The story of the Titanic

Dr Aidan McMichael and Charlotte Hodgman visit Queen’s Island, Belfast, where one of history’s most famous ocean liners was built and launched...

Harland & Wolff shipworkers

Queen’s Island was once the heart of Belfast’s shipbuilding industry. Created in the 19th century from mud and earth excavated from works to widen and deepen the channel into the city, the now quieter waters of the docks once teemed with ships and workers. But it was the establishment of the Harland & Wolff shipyard in 1861 that turned Belfast into one of the world’s great shipbuilding centres. More than 1,700 vessels were built at the shipyard’s Queen’s Island site, but it is for one vessel in particular that it is best remembered: RMS Titanic.


Walking onto Queen’s Island today, into what is now known as the Titanic Quarter, there are three remarkable structures on the skyline: the enormous twin shipbuilding gantry cranes of Harland & Wolff, known affectionately as Samson and Goliath; and the huge Titanic Belfast visitor attraction, which sits at the entrance to Belfast’s docks, just metres from where Titanic was constructed and launched.

Titanic Belfast’s six-storey design echoes the shape of the ship’s bows and is exactly the same height as Titanic from keel to boat deck – 90 feet. Standing outside the building and gazing up at the bow-shaped aluminium-clad exterior is probably as close to a Titanic experience as you can get. Pools of black water surround the building – an echo of the waters of the North Atlantic where Titanic sank – while the 16-tonne metal sign at the front of the building weighs the same as the ship’s main anchor.

Once inside, the 14,000sq-metre space tells the story of Titanic – from the industries and innovations that enabled its creation, its launch and fitting out in Belfast, to the maiden voyage and tragic sinking on 15 April 1912. Nine interpretive and interactive galleries are used to explore the ship, including a ‘dark ride’ through a replica shipyard, and a fish-eye view of the wreck, displayed beneath a glass floor.

A new class of ship

“Titanic was the second of three Olympic-class ships designed and built for the White Star Line between 1908 and 1914,” says Aidan McMichael, chairman of the Belfast Titanic Society. “Around 3,000 people worked on the construction of the ship – about 20 per cent of Harland & Wolff’s workforce – and the vessel was designed here, in Belfast, in drawing offices that still survive today, overlooking the slipways. Most of the workers hailed from east Belfast and there would have been vast swathes of people walking to and from the shipyard every day. Titanic, and its sister ship Olympic, which was built at roughly the same time, would have been iconic sights on the skyline.”

The first of the three ships to launch was Olympic, on 20 October 1910. As the largest ocean liner in the world, its launch attracted huge local and international interest. Less than a year later, on 31 May 1911, Titanic slid down slipway number three, and into the waters of the Victoria Channel in Belfast Lough. After launch Titanic was moved to the nearby Thompson wharf, where the majority of the fitting-out was completed in preparation for its maiden voyage in April 1912.

“Ship launches in Belfast were greeted with much excitement,” says McMichael. “As the first of the three ships, and as a new class of vessel, Olympic was launched to great fanfare, as was Titanic. Around 100,000 people – about a third of the city’s population – turned out to watch Titanic’s 62-second descent into the water, with tickets sold to raise money for charity.”

The fitting-out process took just under a year, and on 2 April 1912, with its paint barely dry, Titanic left Belfast Lough and set sail for Southampton to pick up its first passengers. Some 724 of the ship’s crew hailed from the Hampshire port, employed in a variety of roles – from boiler- room stokers and greasers, to musicians and postal clerks. Also on board was naval architect Thomas Andrews, and a Titanic Guarantee Group – a troubleshooting team of skilled workers sent by Harland & Wolff to accompany the ship on its maiden voyage, tasked with making essential repairs and identifying potential improvements.

The ship was captained by 62-year-old Edward Smith, a long-serving commanding officer of the White Star Line, with a string of high-profile commands behind him.

“Smith is an interesting character who has received a large amount of bad press since the sinking,” says McMichael. “Certainly he was a highly respected captain of the White Star Line, but we know he was planning to retire soon after heading-up Titanic’s maiden voyage – and that, for some, he was more of a titular head of the ship.”

In fact, prior to his short tenure on Titanic, Smith had captained Olympic and had been involved in a collision in the Solent with a cruiser, HMS Hawke. An enquiry found Olympic to be to blame for the accident, sucking the Hawke off course with its speed and size. These were enormous ships to manoeuvre but the incident could be seen as an indication that Smith may not have been up to the task of handling this new class of super-ship. Olympic returned to Belfast for repairs and was out of action for six weeks, delaying Titanic’s completion.

The journey begins

But there was certainly no air of foreboding as Titanic left Southampton on 10 April, waved off by throngs of excited bystanders. Cherbourg in France was the ship’s next port of call, where the majority of first-class passengers embarked, many of whom had travelled from Paris on a special train, anticipating the sort of luxury at sea they were accustomed to on land.

And they were not disappointed. First-class accommodation offered cabins ranging from £30, to private suites costing an astronomical £870 – more than £66,000 in today’s money. The ship boasted four restaurants as well as electric lifts, a swimming pool, gymnasium, squash court and Turkish baths.

Second-class passengers could enjoy an experience equivalent to first class on most other ships of the day, while third-class passengers – despite staying in what we might now regard as fairly basic accommodation – still had running water and electric lighting, a new and exciting experience.

“Many of the ship’s first-class passengers had been staying in the Hotel Ritz in Paris so, while we look upon Titanic as being the height of luxury, it would have been natural for them to feel comfortable in the luxurious surroundings of the ship,” says McMichael. “The White Star Line wanted to give their ships a feeling of being a floating hotel and, as such tried to reflect the atmosphere of hotels of the time. Dining at the Café Parisienne onboard, as well as in the first-class restaurant, would have been like dining at the Hotel Ritz or one of the big London hotels.

“For third-class passengers, the ship’s mod cons must have been a reflection of the modern world that was dawning on the Edwardians. But if you look closely at photographs of the ship’s interior, you can often see tiny elements that weren’t quite finished – something that had not been painted, or a missing handrail perhaps.”

The sheer size of Titanic meant the ship was unable to dock at Cherbourg, so it moored in deeper waters just offshore. The White Star Line’s tender ship, SS Nomadic, built alongside Titanic and a quarter of its size, was used to ferry first and second-class passengers out to the waiting ship. Today, Nomadic sits in the Hamilton Dry Dock on Queen’s Island and can be boarded and explored – the world’s last remaining White Star Line ship.

Tragedy strikes

After a further stop at Queenstown (now Cobh) in southern Ireland, where a large proportion of the ship’s third-class passengers embarked, many bound for new lives in America, Titanic set out into the North Atlantic. But at 11.40pm on 14 April, while travelling at a speed of over 20 knots (about 23mph) the ship struck an iceberg, ripping its hull open below the waterline to a length of about 200–300 feet.

For those in their cabins, at a distance from the rupture, the impact would have been felt as no more than a shudder. But for the firemen and stokers working in the bowels of the ship, water would have poured in immediately, drowning some and forcing others to flee for their lives. Within 10 minutes the ship’s five forward compartments had flooded to a height of 14 feet above the keel.

“There is still a great deal of speculation and many unanswered questions about Titanic’s sinking,” says McMichael. “We know radio messages warning of ice had been sent from other ships, among them Californian, but these may not have been passed on or were perhaps overlooked until it was too late. Priority over the ship’s Marconi wireless set was given to first-class passengers wishing to send radio messages.

“Another factor in the sinking was the number of lifeboats onboard. Today you can walk down the slipway at Titanic Belfast and see the location of the lifeboats marked out on the boat deck: all 20 of them, with a capacity to carry 1,178 people – just over half of those onboard. This was the minimum legal requirement of the day, but it was a decision that would see more than 1,500 people lose their lives in the sinking.”

The tragedy was greeted at first with shock and disbelief, and then immense sorrow at the scale of the loss of life. How could a ship dubbed unsinkable by the media have met its end so tragically? Much of the evidence given in the two enquiries placed blame on White Star Line’s managing director, Bruce Ismay, for both the inadequate number of lifeboats, and the speed at which the ship was travelling. Ismay, who was on board the ship, was personally vilified by the press for having escaped the sinking in a lifeboat designated for women and children only.

“More than a century on, our fascination with Titanic shows no sign of abating,” says McMichael. “The ship was a microcosm of Edwardian society, epitomising its class system and representing a period of history that was about to come to an end with the onset of the First World War. That there are still so many unanswered questions only adds to the mystery of the Titanic story.”

Titanic: five more places to explore


Liverpool, Merseyside

Where the Titanic dream was born

Liverpool was once home to the head offices of the White Star Line – a plaque now marks the site. A memorial to six senior Liverpool engineers who lost their lives in the disaster can be found near the Liver building, as well as a memorial to the ship’s musicians, outside the city’s Philharmonic Hall.

Find out more with Visit Liverpool


Southampton, Hampshire

Where most of the crew were based

Some 549 Southampton residents lost their lives in the Titanic tragedy, many of them part of the ship’s crew, as well as Captain Edward Smith. A downloadable Titanic trail map takes you on a tour of various memorials including those dedicated to crew, firemen, musicians, engineer officers and restaurant workers. The Grapes Pub was a popular haunt with the ship’s crew and is still open.

Find out more with Visit Southampton


Cobh (formerly Queenstown), County Cork

Where Irish emigrants boarded Titanic

Many Irish families embarked Titanic at Cobh, bound for a new life in America.Of the 123 who boarded there, only 44 survived the sinking. Visit the Titanic Experience and see the remains of the 19th-century wooden pier where passengers boarded tenders that ferried them out to Titanic.

Find out more about visiting the Titanic Experience


Dalbeattie, Dumfries & Galloway

Where an officer is hailed a hero

Titanic’s first officer William McMaster Murdoch was born in Dalbeattie and it was under his watch that Titanic tried to take evasive action to avoid the iceberg. In the 1997 film Titanic, Murdoch is shown taking his own life, an unproven event the film’s makers later apologised for. A plaque to Murdoch can be found in his hometown.

Find out more about Dalbeattie from Visit Scotland


Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

Where Titanic’s dead were buried

Of the 328 bodies recovered from the wreck site, only 209 were brought ashore – those too badly disfigured to identify were buried at sea. Most of the bodies brought to Halifax were buried in three cemeteries: Fairview Lawn, Baron de Hirsch and Mount Olivet.

Find out more with Discover Halifax

Historical advisor: Dr Aidan McMichael, chairman of the Belfast Titanic Society; words: Charlotte Hodgman.


This article was first published in the Christmas 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine