Uncertain future for Belfast shipyard which built the Titanic

The Belfast shipyard which built the “unsinkable” Titanic faces an uncertain future.

The world’s largest ocean-liner was the pride of British maritime technology when it left the city’s harbour in May 1911.

By April the following year, the 53-metre high monolith had foundered during its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York.

A catastrophic collision with an iceberg in the North Atlantic saw more than 1,500 die.

Colonel John Jacob Astor IV was the wealthiest passenger on board and believed to be one of the richest people in the world at the time.

The American businessman’s personal fortune was estimated at between 90-150 million USD.

He died in the sinking.

The liner was unprecedented in size. Three million rivets were used to bind its hull together.

Around 3,000 men spent two years building it in the gilded years before the First World War.

It was the height of engineering prowess. The shipyard where it was assembled had a reputation as the world’s leading liner builder.

Its passengers were among the scions of British and US society. and the sinking was to send shock waves around the world.

Harland and Wolff Shipyard was founded in 1853 by an ironmonger, Robert Hickson.

It was sold to his manager, Edward Harland, in 1855.

He was financed by GC Schwabe of Liverpool, whose nephew Gustav Wolff joined the firm as Harland’s assistant.

The first ship launched was the Venetian, followed by transoceanic liners for the White Star Line like the Britannic, Olympic and Oceanic.

The shipyard went on to play a major part in the industrial effort behind the 1914 conflict.

After the First World War, the shipbuilding industry suffered an economic slump and the number employed at Harland and Wolff fell significantly.

The Wall Street Crash led to the failure of its closest rival in Belfast.

Harland and Wolff survived by changing the design of its ship.

Gone were the grand pre-war ocean liners, replaced with more basic hulls with engines attached and requiring less workers.

The Second World War was to represent boom time for Belfast.

The yard was the only shipbuilder on the city’s River Lagan and prospered amid the unprecedented demand for war materiel.

Employment rocketed and Harland and Wolff supplied almost 150 warships as well as tanks and guns when rearmament in Britain surged to counter an existential Nazi threat.

German air raid bombings known as the Belfast Blitz in April 1941 inflicted heavy damage equating to around half the sprawling industrial giant’s yards on reclaimed land near the river.

Harland and Wolff survived and thrived in the immediate post-war years as shipping companies needed to restore their vessel numbers.

It launched the Canberra in 1960 and was still among the world’s leading shipbuilding names.

With the onset of the Northern Ireland conflict in 1969 and shifts in global production towards lower cost economies, the industry slowly declined.

In January 2003 the last vessel fully built in Belfast, the Anvil, was launched.

The two yellow shipyard cranes, known as Sampson and Goliath, continue to dominate Belfast’s skyline.

In recent years the yard has diversified, into projects like cruise liner refits and wind energy.

From once employing more than 30,000 people during Belfast’s industrial heyday, the workforce only numbers around 125.

They face an uncertain fate.

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