In 2011, BBC History Magazine’s content director David Musgrove asked historians to nominate key sites in Britain’s story for his book 100 Places that Made Britain. In this extract, Cormac Ó Gráda – professor of economic history at University College Dublin – puts forward Belfast’s Titanic Dockyard, “where you can see the footprint of Titanic, and Belfast’s shipbuilding heritage”…
A very big hole in the ground might not seem that much of a draw, but it becomes more enticing when you know what once sat in it. The Thompson Graving Dock on Queen’s Island in Belfast is where one of the most famous ships in history, RMS Titanic, was fitted out.
When Titanic was built, from 1909 to 1912, Belfast led the world in shipbuilding. A staggering 176 ships were launched from here in the first decade of the 20th century. Through the preceding century, the city had been developing at a rapid pace, with shipbuilding emerging as the leading industry.
A considerable amount of money was invested to overcome some natural obstacles to ship construction, most notably the straightening of the river Lagan in the 1840s. Dargan’s Island (named after Irish-born engineer William Dargan, who oversaw its creation) was formed from the mud dredged up in this straightening operation. It was renamed Queen’s Island in 1849, and a few years later it became the base of the newly formed Harland & Wolff business. Along with the rival firm of Workman Clark, it came to dominate the Belfast shipbuilding scene in the second half of the 19th century.
“The interesting thing about the site is that it was an unpromising place to begin with, and Belfast was an unlikely location for a world-beating shipbuilding industry,” notes Cormac Ó Gráda. ‘”The place is a testament to the forward-looking policies of the powers-that-were in mid 19th-century Belfast. They had two companies operating there for about half a century, and both of them would have been among the top ten shipbuilders in the world. Harland & Wolff was very near the top.”
It was no surprise, then, that when the head of the White Star Line, Bruce Ismay, decided he wanted new craft to compete with the Mauretania and the Lusitania, steamships recently launched by his rival Cunard to ply the North Atlantic route between Britain and America, he turned to Belfast and Harland & Wolff. The ships he asked to have built were to be the largest ever to grace the oceans.
In 1907, work began on two of the three ships, the Olympic and the Titanic (the Britannic came later), but considerable upgrades to the facilities on Queen’s Island were required to accommodate the construction of these enormous new vessels. Three existing slipways were merged into two, and a huge steel gantry erected over them so that the ships could be built side by side.
Nearby were the barrel-ceilinged drawing offices of the Harland & Wolff headquarters where the construction plans were drawn up. The building process involved putting the hull frames together on the slipway, then steel-plating them, still on dry land. When the superstructure was completed, the ships were launched into the river and towed to the deep-water fitting-out wharf, then returned to dry dock for final work before sea trials.
That’s where the big hole in the ground comes in. The Thompson Graving Dock was built in 1904, a little downstream of the drawing office and slipways, to accommodate the huge new ships. It’s a very big space – 259 metres (415 feet) long, 13 metres (21 feet) deep and 29 metres (46 feet) wide.
Today it’s within the confines of the Northern Ireland Science Park. You can walk around it, look down into its great, brick-lined stepped maw, and consider that when the Titanic had been towed in, the gates at the end shut, and the water pumped out, the ship would still have been towering way above your head. You can see the great keel blocks that the ship would have rested on, the capstan that wound in the cable to bring it to dock, and the grilles way down at the base through which the water would drain as it was pumped away. Astonishingly, the dock could be pumped dry of its 26 million gallons of water in just an hour and a half – a rate of two swimming pools per minute.
The machinery that facilitated such a powerful operation is to be found in the pump-house alongside the dock. This building is a fine example of late Victorian architecture: red bricks with a cream façade, great arched windows and a handsome clock tower. Part of the pump-house today is a café, with some display material about the history of the dock, and part of it retains the pumping machinery. An organised tour will take you into the machinery room, a worthwhile experience. The blue engines sit at the bottom of another deep hole, this time lined with white tiles that, appropriately enough given the speed of pumping, makes it look like a glorified old swimming pool.
The dry dock here has been branded as the ‘physical footprint of the Titanic’, which is a reasonable enough bit of marketing. It was on those keel blocks that the ship last rested on dry ground before she embarked on her fateful maiden voyage in April 1912. As is well known, she did not reach her destination of New York; instead, she struck an iceberg and sank, resulting in the loss of over 1,500 lives.
The sinking of Titanic is a story of enduring fascination and one that attracts a considerable number of visitors to this part of Belfast. The area suffered with the decline in shipbuilding from the 1970s onwards, and Belfast’s last ship, a roll-on roll-off merchantman convertible to naval use in time of need, was launched in 2003.
Of course, Belfast’s shipbuilding heritage is not about just one ship, even though Titanic does tend to overshadow everything else. Not far from the Thompson Dock and pump-house you can still see the great yellow Harland & Wolff cranes, named Goliath and Samson, standing tall above Queen’s Island. They were erected in 1969 and 1974 respectively, when the shipbuilding industry was still strong here. Since then, the industry has suffered a serious decline in Belfast, but the cranes are a reminder of the time when tens of thousands of people were working here building ships that crossed the world.
As Cormac Ó Gráda concludes: “The location has a double resonance. It is inseparable from Belfast’s brilliant past as a leading city of the British Industrial Revolution, and the central role of shipbuilding in that past. But it also recalls the tragic story of Titanic, sometimes retold as a parable for thwarted ambition, sometimes as a metaphor for Ulster’s troubled history.”
This is an extract from the BBC History Magazine book 100 Places that made Britain, by David Musgrove, published on 2 June 2011.
This article was first published on History Extra in May 2011