Belfast Shipbuilders

An admirable exploration of Belfast's engineering heyday

Everything in Belfast has to be Titanic these days. Yet Stephen Cameron entirely legitimately uses the word in its adjectival sense of ‘huge’ or ‘colossal’ in his popular history of the glory days of Belfast shipbuilding, Belfast Shipbuilders: A Titanic Tale.

After all, Harland and Wolff was the largest shipyard in the world and Workman and Clarks, ‘the wee yard’, sometimes topped the British shipbuilding league.

Cameron makes a hesitant start with the small beginnings. The ill-fated attempt by Presbyterians to emigrate on Eagle Wing to America in 1636 cannot be ‘the first major record of shipbuilding in Belfast’ when on the following page we learn that ‘there is no direct documented evidence that the Eagle Wing was in fact built anywhere in Belfast, or Carrickfergus Lough’.

He is on surer ground, however, with the real pioneers of our modern shipbuilding, notably William Ritchie on the north shore, from 1791 onwards, and, crucially, Robert Hickson, who created the first yard building primarily iron ships on the newly reclaimed Queen’s Island in 1854.

He recruited the then 21 year old Edward Harland from Scarborough as his manager, and a prodigious talent. Yet Hickson’s enterprise was too under-capitalised to flourish.

Harland’s family connections made breakthrough possible. He had already recruited Gustav Wilhelm Wolff, a distant relative by marriage, for his technical expertise. Even more importantly Wolff was related to financier Gustav Schwabe, who had vital links with the great Liverpool shipping companies.

He financed the takeover of Hickson’s yard by Harland and Wolff in 1859, and helped them secure their first major contract for three ships from the Bibby Line, a model for the later and almost symbiotic relationship with the White Star Line.

These connections flourished because the new yard was at the forefront of technical innovation in an era in which shipping worldwide was expanding massively.

All this could well have happened in Liverpool. Fortunately for Belfast, Harland’s overtures in that direction were rejected, and the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, with vacant land on their hands, were far more accommodating.

Soon enough Belfast's shipyards became ‘too big to fail’, and for the next half century the port, sometimes grudgingly, met Harland and Wolff’s demands for massive investment in supporting infrastructure.

As early as 1867, Edward Harland claimed to have amassed a fortune of £125,000, though a curious omission here is a lack of analysis of the profitably of the yards generally in this era. The wealth of the founders enabled them to branch out into public life, with both Harland and Wolff becoming MP’s for the city.

Their other brilliance lay in their cultivation of the next managerial generation. These gentlemen ‘premium’ apprentices joined on payment of £100 and were destined for promotion. Three of them, including William Pirrie, were made partners in 1874. Two others, Frank Workman and George Clark, defected to form Workman and Clarks in 1879. Meanwhile back at Harland and Wolff, Pirrie was to succeed as Chairman in 1896 and became the new ‘titan’ of the firm.

Cameron gives us potted biographies of the key players, which disappointingly owe too much to reverential obituaries and early hagiographical accounts. It little helps us to recycle Gustav Wolff’s attempt at humour when he declared that ‘I smoke the cigars for the firm’, or to learn that Walter Wilson died smoking a cigarette on the Portrush train.

Nevertheless, Cameron does real service in providing a detailed description of the many complex aspects of shipbuilding. If you want to find out how a five man riveting squad, complete with left-handed riveter and right-handed riveter, worked, this is the book to read.

Belfast's docks was a working environment, where one death per 10,000 tons of ship was expected, and nine died building the Titanic. Toilets were nicknamed ‘the minutes’ because you were allowed seven minutes a day there, with a timekeeper ready to dock pay. The men had to request permission to attend launches, and then in their own time.

Premium apprentices and skilled craftsmen rightly get their place, but Cameron does not ignore the army of unskilled labour involved and often employed by the day. Where he is surely wrong is in suggesting that it was ‘a job for life’. Even in its hey-day the fortunes of shipbuilding were highly cyclical, and in recessions skilled and unskilled alike were laid off.

Although Cameron claims to take his history to 1924 and the death of Lord Pirrie, he effectively closes in the Titanic era. That is a pity because the First World War saw continued expansion.

He is surely right in pointing to Pirrie’s failure to develop a new succession generation. On his death in 1924 he left the bank account and the order book empty. He accordingly becomes a suitable scapegoat for the end of the great years.

1923-1924 were, however, the years of the first acute post-World War recession. In the Great Depression of 1929 onwards, and against a background of collapsing world trade, no shipyard survived intact. Workman and Clarks closed forever in 1935, and Harland and Wolff was reduced to a skeletal remnant.

Belfast Shipbuilders: A Titanic Tale is out now, publishing by Colourpoint Books.