Belfast’s Harland & Wolff shipyard is nearly sunk

The 158-year-old Harland & Wolff shipyard on the Belfast waterfront is in bankruptcy proceedings and its last 130 workers are at risk of losing their jobs.

The firm’s receivers and union representatives are searching for a buyer and trying to make other imaginative accommodations to maintain the yard. Employment at H&W peaked at 35,000 in the 1920s , the decade after its workers built the Titanic.

The ill-fated liner is the focus of Titanic Belfast, an “experience attraction” that has become one of the world’s top visitor destinations. The museum and other adjoining former H&W property in Belfast’s “Titanic Quarter” are part of a booming redevelopment site.

That renewal is now threatened by uncertainty about the pending Brexit, which also likely will complicate efforts to salvage the remaining H&W operation.

One of the two 1970s-era gantry cranes at the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast. This photo was taken during my July 2016 visit to Titanic Belfast.

One of my readers is the grandson of a former Harland & Wolff worker who helped build the Titanic and other ships during the early 20th century. This is portion of an essay that Joseph Wade Sr. (the grandfather) wrote in the 1970s:

My father was a joiner, a craftsman of fine woodwork, and worked on the interior finish of the great ships being built. It was the custom in those days for sons to follow in their fathers’ footsteps. When my older brother became of age, he started as an apprentice joiner. Two years later in 1908, when I reached the age of 14, I, too, started as an apprentice in the art of fine woodworking, and so we were a family of wood workers.

Apprentices were only accepted between the ages of 14 and 16. As boys, we were indentured for 6 years. Father had to deposit 5 pounds, which in those days, was a lot of money.  At the finish of our apprenticeship, the money was returned.

Joseph Wade, Sr., about 1918.

My father, brother, and I left our home shortly after 5:00 in the morning. We had about a 40 minute walk to work. We started work at 6 o’clock and worked until 8:20 when we stopped for breakfast. We started again at 9. Our lunch period was from 1 until 2, and our day finished at 5:30, then a 40 minute walk back home. With an average rainfall of 230 or more days a year, many times we were well soaked on our way to and from work.

As apprentices, we spent time in the shops preparing the work, and time on the ships installing it. The great shipyard of Harland and Wolff covered miles of territory. They had the facilities to build and finish eight large liners. Later, six more slip-ways were added, increasing their capacity to 14. Up to this time, they had built and completed over 390 ships, The White Star Line, the Olympic, was designated 400, and the 401 was the Titanic.

Read the full essay.

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