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'Belfast Built Ships' Documents Much More Than Titanic

11th April 2012
'Belfast Built Ships' Documents Much More Than Titanic

#BOOK REVIEW – This is a book which documents the entire output of the Belfast shipyards since construction of the first ship "Silistria", launched in 1854, was begun by Robert Hickson. Interestingly Belfast had no natural advantages for the building of ships, no ready supply of raw materials, no tradition of shipbuilding, no major ship-owners, no skilled labour in metalwork and engineering. How did it happen that a provincial town, which became a city only in 1888, developed into one of the world's great industrial centres? The author has a detailed series of analyses which answer this question in terms other than the usual suggestions of nepotism, Protestant work ethic and sheer good luck. They make interesting and enlightening reading.

At the core of the book is a beautifully presented catalogue of ships in which data for each of 1589 vessels totalling 13,886,873 tons is laid out in table form. Interesting historical notes are added by way of lively narratives as appropriate. At intervals on facing pages there are line drawings or good side view photographs mostly arranged in groups of five ships to a page. The result is a pictorial history of developments in general design and layout over one hundred and fifty years which I found instructive.

The narrative section of the book begins with an account of the creation of the three Belfast shipbuilding companies. In 1853 Belfast Harbour Commissioners leased out a yard on Queen's Island which Edward Harland was appointed to manage in 1854 and purchased in 1858. Out of this came Harland and Wolff. A second yard, McIlwaine and Partners, was set up in 1867 and in 1879 two trained premium apprentices left positions in Harland and Wolff to start a third yard, Workman Clark, at a site next to their former employer. These were not the ailing shipyards to which our generation later became accustomed but dynamic fast-growing businesses perhaps more like what we see today in certain information technology sectors and they were set up by very young men. Harland was twenty-three years old when appointed and Workman and Clarke were twenty-three and eighteen years old respectively. Their stories are exciting and dramatic.


The author next deals with Output of the Belfast Shipyards in which he explains the impact of developments in economics, commerce, politics and technology over a span of one hundred and fifty years. How he achieves this is worthy of study i.e. how he spans from the era of sail all the way to air travel while still keeping the thread of his story. Basically he breaks the one hundred and fifty years into eight slices of unequal but meaningful time spans thereby making the subjects accessible to the reader. Each of these sections has its own interesting developments but in 1940 there is a surprise. Suddenly she is there again, two hundred feet long, broad, chunky and graceless, would roll on wet grass: "Compass Rose" the fictional Flower Class Corvette and heroine of Nicholas Monsarrat's famous book "The Cruel Sea" is under construction. Belfast built 34 of these corvettes and the extract from Monsarrat's book is quoted to describe their appearance. Of course the effect was to send me scurrying to the attic for my dog-eared 1956 copy of the book to see if the magic of Monsarrat's prose still works. It does, and maybe that's what a book like "Belfast Built Ships" is really for - to send you scurrying down the corridors of memory.

With regard to "a famous White Star liner lost on her maiden voyage" the author is restrained and factual throughout. However in the third section of the book entitled Urban Myths and Forgotten Histories the gloves come off and his weapon of choice is the undisputable fact. His first target is those who claim "The greatest loss of life in a disaster involving a Belfast ship was on Titanic", next the hapless Nomadic myth is demolished, then on to her correct Yard Number – it is 401 not 909E. The carnage of myths continues but I cannot get my mind off that wrong yard number 909E. Does anyone else get a whiff of the Opium of the People?

I found the author's balanced comments an antidote to the current mania for blather on events in the Atlantic in April 1912. In fairness he is never critical of any aspect of the Titanic herself which he describes as "one of the greatest ships of its kind produced in Belfast, or indeed anywhere". His main criticism is of the cult that has grown up around this one ship as if it were the only important example of Belfast shipbuilding. Significantly his vocabulary may contain the explanation of what is going on when he describes the cult as "monodical". Monody is a term from Greek tragedy and there is much of Greek tragedy and mythology in the Titanic story. The name Titanic itself is straight out of Greek mythology and the great sin of Greek tragedy, Hubris, is to be found all over the story as routinely related. Perhaps it is an encounter with poetic truth which draws people back again and again to this rather than other maritime stories?

This is a book which will delight all "ship freaks" and provide them with hours if not years of ongoing pleasure exploring its seemingly endless corridors of enquiry. The quality of the research and presentation ensures that it will be of ongoing value to social researchers and transport historians and it is also a book which will please anybody who worked or has ancestors who worked on any of the 1589 ships. Most importantly it will have special significance for those thousands of people whose families worked in the Belfast yards. The yards have now ceased building ships but as they move from industry into history a large part of them survives in this formidable account of their formidable output. J K


By John Lynch. Published by The History Press

Softcover, 303 Pages, ISBN 978 0 7524 6539 5

Price £19.99

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