Shipbuilding in Belfast

An overview of the historic shipbuilding industry in Belfast

Origins and Beginnings
The recorded history of shipbuilding in Belfast begins in 1636, when the vessel Eagle’s Wing was built by a number of clergymen. The boat unsuccessfully took a congregation to America, in an attempt to escape one of the many furious schisms that affected Belfast society at the time.

The industry received its first real impetus in 1791 when William Ritchie arrived from Saltcoats in Ayrshire, bringing with him ten men and enough materials to found the first boat yard in Belfast. The yard was situated roughly where Corporation Street is today.

The first boat built and launched was the Hibernia, a vessel of 200 tons that entered the water on July 7, 1792. This was the beginning of an industry that was to shape the destiny and culture of the city for the next 200 years.

The Golden Age of Shipbuilding
Between 1841 and 1846, Queen’s Island was built on land reclaimed from a major river straightening project. This site, on the Co Down bank of the River Lagan, was to become the home of Harland and Wolff and their first major rivals, McIlwaine and Coll.

Harland and Wolff was founded in 1853 by Robert Hickson, an ironmonger, and sold to his shipyard manager, Edward Harland, in 1855. Harland was financed by GC Schwabe of Liverpool, whose nephew Gustav Wolff joined the firm as Harland’s assistant.

The first ship to be launched from the shipyard was the Venetian, followed by innovatory transoceanic liners for the White Star Line such as the Oceanic, the Britannic, the Olympic, and of course the Titanic. Harland and Wolff quickly established a reputation as the world's leading liner constructor.

In 1880, the firm of Workman and Clark was established on the opposing bank of the River Lagan in Co Antrim. Known as the ‘wee yard’, they took over McIlwaine and Coll within three years and pioneered refrigerated shipping utilised by the booming transoceanic trade routes.

Boom and Bust
The outbreak of the first world war in 1916 generated a marked increase in production in the shipyards. However, the ensuing economic slump saw shipyard employment figures fall from a pre-war high of 25,000 to just 2750 in 1933. Workman and Clark were bought over by the Tyneside company Northumberland Shipping, but declared bankruptcy in 1928. A management buyout was arranged, but a combination of the Wall Street Crash and a serious fire on the dock bound liner Bermuda finished off Workman and Clark in 1935.

Harland and Wolff survived the slump by changing the type of boat the yard produced. The opulent heights of the Titanic degenerated into rudimentary hulls with engines attached. But fewer workers were required to build these vessels and unemployment continued to shadow the yards.

Wartime Returns
Harland and Wolff were by now the only the only shipbuilders on the Lagan, and survived to emerge as a key component in the war effort of 1939 to 1945. Employment in the shipyards returned to over 20,000 as the firm made boats, tanks and guns in the early rearmament drive.

However, half their yards were destroyed by the German blitz of April 1941 and, while they were able to rebuild quickly, Harland and Wolff also lost boats and men in one of the most devastating air raids of the war.

The Long Decline
Harland and Wolff did not suffer a post war slump due to shipping companies having to restock in the aftermath of world war two. 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:
Belfast: An Illustrated History (1983) by Johnathan Bardon; Shipbuilders to the World: 125 Years of Harland and Wolffe, Belfast, 1861-1947 (1986) by Michael Stanley Moss; Steel Ships and Iron Men: Shipbuilding in Belfast, 1894-1912 (1989) by Harland and Wolff; An Unlikely Success Story: the Belfast Shipbuilding Industry 1880-1935 (2001) by John Lynch.