Edward James Harland

Co-founder of Belfast shipbuilders Harland and Wolff

Reproduced with kind permission of the Linen Hall Library. From ’Belfast, 1896: a Sketch of its History, Shipping & Shipbuilding, Trade & Manufactures, alo of Churches & Institutions of the City’, J.Adams, Belfast, 1896.Edward James Harland was born in May 1831 in Scarborough, Yorkshire. The son of a doctor interested in mechanics, Harland was educated at Edinburgh Academy, then apprenticed at 15 to the engineering firm of Robert Stephenson and Sons in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Employed as a journeyman by J&G Thomson at Govan, he rose to the position of head draughtsman before leaving to become manager of a shipyard on the Tyne.

Harland’s move to Belfast followed shortly. At the age of 23, he was appointed manager of Hickson’s shipbuilding yard in Belfast. There he alienated local workers, replaced them with skilled English and Scottish labour, and hired Gustav Wolff, a Hamburg-born draughtsman and marine engineer whose uncle, the financier GC Schwabe, was a relative of Harland’s. Hickson sold out to Harland in 1858, and in 1861 Harland and Wolff formally entered into an eight year partnership. 

Harland’s entry into Belfast’s public and business life was rapid. He married Rosa Wann, thus relating himself to the influential Gallaher tobacco family. In 1873 he bought two farms at Brompton Park in the Ardoyne for £9000, followed by a village on the outskirts of Belfast. In 1875, his personal worth was calculated at £125,000.

While withdrawing from day to day management of the yard, Harland’s personal loans to the company helped it grow rapidly. By 1884, when he was no longer formally a partner in the enterprise, he had lent more than £80,000.  Mayor of Belfast in 1885, Harland was prominent in the struggle against Home Rule, and was offended by the offer of a knighthood in that same year. After popular protest, he was offered and accepted a baronetcy. Elected MP for north Belfast in 1887, he promptly moved to London where his neighbour was his long-standing collaborator Schwabe. His Irish home was Glengorme Hall in Co Leitrim, where he died in 1895. Vast crowds, including many from the shipyard workforce, attended Harland’s funeral in Belfast.