The panicked screams of the dying could be heard long after Titanic broke in two and finally slipped under the icy waters of the North Atlantic. By the time the last voices faded and the inky dark became silence once more, over 1,500 souls had met a terrifying and lonely fate.
The disaster was a human tragedy from start to finish, the consequences made even more poignant by a sequence of poor and hurried decision making from conception to demise.
There were not enough lifeboats, a decision made to ensure more walking space on the First Class promenade. And when disaster struck, many of the lifeboats lowered held only a mere handful of their potential capacity. The bulkheads didn’t reach the top decks, leaving room for flooding and over-spilling should breaching occur. Multiple ice warnings were received, and ignored, on the nights leading to the sinking.
The crossing was hurried, precautions devalued. And when the iceberg was finally spotted, the fatal call was made to turn to starboard, in an instant bringing all the other issues to a head. While a head on impact would have crumbled the bow, Titanic would have remained afloat. By trying, and failing to avoid the collision, Titanic’s hull was slashed open and she began to sink.
The names of the dead are immortalised, mourned and reverently remembered, while the testimony of the survivors are forever etched in the annals of history.
But 2,000 miles to the east, the disaster had far reaching impact on a forgotten people who never sailed on Titanic, yet are forever entwined with her story. Within its limited scope, this piece aims to bring to light those Belfast shipbuilders who invested their blood, sweat and tears in turning blueprints and dreams into a steel framed reality.
Belfast in the early twentieth century was a city defined by shipbuilding. Of the approximately 250,000 people who lived in and around the capital, a little over 10,000 were employed at the docks, with 3,000 of them employed to build Titanic. It was a laborious project that took three years to complete and at a cost of over $7.5million. She was built largely by hand, with each major component individually constructed and assembled in the muddy banks of Harland and Wolff.
Despite the hard graft and toil, the building of Titanic was an impressive enterprise undertaken with vigour and determination by the largest shipyard in the world. Bram Stoker wrote that Harland and Wolff had ‘omnipresent evidence of genius and forethought; of experience and skill; of organisation complete and triumphant.’
And behind the clink of hammers on metal and the shouting humdrum of the shipyard lay the drive, vision and industrial genius of County Down native Thomas Andrews. Andrews was an able and ambitious young man who felt at ease in the fast paced world of shipbuilding, and by the turn of the century had risen to become an engineering superstar. At the tender age of 34, he had begun to oversee the development of the Titanic, and two years later in 1909 had become her principal architect. But Andrews was not alone at the giddy heights of the Titanic development project, rather working in conjunction with another local man, 1st Viscount William Pirrie, the former Lord Mayor of Belfast and chairman of Harland and Wolff. Pirrie was man of experience and stature, Andrews a visionary and innovator. Together they would develop, implement and launch a legacy that would enter legend.
Despite the ship’s mythical heritage, however, there was an intimacy to the Titanic project. Horses and carts trawled colossal lumps of metal through the streets of Belfast where onlookers gazed with amazement and admiration at the physical manifestation of Belfast’s industrial might. Statistics may have told the populous of Belfast’s strength in the terms of columns and ledgers, but its tangible reality was what made an impression.
The ship’s builders lived within striking distance of the docks, many living under the shadows of the monstrous vessels they constructed. They lived by the beckon call of the dock’s hooter, coming and going at the whim of a sharp blast of air for a mere £2 per week. The average labourer worked an average of just under 10 hours each day, often exposed to highly dangerous conditions. The technology may have advanced, but for the men using horses and carts, wooden supports and ropes to build these megaliths of steel, life was frequently in the balance. Eight workers died building Titanic, with a 15 year old boy falling to his death when he slipped on a ladder. He had lived on Templemore Street, just over a mile from the docks.
Titanic and her sister ships towered above everything around. Contemporary photographs show Titanic as she was, the biggest ship of the time, so big that her dry dock was reminiscent of the throne of a god. They were focal points on the south side of the Lagan, and the pride the ships instilled in the city should not be underestimated. Contemporary reports note that when news of her sinking reached the town on April 16, grown men were seen crying in the streets and a mood of sobriety hung over the shipyards. It was as if the collective parent, Belfast, had lost a child and it would be a very long time until the story would be talked about in everyday conversation.
It is, almost to the moment, 100 years since Titanic collided with the iceberg and vanished forever. Such a historical landmark has led Belfast to a seminal point in its relationship with the liner. A sense of full circle prevails, and nowhere can this been seen as prominently as The Titanic Belfast project built on the site of the old shipyards. The respectful and revised statement of learning, remembrance, and architecture that the centre exudes is only part of a countrywide movement to connect Titanic.
As one man from Belfast said to me recently, ‘it is not something to forget.’
Of This Island is an independent, unaffiliated and non-profit group of academics. OTI is concerned with engaging in the culture, history, and idiosyncrasies of the geographic island of Ireland. Each of its members are either Irish or of close Irish descent.
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