Clinkers, Rivets and Flatcaps: Celebrating Titanic and the Men Who Built Her.

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.’

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  • Fr.Tom

    unimaginably Capt “Lord” of SS California was 10 miles away from Titanic,
    when she struck the ice-berg at 11:40pm
    He had stopped for the night because of bergs;
    yet repeatedly failed to connect the dots of titanic’s distress,
    despite several look-outs reporting strange phenomena,
    the firing of rockets, the odd lights and ships titl.
    he failed to check the wireless, either for incoming or sending of messages
    Had he simply “logged on “he would have discovered the multiple messages
    that were being passing from ship to ship within the disaster radius.

  • Nice piece. Well done.

    So, into anorak mode:

    If one wants a taster of the craftsmanship involved, where can one see the oak panelling, glazing and fittings from the First Class Lounge of the Olympic? The dining room of the White Swan Hotel in Alnwick.

    Other bits (allegedly from the Olympic‘s restaurant) went into the Celebrity Millennium

    That’s generally known (and in the guide-books). Well “worth a detour” as Michelin might have it. Less well-known …

    The captain of the Olympic, who rushed his vessel to the site of his sister ship’s sinking sinking, was … Captain Haddock (Herbert James, not the far-better known Archibald, nor even Captain Francis Haddock of The Secret of the Unicorn).

  • Scáth Shéamais

    “The shipyard was a huge sprawling working environment, containing between 12,000 and 15,000 people.

    “But control mechanisms were in place for making sure the workforce did not have a moment of idle time.You were docked for the time on the toilet.

    “It was an extremely noisy, dirty and dangerous environment.

    “There was an expectation of one death per ten thousand tonnes of ship constructed.

    “The Titanic did better than this—eight men died building it. In addition there were 28 serious accidents and 280 slight ones.

    “The Irish revolutionary James Connolly referred to the toll or clang of the ambulance bell marking the progress of the shipbuilding industry in Belfast. He did not exaggerate.”

    From Titanic: a disaster built on class, the edited transcript of a recent talk by John Gray.

  • To put Belfast’s orgasmic celebration of the death of 1500 souls at the hands of Harland and Wolff incompetents into context. Stephen Nolan’s 5live show tonight had BBC news headlines for all UK listeners, which mentioned the Titanic centenary today, with Southampton and Newfoundland cited, but NO mention of Belfast at all. They don’t care about Belfast across the water so stop fantasising.

  • Roy Walsh

    Have to ask but, ‘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,’
    in 1912, what was Belfast the capital of?

  • Roy,

    Clever question and well spotted. But a bit pedantic. We know what the author meant and is but a minor slip up in an otherwise good essay.

  • Roy Walsh

    Joe, genuinely nothing pedantic there, simply questioning what the second city was capital of?
    It is a good piece and clearly well researched albeit missing the key point, that it was those very rivets, poorly manufactured in the shipyard which caused her to sink, not the alleged 100 yd gash.

  • Roy Walsh @t 5:27 pm:

    You made a point. Don’t overdo the angst.

    As I understand the reports, the “best” wrought-iron rivets were used in the bow and stern sections. The “best-best” mild-steel rivets were used in the main centre sections.

    That suggests three areas of “failure”:

    ¶ poor materials, either because White Star had contracted for a quick-and-dirty fix, or because H&W were under time or finance pressures (I believe that there is some evidence in H&W board minutes to this effect);

    ¶ under-skilled craftsmen (and, if you must, you can draw conclusions about the reason why the yard was employing such characters);

    ¶ the vessel’s design and construction “pushed the envelope” too far, in ignorance of the metallurgical problems in cold water.

    On the other hand, the Olympic was presumably built to the same specifications, was “old reliable”, and lasted until 1935, surviving two major collisions.

    As somebody has pointed out (where escapes me for the moment — perhaps Irish Central), if you insist on piling 45,000 tons into many multiples that weight of solid ice, and at 21-22 knots, what do you expect?

  • Roy Walsh

    Sorry Malcom but, the evidence, countering contemporaneous enquiries is there for reading, if you care to look, it appears celebration of the building of this floating disaster in Belfast is second only to the fact it’s building there was also the cause of it’s sinking.

  • Roy Walsh @ 4:39 pm:

    Not being — nor ever wanting to be — a metallurgist, I fully accept your information and interpretation.

    As for your last point, I severely doubt that construction standards in H&W were greatly different from those elsewhere in UK yards.

    I think we’d need to reconnoitre what was happening on that prestigious North Atlantic route. The commissions were coming from severely-stretched companies — White Star perhaps more than most.

    Nothing new (or old) there: all the way down to the present Boeing/Airbus spats,overseas competitors have been receiving overt and covert subsidies. And we’ve only had the WTO since 1995.

    Anyway such problems (and the specifications from which they derived) didn’t go away. DH Comet, HMS Sheffield anyone? Great British (and Northern Irish — let’s have the DeLorean, with its Renault engine remembered occasionally) disasters we have known and loathed.

  • @ All.

    Thanks for engaging with the topic, and for all the enlightening additional information.

    And yes, we concede. Belfast was not the capital of anywhere in 1912.