Harland and Wolff

Belfast’s most famous shipbuilders

Belfast’s most famous shipbuilders, Harland and Wolff, is situated on Queen’s Island, east Belfast. The firm was established in 1853 by Robert Hickson, an ironmonger who expanded into shipbuilding to find an outlet for his products.

In 1854, Hickson hired Edward Harland from Scarborough as shipyard manager, a decision that would have a profound effect on Belfast’s industrial heritage. Only one year later, an offer came from Hickson to sell Harland:

My interest and goodwill in the shipyard at the Queen’s Island, Belfast, together with steam engine, boiler plant, tools, machinery and other appliances for shipbuilding as now in use by me for the sum of five thousand pounds.

Harland accepted this offer and a new era began. He was provided with the necessary investment of £5000 by GC Schwabe of Liverpool, whose nephew Gustav Wolff joined Harland as an assistant. Schwabe was a partner in the Bibby Line of shipping, and of the first 25 ships built by Harland and Wolff, 18 were for this line. Revolutionary vessels included the Istirain, Iberian and Ilyria, which were stretched and narrowed across the beam. Mockingly known as ‘Bibby Coffins’ by their rivals, Harland and Wolff had nevertheless impressed by showing their willingness to innovate and take risks.

In 1870, Harland signed a contract with the White Star Line, which was to set the course for Harland and Wolff to become the great shipbuilders of legend. Harland and Wolff can claim to have built the first transatlantic liner, the Oceanic, described as being as comfortable as a ‘Swiss hotel’. Alongside its famous successors, the Titanic, Britannic and Olympicthe Oceanic cemented the shipyard’s reputation as being the world’s leading liner constructor.

In the years following the first world war, Harland and Wolff survived the economic slump by changing the type of boat the yard produced. The opulent heights of the Titanic degenerated into rudimentary hulls with engines attached. One change in the making of these ships was the lack of manpower involved. The numbers of workers making their way towards ‘the island’ declined, and unemployment shadowed the yards.

Nevertheless, by exercising flexibility Harland and Wolff survived the hardships of the 1930s to emerge as a key component in the second world war effort of 1939 to 1945. Employment in the shipyards returned to over 20,000 as Harland and Wolff made boats, tanks and guns in the early rearmament drive. Prosperity unknown since the last war returned to the city.

In April 1941, Harland and Wolff, by now the only shipbuilders on the River Lagan, saw half their work yards destroyed by the German blitz. So important was Harland and Wolff to the war effort that a strenuous effort was made to have the yards up and running again, in order to resume production, but they had lost boats and men in one of the most devastating air raids of the war.

Harland and Wolff did not suffer a post-war slump as it had 40 years previously, mainly due to shipping companies having to restock in the aftermath of the second world war. The yard was still one of the world’s leaders when the Canberra was launched in 1960. From this point on, however, shipbuilding slowly declined. A renaissance in shipbuilding has not materialised, and on Friday, January 17, 2003, Anvil Point, the last boat to be fully built in Belfast, slipped into the sea. The owners of the yard have hopes to diversify, but with the closing of the shipyard, part of Belfast’s heritage and identity was lost to history.

Further Reading

Harland and Wolff: Designs from the Shipbuilding Empire (1998) by Tom McCluskie; Shipbuilders to the World: 125 years of Harland and Wolff (1986) by Michael S Moss.

Consult the Linen Hall Library catalogue.