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Harland & Wolff: an album of memories

Bertie Traynor joined Harland & Wolff as a photographer in June 1945.

Greater Belfast

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Bertie Traynor
Harland and Wolff Photographer (1945 - 88)

Harland & Wolff cranes
Fancy taking a photo from the top of these?

Bertie Traynor joined Harland & Wolff as a photographer in June 1945 just as they were coming out of a period of intense warship production and getting back to building passenger and cargo ships.

As he started out there were seventeen slips which were rarely, if ever, empty. Monthly production reports were written on each ship and it was Bertie's job to photograph the ships, from stem to stern, in their production stages. This meant clambering and climbing through the mass of scaffolding - or staging as we should call it - and he quickly developed a head for heights. It was also part of his job to take photographs when ships went on sea trials which was an almost monthly occurrence since H&W were then turning out a dozen ships a year.

H&W workers head home after another day's work
Heading home

Well over fifty years on Bertie still has clear memories of the overwhelming almost deafening noise of the riveting hammers bouncing, hour after hour, off the steel hulls - a noise which could often be heard in the centre of the city. He has vivid memories too of the sheer mass of people employed there especially at the end of the day when the yard literally emptied in just a few minutes with thousands heading up the Queen's Road. They either jumped on one of the waiting trams, lined up waiting bumper to bumper, rode off on their bikes or simply walked home.


Bertie Traynor talks about his first day at Harland and Wolff
"The noise was deafening ...."
Bertie talks about his first day

(You will need RealPlayer or Realone Player to listen to the audio clips on this page. Click here for a free download.)

Eventually the process of welding took over completely and the day of the riveter was over and the clamour of the yard settled down. As well as a new and noticeable quietness about the place the ships got completed in a shorter and more cost effective time.

Within Harland & Wolff there were four quite separate shipyards; Queens with 3 slips, the Abercorn and the Victoria with 4 slips each and the Musgrave (also known as East Yard) which had 6 slips. With shipbuilders being as superstitious as seafarers no slip was ever given the number 13 and no ship would ever have been launched on a Friday the 13th!

H&W's Engine Shop
H&W's Engine Shop

To support the building yards H&W had its own specialist workshops and prided themselves on making almost everything that went into their ships from the raw materials. There was an engine works, boiler shop, joiners shop and a foundry where all their castings were made. Because of the huge amount of timber they used whole felled trees were brought into their own saw mills, cut as required and left to season in their own drying yards. The Victoria yard was known as an odd job yard which dealt with work that the specialist areas couldn't handle.

Each day the traditional horn would signal the start and end of work and the allowed breaks in between. There were also the odd occasions when it would be blown as a signal that the weather was too foul for outdoor work and that the men could go home.

The Boatshed

For some time after the war years ships' lifeboats were still being made of wood and Bertie recalls perhaps 30 or 40 men working in this area. "All of them real craftsmen" said Bertie, men who still used the traditional boat building techniques, who were intensely proud of their craft and who were well aware how important their skills might eventually be. Such was their interest in boats - they almost ate, lived and slept boats - that they would often spend their lunch break sailing model yachts in the testing tanks with a couple of fans at one end to create prevailing winds!

It was this testing tank that was the final part of their production line where the finished lifeboat would be sunk to the gunnels with weights to prove her stability; only after this stringent test would they be passed as operational.

Bertie Traynor talks about the boatshed in Harland and Wolff
"They were real craftsmen ...."
Bertie talks about the boatshed

Launches

Launch of the Myrina at Harland & Wolff in September 1967. Photo by Peter Bannister.
Launch of Myrina in 1967

As an honoured guest pronounced the formal lines "I name this ship.may God protect her and all who sail in her" and a bottle of champagne crashed into the bows all the ship's supports would already have been removed and she would be sitting only on bow and stern cradles with hydraulic rams preventing her from heading seaward. From the VIP platform a lever was pulled which released water from the rams and allowed the ship to slip gracefully into the water. A process Bertie recalls as "very majestic looking" with the ship starting slowly and picking up speed as it entered the water but there had to be a braking system to prevent the ship heading off to disaster. This was achieved by huge sets of chains, 30 to 40 tons in weight anchored ashore, usually 6 sets in pairs with the first set starting to slow her progress the second slowing her more and the third set bringing her to a halt.

It's worth noting that at the launch of ships destined for Indian ownership instead of champagne a coconut was cracked on the bow and, as the coconut milk ran down, rose petals were strewn and stuck on the bows.

A launch day was a red letter day in Bertie's calendar when everything had to work - a bit like a wedding, if the pictures didn't turn out you couldn't repeat the event. With perhaps up to 80 VIPs on the launch platform he had to have the group photos developed and printed and back before the after-launch banquet had ended.

The portfolio of photographs usually included the honoured guest being presented with a bouquet of flowers by the apprentice of the year dressed in pure white overalls. Also captured on camera would be the presentation of a gift to the guest by the Harland & Wolff Managing Director - sometimes a painting, sometimes a sculpture done by one of the welders. When Princess Elizabeth launched the Eagle - she got a gold eagle brooch with diamonds on it.

(Visit Brian's Belfast Sketchbook to view his pen and ink drawing of a 1970s launch.)

Trials

Only the bare hull of the ship is launched and it can take up to a year for everything to be installed or 'fitted-out' Once this is complete seas trials are performed and in Bertie's day this was up to 4 days on the Clyde where a measured mile could be used to time the ship's speed with Bertie taking shots of the ship from the air.

Bertie Traynor talks about H & W ship trials
"To see a brand new ship ...."
Bertie talks about the trials carried out

Oil Rigs

Sea Quest.  Photo taken by Peter Bannister
Sea Quest

At the end of the 20th century shipyards took on the building of sea going oil rigs and H&W took on the construction of Sea Quest . A real challenge for the talents of the shipyard workers, the rig spread over 3 slips and more than a few pessimists reckoned it would never get launched. Come the day, with the three slips well greased with tallow, she slid effortlessly into the water after the champagne was broken over one of the legs. Bertie remembers that all the lines holding the rig were removed bar one which was split with a large axe to release the rig and, such was the tension, that the axe flew high in the air - fortunately without accident.

Humour

A sense of humour was a practical necessity to work in the shipyard and in his first week Bertie's boss sent him to see a manager called Harry Hamilton who had a job for him. As he was leaving the office another assistant advised him to shout because Harry was hard of hearing. Bertie innocently complied with this helpful advice and shouted only to have Harry shout back "What the hell are you shouting at me for!"

Bertie remembers an early prank played on him
"He's deaf like everyone else ..."
Bertie remembers a bit of leg pulling

Although everyone worked extremely hard and deadlines were met, Bertie's stories make it clear that a sense of fun was never far from the surface.

A few yarns from Bertie illustrating how work and fun often went hand in hand
"Here's a manager who doesn't know who he is ...."
A few yarns from Bertie about the lighter side of shipyard life

Accident prone

It was part of Bertie's duties to take record photographs of any accidents that happened especially if the company thought a court case might follow. Unfortunately, due to the dangerous nature of the work, there were the occasional deaths with 15 or 16 happening in Bertie's time.

One he remembers well is a gangway disaster when the "Juan Peron" was being built. Workers used gangways to get on and off ships from the wharf and it was common for a crowd to be waiting at the top of a gangway for the 'knocking-off' hooter to sound. On this occasion there must have been a weakness in the structure of one of the Peron's gangways for it collapsed under the men and nine were killed.

(The "Juan Peron" was one of a small number of whale factory ships that Harland and Wolff built. Apparently, when it came in 5 years later for a refit nobody wanted to work on it because of the stench!)

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