Titanic under construction on slip three of the Harland and Wolff shipyard (National Museums Northern Ireland Collection Harland & Wolff, Ulster Folk & Transport Museum)

Belfast's golden age of shipbuilding

Already an established industrial heavyweight of international standing, the Northern Ireland port city of Belfast had acquired a new speciality by the end of the 19th century - shipbuilding.

The launch of Titanic in April 1912 was the crowning achievement of a remarkable era of shipbuilding in the city. It was the largest man-made object ever to have taken to the seas.

Photo: Titanic under construction in Harland & Wolff shipyard (NMNI/Ulster Folk & Transport Museum)

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Belfast, a small town at the mouth of the river Lagan in northern Ireland had, by the early 1800s, become a major port at the beating heart of the region's thriving industry. By the time it had been granted city status in 1888, Belfast had emerged as one of the world's great shipbuilding centres.

Belfast had been largely built on the success of the city's linen and cotton industries, but it was the success of its shipyard that was to position it as a global industrial giant. Commercial shipbuilding had been a feature of Belfast since the late 18th century, but it was the establishment of Harland and Wolff at the Queen's Island shipyard in the east of the city in 1861 that saw it really take off.

The manager of Robert Hickson's small Belfast shipyard on Queen's Island, Edward Harland had bought the yard in 1858. Gustav Wolff, whose uncle was extremely well connected in the Hamburg merchant community, had previously been employed as a personal assistant by Hickson. Harland quickly made him a partner in the new firm, and Harland and Wolff was officially formed in 1861. Between them, the two men exploited their wealthy contacts to ensure a steady stream of orders and make the firm a success. The most crucial partnership was established with the White Star Line, whose entire fleet of ocean liners was manufactured by Harland and Wolff.

By the early 1900s, Harland and Wolff employed thousands of men in a shipyard covering some 300 acres. Jobs there included welders, riveters, platers, plumbers, painters, carpenters, designers and naval architects. A crucial role in the success of the shipyard was played by the nearby Belfast College of Technology. It provided vocational teaching to the firm's apprentices, producing highly skilled workers and enabling progress for all those who worked in the yard.

As work began on the three 'Olympic Class' liners commissioned by the White Star Line, Harland and Wolff employed 15,000 people. More than 4,000 of them worked on the construction of the first two of these leviathans, Olympic and Titanic, producing not only the design, structure and mechanics of the ships but also their ornate and luxurious fixtures and fittings.

The launching of the hull of Titanic from the Queen's Island slipways was a momentous occasion attended by an estimated 100,000 people, reflecting the pride the city of Belfast had in its most celebrated construction to date. Many more impressive vessels would leave the yard in the coming years and decades before the decline of the shipbuilding industry began in the 1950s, but in many ways the building of Titanic marked the zenith of the great shipbuilding era in Belfast.