O city of sound and motion!
O city of endless stir!From the dawn of the misty morning,To the fall of the evening air;From the night of the morning shadowsTo the sound of the shipyard horn;We hail thee Queen of the Northland,We who are Belfast born.
~Thomas Carnduff, Songs from the Shipyards, 1924
Belfast as a city has a fascinating history. In addition to all of its political history from The Troubles, Belfast is also one of the capitals of shipbuilding around the globe because of its deep harbor and played an important role in industrialization at the turn of the century. In fact, Belfast is where the Titanic was built and the port from which she sailed on her ill-fated voyage. The harbor today is still an important feature in international shipping and shipbuilding. When I visited in March, the harbor's activity centered around a large oil rig that had been hauled across the Atlantic Ocean from Brazil in order to be repaired in Belfast before being returned to Brazil. One of the main reasons why the rigger traveled such a great distance for its repairs is due to its size and the fact that the Belfast shipyard is one of the few in the world that can accommodate such large jobs. And in the middle of the vast shipyard, sits the Titanic Museum.
The museum is really interactive and takes you through the development and growth of the shipbuilding industry in Belfast's earlier days to the birth of the Titanic, what went wrong on her voyage, and the discovery of her remains on the ocean floor. In this post, I am including my pictures and video from the museum, as well as some of the fascinating history from the museum's several exhibits as written by the museum. Enjoy!
The Harbor and Early Shipbuilding in Belfast
From the early 1600s, Belfast had a port where the rivers Lagan and Farset meet. The port became increasingly important for trade, and by the early 1700s was the leading port in the north of Ireland.
As trade expanded, the quays were enlarged to accommodate more ships. However, shallow water, bends in the river channel, and inadequate quays were restricting growth. By 1785, the Ballast Board was formed to manage and improve the port and harbor. In the mid 1800s, the Lagan was straightened and the Victoria Channel was created to improve access. Improving the flow of the Lagan and expanding the harbor and shipbuilding facilities allowed shipbuilding to flourish on a large scale in Belfast.
The earliest record of ships being built in Belfast is from 1663. Shipbuilding as a major industry began in 1791 when William Ritchie established his works on the Lagan. At this time, ships were built from wood. In 1838, the first iron vessel was built in Belfast. This was a Lough Neagh steamer – the Countess of Caledon. In the second half of the 19th century, Belfast became renowned for constructing iron and later steel ships.
Samson and Goliath
Even today, Belfast is famous for its shipbuilding (as seen in the oil rigger described above). One of the reasons why is that the Belfast shipyard is home to cranes of Biblical proportions, aptly named Samson and Goliath. Goliath is the shorter at 96 meters high, Samson is 10 meters taller (106 meters). The cranes can safely lift 840 tons each. Samson and Goliath were designed by the German engineering company Krupp. Goliath was completed in 1969, Samson in 1974. The dock they stand over is a massive 556 meters by 93 meters and is the largest building dock in Europe.
Other Major Industries Contributing to Shipbuilding in Belfast
Several other factors contributed to Belfast becoming a global center for shipbuilding. These include the large ropeworks, linen mills, and boombing tobacco industries also present in Belfast at the time.
As shipbuilding in Belfast grew, so did the need for a large and reliable supply of rope. The Belfast Ropeworks was established to meet this demand, replacing a number of smaller companies. The business quickly flourished. The Board of Directors included Gustav Wolff as chairman along with other men ‘to whose influence, capital, and enterprise its success is due.’
Initially, the ropeworks was established at Connswater due to the proximitz of the Connswater River, the shipbuilding yard, and harbor. In the middle of a working-class area, the ropeworks enjoyed a ready supply of labor. By 1900, the ropeworks was the largest in the world, employing more than 2,000 people and eventually the factory buildings covered over 40 acres (16.2 hectares).
The company made a huge variety of ropes, cords, lines, and twines from large cables to fine packing twine. These were used in many ways, including shipbuilding, fishing, manufacturing, and for domestic purposes. The ropeworks exported its goods worldwide and confidently claimed that there was probably no port in the world where its products were not well known.
Linen mills were also extremely important to Belfast shipbuilding, and multiple large companies vied for the top spot. The success of Belfast’s linen industry was shared by the firms which made machinery for the preparation and spinning of flax. The two biggest and rival firms were James Mackie & Sons and Combe Barbour. Outside shipbuilding, they were the biggest engineering firms in Belfast and the main firms in Britain for manufacturing machinery for the preparation and spinning of flax.
Combe Barbour was founded in 1845 in the Falls Road area of West Belfast. They also made machinery for use in other textile industries such as jute, hemp, rope, and cotton. By the turn of the century, the premises covered 5 acres (2 hectares) and employed 1,500 highly skilled workmen and mechanics. Combe Barbour enjoyed a worldwide reputation and exported their machinery globally.
Mackie’s textile machinery manufacturers had premises at the Springfield Road. They also manufactured a variety of textile machinery and built up their export and home markets. During the First and Second World Wars, they switched from manufacturing textile machinery to armaments. At its peak, Mackie’s employed around 6,000 people and covered 133 acres (53.8 hectares).
At the same time as these ropeworks and linen mills were growing in the city, the tobacco industry was also booming and the city's ports were vital for trading these products on a global scale. There were two large tobacco firms in Belfast – Murray’s and Gallaher’s. By the early 20th century, Gallaher & Co. at York Street was the largest tobacco factory in Ireland and employed over 1,600 people.
Gallaher’s produced cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, and rolling tobacco. Their range consisted of over 150 brands including Harlequin Flake, Park Drive, and later Benson & Hedges, Silk Cut, and Hamlet. Owner Thomas Gallaher visited America regularly to ensure that he acquired the best leaf.
By the end of 1891, Gallaher’s had 45 tobacco spinning machines at work in York Street. This factory was one of the largest in the world with a floor space of 14 acres (5.6 hectares). The Belfast stores could house 20,000 hogshead (10,000 tons) of tobacco. If the bricks used in construction of this building were placed end to end, they would have covered a distance of about 2,700 miles (4,345.2 km).
In 1889, the company paid almost half a million pounds duty on tobacco leaf imported through Belfast docks. Tobacco manufactured in Belfast by Gallaher’s was exported worldwide. Gallaher’s opened many branches in Ireland, England, Wales, and Scotland.
Olympic Class Ships
When the Olympic class ships were commissioned, Harland and Wolff was one of the largest and most successful shipyards in the world. It employed thousands of Belfast men. In 1911, Harland and Wolff launched 10 vessels including Titanic.
Although Harland and Wolff was a world-renowned firm, it was not the only successful shipbuilding firm in Belfast in its day. Covering an area of 40 acres (16.2 hectares), Workman Clark was only the ‘wee yard’ in comparison to Harland and Wolff.
Building the Ships
The First Step
Laying the keel, the backbone of a ship. Titanic’s keel was six feet high, ran the length of the ship, and carried the frames for the steel hull plates. The frames were over 60 feet high (18.3 meters) and weighed one ton.
Framing was the erection of steel rib-like structures that formed the skeleton of the ship. These gave the hull its shape.
Plating and Riveting
Once framing was complete, the ship was fitted with steel plates that formed the watertight skin. These were held in place with iron and steel rivets.
The plates that made up Titanic’s hull were attached to her frame. They were mostly 30 feet (9.1 meters) long, 6 feet (1.8 meters) wide, 1 inch (2.54 cm) thick, and weighed over 4 tons. Plates on the bottom of the ship overlapped each other like roof tiles in the clinker fashion. Plates at the side of the hull were alternatively sunken and raised, known as inner and outer strakes.
The plating and other structural parts of the ship were held together with rivets. Altogether, over 3 million rivets were used on Titanic. Good quality riveting was essential as it held the structure together.
The process of riveting was done both by hand and mechanically with hydraulic riveters. Hand-riveters worked in squads of five. One boy heated the rivets in a fire, while another boy passed the red-hot rivet to the ‘holder up.’ The ‘holder up’ held the rivet in place with a 13 lb (5.9 kg) hammer while two riveters struck the rivet in turn. The best teams used one left-handed and one right-handed riveter.
Bulkheads and Decking
There were 15 watertight bulkheads that ran across Titanic in the lower decks. These divided the ship’s hull into 16 watertight compartments.
The bulkheads were connected to the shell plating. The collision bulkhead was located at the bow of the ship and fitted to be an inner watertight skin should the bow be damaged in an end on collision.
Titanic was designed to stay afloat if up to three of her four forward compartments were flooded. The bulkheads were only watertight up to E and D decks, depending on their location. This was because crew and passengers needed doors to access parts of the ship. Ordinary doors, such as those in most passenger areas, were a point of weakness.
The bulkheads which were part of the boiler and engine rooms, within the hull of the ship, all had vertically sliding cast iron watertight doors, built to Harland and Wolff’s design. Bells would be sounded before the watertight doors closed to warn the crew. They could then escape to the decks above using ladders.
Titanic had eight passenger decks and ten decks in total. Steel decks were laid on the deck beams, riveted in place, then covered with either wooden decking or other materials such as tiles.
Fitting the Rudder
The rudder was made in six pieces and then bolted together. The bolts were covered in cement to protect them from the corroding effects of sea water. The rudder was over 78 feet (23.7 meters) high with a maximum width of 15 feet (4.6 meters) and it weighed over 100 tons.
The rudder controlled the direction of the ship. It was a wide flat blade fitted on the stern post. Titanic’s rudder was designed at Harland and Wolff and constructed by Darlington Forge Company in Durham, England.
The rudder was supported by the stern frame and hung on the sternpost. The sternpost was the hinge which allowed the rudder to pivot, thereby controlling the direction of the ship.
The position of the rudder was immediately behind the central propeller. This made the steering effective as the rudder immediately gave direction to the thrust created by the propeller. The rudder was moved by a steering gear which was powered by two engines. The rudder was fitted shortly before Titanic’s launch.
“The vessels mark a new epoch in naval architecture. In size, construction, and equipment, they represent the last word in this science…” The Belfast Newsletter, June 1, 1911
Titanic’s Communication Equipment
Titanic carried various types of communication equipment. This allowed passengers and crew to communicate on the ship with the outside world.
Titanic’s powerful Marconi wireless equipment allowed her to communicate with stations more than a thousand miles away. The wireless was manned around the clock and was operated using Morse code. This equipment allowed the ship to both send and receive messages. The Marconi operators communicated shipping messages and personal messages for passengers. News received via the wireless was printed in an on-board newspaper.
As a Royal Mail Steamer, Titanic had the capacity to carry 3,635 mailbags with 2,000 letters per bag. She also had a Sea Post Office for passenger use. Telephones were in plentiful supply for the crew to communicate on board the ship.
Titanic carried electric lamps which flashed lights in Morse code to signal to other ships at night. A whole range of rockets and flares were also fitted to communicate messages to other ships.
Titanic's Navigating Equipment
Titanic carried a huge range of navigating equipment to help steer the ship in the right direction. Four main compasses were located at various positions on the ship. A variety of other nautical equipment calculated the position of the ship, distance travelled, speed, and depth of water.
Titanic had three wheels for steering. The main wheel was located in the wheelhouse. Besides the main wheel, the helm indicator showed the position of the rudder. Telegraphs conveyed messages from the navigation bridge.
Titanic carried barometers and thermometers for predicting the weather. These were important as outside temperature affected ventilation requirements and indicated ice. Clinometers were used to indicate the angle of roll or pitch. Titanic’s equipment could pick up underwater bell signals sent from lighthouses, buoys, and other ships, which warned of dangers such as fog. The ship also used a range of sextants, telescopes, megaphones, foghorns, fog books, diaries, navigational charts, and binoculars.
Lighting included masthead lamps, sidelights, and anchor lights. For communicating with other ships, Titanic used the Marconi wireless, flags, signal lamps, and rockets.
Ropes were used for many purposes on Titanic, including supporting masts and funnels and transporting cargo and other loads.
By the time Titanic was built, rope made from natural fibers had been largely replaced by galvanized steel wire rope. Wire rope looked the same as that made from manila or hemp, but was thinner and more durable.
Titanic carried some ropes made from natural fibers which were used for small loads. These were almost certainly supplied by the Belfast Ropework Company, of which Gustav Wolff was a partner. Hemp rope was suitable for use as it was very strong and flexible, as was Manila which had the added advantage of not being affected by sea water.
When Titanic was in dock, she was tied to the pier using 18 large steel ropes known as warps and hawsers. It was important that the massive ship was held stationary to avoid damage to herself and other ships around her.
Changes in Third Class Cabins on the Titanic
Third Class cabins on Titanic were basic compared to first and second class accomodations, but were a massive improvement from the large dormitories on other ships.
The cabin contained a double bunk made from mahogany with pillows and sheets provided. The room had a washbasin with a mirror above and a wall seat. Red litosilo covered the floor, and the walls were covered in white paneling. Passengers would have had to go up two decks to reach the public toilets.
Other third class accommodations on board included two, three, four, five, six, eight, and ten-berth cabins. Cheaper, more basic accommodation, without washbasins, with lower quality mattresses and no pillows were available for single men. Other cabins were designed for families or single women in mind. No single berth accommodation was available for third class passengers.
The majority of third class passengers were emigrants heading to America for a better life. Therefore, they would generally have been going on a one-way ticket. Third class passenger occupations would have included laborers, servants, unskilled and semi-skilled workers. The cost of a third class ticket started at £6.15 from Queenstown to New York. This was equivalent to almost a month’s wages for skilled Harland and Wolff workers.