Belfast Shipbuilders

A Titanic Tale
Belfast once had the largest shipyard in the world, Harland and Wolff. It was there in 1912 that probably the most infamous ship, The Titanic, departed from the lough and sailed into the history books. This book traces the growth of the ship building industry in Belfast via stories from the small number of families responsible.

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INTRODUCTION: Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland sits astride the river Lagan as it makes its way towards Belfast Lough and the Irish Sea. The city is a bit of a strange place. You both love and hate it, a place where the locals just about tolerate each other, but yet strangely reach out a hand of friendship to a visitor. At times Belfast can also seem a very drab and dirty place, but it has so much to offer, not only to the locals but to those visitors who care to come to our City. Belfast is buzzing! Just look around at the investment and building work that has been going on in just the past few years, at the Cathedral Quarter and the new Titanic Quarter. Sadly, however, over recent years the industrial heart of the city has diminished from its former glory. Today in Belfast heavy industry is the exception rather than the rule. Yet this city and its hard working citizens have, over the years, placed Belfast at the top of the industrial league.At one time it boasted having the largest rope works in the world, there was a massive glass works and, maybe not that politically correct in today's health conscious society, the Gallaher Tobacco Company was at the forefront for smokers, with its Blues, Greens and Condor brands.Firms like Mackies, Davison's Sirocco works, airplane manufacturers Short Brothers and Harland, and even the short lived Delorean car plant were all testaments to Belfast build and quality. What Belfast did have and what was to make it world famous was shipbuilding. It could proudly boast to have the largest shipyard in the world, that of the massive East Belfast shipyard of Harland and Wolff. It was in this yard that the work force continually constructed and launched bigger and bigger ships, practically each one of them becoming the largest ship in the world at its respective launch. It was here in 1912 that probably the most famous or infamous ship, the Titanic, departed from the Lough and into the realms of the history books. Belfast shipyards also have the unique distinction of giving the world not one ship named Titanic but two.In 1888 the shipbuilding firm of McIlwaine and McColl, launched a 1,608 ton, schooner with a triple expansion steam engine and named the vessel Titanic.The earliest records of this fledgling industry date back to around the year 1630, when King Charles I was on the throne, Urban VIII was Pope and, in Belfast, local Presbyterian ministers commissioned the building of a ship, The Eagle Wing, that was unsuccessfully to transport them away from these shores. Shipbuilding was formally established on the shores of the river Lagan in 1791 when a Scot by the name of William Ritchie, having been invited by local businessmen to advise them about the possibility of setting up a shipbuilding yard, saw the potential himself and set up his own firm, becoming the founding father of that trade in Belfast. From that date shipbuilding was to grow to such levels that Belfast became the envy of the world. Individuals were to make their mark in the passage of time but mostly the growth was to be attributed to families and their connections.Douglas Carson, the well known and respected Belfast historian and public speaker, begins his talk entitled "The Family Tree of Titanic" by informing his audience, "that the beginnings of what was to become the giant shipyard of Harland and Wolff in East Belfast was a family firm and it grew out of a family with a larger family growing around it.This is quite correct. One of the first families was that of the previously mentioned William Ritchie. They were to be the instigators and pioneers of shipbuilding from those early days. Following mergers with Ritchie's own family and others there is a direct connection to another major Belfast shipyard, that of Workman Clark, this yard being bought over eventually by Harland and Wolff and absorbed into his own shipyard. The Pirrie family, starting with Captain William Pirrie around 1820 and finishing with his grandson William Pirrie, who became Viscount Pirrie of Belfast, were to shape the port of Belfast and produce the finest ships in the world.Included in the Pirrie family were Alexander Carlisle, brother in law of Pirrie junior, who was a Managing Director and Chief Naval Architect in the shipyard and Thomas Andrews, a nephew of the young Pirrie who would take over the designing reins from Carlisle and ultimately lose his life while representing Harland and Wolff on the maiden voyage of the Titanic.The Hickson family of Tralee, Ireland, were to produce a son, Robert, who would first be involved in the family lumber and shipping business, before moving north to Belfast to take over a struggling Iron Foundry. He would unsuccessfully try his hand at shipbuilding and eventually be forced to sell his small yard for GBP4,900 to an Englishman, Edward Harland. Harland's family connections were to see him take his distant cousin Gustav Wolff as a Partner with financial assistance from another relative Gustav Schwabe, who was the uncle of Wolff. The Wilson's were another family that would become involved in the story of shipbuilding when Walter and his brother Alexander became pupils at the Harland and Wolff yard and eventually Walter, who was the first pupil of Hickson, would become a Partner in the firm of Harland and Wolff.Others who would shape the destiny of Harland and Wolff were the Bibby family, owners of the Bibby Line. They were to place the very first order with Edward Harland for the Venetian, which was launched in 1859. The Bibby Line were also part of a consortium which had the Anvil Point constructed, probably the last ship built at the yard.The Ismays too played an important role, with the father Thomas and son Bruce deciding to build practically every ship in their White Star Line in Belfast. In my first book, "Titanic Belfast's Own", I looked specifically at the construction of the Titanic and the local people who both worked and sailed on her. I have to stress that this book is not meant to be an in-depth history of Harland and Wolff. That has been fully detailed and recorded in the very well researched and written Shipbuilders to the World by Michael Moss and John D. Hume.Rather, in this book, I wish to explore how shipbuilding first started and expanded here in this 'wee town', the city of my birth, that with no natural resources, neither any deposits of coal or iron ore, but yet gifted individuals and workmen, would produce some of the most beautiful and graceful ships that were ever to be launched. Ships built here included the Oceanic, Majestic, Teutonic, the three Olympic class liners and even the proposed 1928 Oceanic III, a 1,000 ft, 60,000 ton monster of a ship that would never get off the drawing board.In researching this subject, much was drawn from the company records of Harland and Wolff, which are held at the Public Record Office in Belfast. In those priceless records however, there are several large gaps, which were the result of a disastrous fire at the Record Office in Dublin in the 1920s. This blaze destroyed many invaluable records including census returns. Also many of Harland and Wolff 's records were destroyed when the shipyard was targeted and very heavily damaged as a result of the air raids in the Belfast Blitz on the 15 April 1941.If all of that wasn't bad enough, William Pirrie, the Chairman of the Belfast shipyard, in late 1902, decided that the growing mountains of paperwork and official books accumulating in the yard should be reduced and he introduced a system of document disposal. He sent a memorandum dated January 1903 to the senior Managers ordering the destruction of old books and papers held by their respective departments. This practice is something that today is widely carried out by larger companies.I feel that it would be fitting to end this exploration of the contribution that Belfast shipbuilders and workmen made, with the demise of those family connections, on the death of William James Pirrie, first Viscount Pirrie of Belfast in June 1924.



  • Format: Paperback / Softback
  • Published On: 30 April 2011
  • Publisher: Colourpoint Books
  • ISBN / EAN: 9781906578787
  • Page Count: 208
  • Dimensions: 10.25 in x 8.30 in x 0.50 in

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