King, who brought luxury, glamour and, most of all, jobs into their lives.
You can hear the full fascinating story of Cyril Lord: Carpet King tomorrow, February 3, and next Sunday, February 10, on BBC Radio Ulster at 12.30pm and afterwards on the BBC Sounds App. The programmes are presented by BBC Northern Ireland's economics and business editor John Campbell