The Boat Factory: Life in the Yard

A cultural history of shipbuilding in Belfast

The origins of Belfast’s shipyards lie amidst a complex web of family and business connections between the city’s nineteenth century industrialists. These connections allowed the rapid growth of the shipbuilding industry in Belfast, and affected the composition of the developing workforce, impacting upon the city’s culture.

The Social Structure of the Shipyards

On his arrival in Belfast from the Tyne in 1854, the young manager Edward Harland managed to alienate his new workforce by, among other things, cutting wages and banning smoking at work. His response to the ensuing strike was to import skilled labour from other shipbuilding centres in northern Britain. Attracted by decent housing, low rents and a generally higher standard of living, these largely Protestant craftsmen from the Clyde, Tyne, and Mersey soon formed a labour aristocracy at odds with their unskilled local competitors as regards wages, conditions and religion.

This labour aristocracy perpetuated itself through the apprentice system whereby families paid large sums of money to support sons through at least five years of training. Work in the textile industry was also available for their wives.

At the bottom of the shipbuilding hierarchy, though accounting for up to half of the workforce, were the unskilled workforce of labourers and helpers. Competition was fierce as work was in short supply, exacerbated by the influx of mostly Catholic rural dwellers lured by the ‘navvying’ work required for the breakneck expansion of the city’s shipbuilding and harbour facilities.

The Victorian Yard and Popular Culture

The growth of conservative Presbyterianism and the Temperance movement in the first half of the nineteenth century led to a decline in spontaneous working class cultural expression. At the same time, industrial progress restricted recreational opportunities for the inner city poor, not simply by eating into the time available for leisure, but because the expansion of the shipyard facilities led to the closure of the pleasure grounds on Dargan’s (later Queen’s) Island in the mid 1870s.

Meanwhile, the singing saloons that offered one form of rough and ready entertainment gradually gave way to, or evolved into, commercially organised theatrical culture. In the absence of a morally and socially respectable audience, and perhaps catering to the taste of workers from urban centres in Scotland and England, Belfast’s first music hall in May Street in 1840, was followed by theatres such as the Alhambra, the Olympia Palace, and the Theatre Royal.

Shipyard workers attended these theatres along with other members of the skilled working class. In 1891, the actor Whitford Kane noted ‘shipyard workers in their dungarees’ in the gallery of the New Theatre Royal. Thomas Carnduff, shipyard labourer turned dramatist, recalls that on ‘Monday evenings, the gallery was packed with newsboys, shipyard and factory hands.’

Sectarianism and Labourism

Rapid growth and technological change in the shipbuilding industry, a vastly expanding workforce, the apprentice system, and religious divisions within the labour market provided fertile ground for a craft unionism more concerned with upholding strict demarcations within the workforce than with defending all sections of the workforce against the employers.

Sectional disputes were frequent. To take one example, disputes over demarcation between shipwrights and carpenters occurred in 1890, 1891, 1911 and 1913. In that year, the apprentices of Harland and Wolff also went on strike. Less sectional disputes occurred in 1887, over the introduction of fortnightly payment, and in 1892 in support of the eight hour day. Then, in 1919, Belfast’s shipyard workers joined thousands of others in a mass strike for a 44 hour working week.

In the following year, however, the second theme of the shipyard’s socio-political culture was dominant. Responding to the establishment of the Irish parliament in 1919 and the outbreak of the IRA’s War of Independence, loyalist workers expelled some 10,000 Catholics and ‘rotten Prods’—socialists and trade union activists—from the yards.

Outbreaks of sectarian violence involving shipyard workers were nothing new. There had been disturbances during the 1912 Home Rule crisis, and an expulsion of Catholics in 1886. Five hundred loyalist shipyard workers had fought running battles with the police in 1872, and in 1864 ironworkers, carpenters and shipwrights from the yards had been involved in fighting with Catholic navvies engaged in the excavation of new docks. The role of the ‘Islandmen’ in the ‘battle of the navvies’ was commemorated in at least one loyalist ballad:

They sent unto the Island, and they challenged us that day;
For they had guns and pistols to begin a bloody fray;
Our arms we had to find them, but we didn’t dally long,
And we marched upon the Navvies in three columns stout and strong.

Trade union consciousness and sectarian ideas found uneasy cohabitation in the populist unionism of groups like the Independent Orange Order, and in the outlook of working class writers like Thomas Carnduff. The conflict, often violent, between the two, was the subject of the 1960 play, Over the Bridge, by another shipyard worker, Sam Thompson.

Working Class Creativity

The crucial role of the shipyards in Belfast’s industrial development, and the contribution of its workforce in the shaping of the city’s character may explain the importance attached to a number of self-taught writers who emerged from the yard. In a blend of folk tradition and socialist ideas of proletarian art, shipyard workers like Thomas Carnduff were publishing poems and ballads. This tradition can still be seen at work in small press collections such as Joe Nolan’s Down by the Slipway: Songs of the Shipyard (1991).

Only recently, as shipbuilding in Belfast has dramatically declined, have the workers and ex-workers been given the opportunity to tell their own stories of life and work in the yards. Among accounts of hardship and camaraderie, and of a culture where evangelical religion vied with illegal gambling and practical jokes, working class creativity flourished. According to David Hammond, ‘Singers, dancers, comics … songwriters, book writers, play writers, all these particular types of people have worked in the shipyard.’

But the writer JW Foster warns against the condescending view of 'the Yard as a folk arena peopled by quaint characters'. The work of thousands in advanced shipbuilding was itself a creative act.

Further Reading

The Titanic Complex: A Cultural Manifest (1997) by JW Foster; Belfast, City of Song (1989) edited by Maurice Leyden; Steelchest, Nail in the Boot and the Barking Dog: The Belfast Shipyard: a Story of the People Told by the People (1986) edited by David Hammond.