One of the most iconic sights in Belfast are the giant yellow cranes of the Harland and Wolff Shipyards Now known as Harland and Wolff Heavy Industries, it has diversified into general heavy industrial engineering along with its core shipbuilding activities. Many famous ships have been manufactured in these yards; among the more famous are the Royal Navy ship, HMS Belfast, now berthed permanently at Tower Bridge in London and P&O’s SS Canberra, a magnificent cruise ship.
Harland and Wolff was formed in 1861 by Edward James Hyland (1831–1895) and Hamburg-born Gustav Wilhelm Wolff (1834–1913). In 1858 Harland, then general manager, bought the small shipyard on Queen’s Island from his employer Robert Hickson. Harland and Wolff today has 500 employees, a fraction of the many thousands that worked there when the yards were at full capacity in the early 1900’s.
However, you cannot mention Harland and Wolff without considering the most famous and infamous creation that emanated from the yards, HMS Titanic. The Titanic was an Olympic-class passenger liner owned by the White Star Line and built at the yards. For her short existence, she was the largest passenger steamship in the world.
On the night of 14 April 1912, during the ship’s maiden voyage, Titanic hit an iceberg and sank two hours and forty minutes later, early on 15 April 1912. The sinking resulted in the deaths of 1,517 people, making it one of the most deadly peacetime maritime disasters in history. The high casualty rate was due in part to the fact that, although complying with the regulations of the time, the ship did not carry enough lifeboats for everyone aboard. The ship had a total lifeboat capacity of 1,178 people, although her capacity was 3,547. A disproportionate number of men died due to the women-and-children-first protocol that was followed.
The Titanic used some of the most advanced technology available at the time and was until after the sinking, popularly believed to have been described as “unsinkable” It was a great shock to many that, despite the extensive safety features and experienced crew, the Titanic sank. The frenzy on the part of the media about Titanic’s famous victims, the legends about the sinking, the resulting changes to maritime law, and the discovery of the wreck have contributed to the continuing interest in, and notoriety of, the Titanic. The James Cameron epic film of the same name has embossed the tragedy and mystery of the sinking in the minds of billions of people around the world. For all the wrong reasons, this fantastic engineering masterpiece is the most famous ship in the world.
Today, there is a new cultural district being built in the old shipyard construction area called the Titanic Quarter, which is the biggest construction project ever undertaken in Belfast. When complete, it will house hotels, shops, museums, art galleries, leisure,theatre and concert amenities.
To see the area and hear the history of the Harland and Wolff shipyards, take one of the hourly bus tours that transverse the city.