On Wednesday May 31, 1911, two years and two months after her giant keel was laid, SS401 was ready for her Baptismal dip in the waters of the River Lagan. The day dawned over Belfast, dry and bright with good spells of sunshine. A light wind breezed across the city from the south east. All in all, a good day to launch a ship. From early that morning, citizens of Belfast were making their way to the mouth of the Lagan, trying to ensure a good view of the event. The best positions, in Belfast Port, were reserved for those prepared to pay. The Harbour Commissioners charged a small fee and any monies raised were donated to a local hospital. In the shipyard a platform was built for the dignitaries and those guests, invited by White Star line and Harland and Wolff to witness the launch of the biggest ships ever built. All the men in the 'Yard' were given a day's holiday – without pay – except those involved in the actual launch.
Lord William Pirrie, Chairman of Harland and Wolff, his wife, Lady Eliza – both of whom, coincidentally, celebrated their birthdays that day – were joined by J. Bruce Ismay, Managing Director of White Star Line and J P Morgan, the American financier who organised the funding to build the massive liner. They gathered in the offices that morning, as the final preparations for the launch continued. Outside in the yard, under the huge gantry, workers and foremen were busy making sure that everything would go smoothly. All morning the checking and double checking had been going on.
Harland and Wolff would not look kindly on these men, if the company was publicly embarrassed by a botched launching. At a designated time, it was planned that SS401 would glide gracefully down the heavily greased slipway, enter the river, become the biggest man made object afloat and then ease to a halt, hopefully before grounding herself on the far bank. Lord Pirrie, accompanied by J Bruce Ismay, took a walk down by the slipway to have a look for themselves at how the preparations were progressing.
Five minutes after midday, Lord Pirrie gave the signal and two rockets were fired to warn other craft in the area. At ten past the hour another rocket was fired and then the huge hull of SS401 began to move.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, at first, but then, as gravity took over, it gradually accelerated under it's own momentum, down the soap and tallow covered slipway. As she started on her short journey, a number of the workers had the task of knocking out the huge timber stays that held the ship upright. Then a heavy wooden support fell on top of one of these men, Jimmy Dobbin, crushing him. Some of his colleagues managed to free him and, still alive, he was rushed, in the company car, to the Royal Victoria Hospital. He died there two days later.
The Coroner's report stated cause of his death on 2nd June, to be 'from shock and haemorrhage, following fracture of the pelvis.' RMS Titanic had claimed yet another life, before she had even put to sea!
James Dobbin was 43 years old, when he died. His occupation was listed as a shipwright, so it is fair to assume he had probably spent his whole working life in 'The Yard.' He, and his wife Rachel, lived in 13 Memel Street, with their only child, a 17 year old son, also called James. (I believe Memel Street has long since fallen victim to redevelopment in East Belfast and may no longer exist.) As an 'old hand' in the shipyard, there is a good chance that Jimmy Dobbin was known to most of the 15,000 men who were employed there in 1911. His son was an apprentice plumber, probably also employed in 'The Yard.' Young James would have been off that day and maybe took a dander down to join the estimated 10,000 other people who came to see the big liner float for the first time. Indeed, Rachel might have went along, too.
As the biggest ship in the world slid, stern first, into the River Lagan, and floated to a graceful halt, Rachel and James, if they were present, would have joined in the cheering of the onlookers, never once thinking that, at that very moment, fellow workers were frantically trying to save the life of her husband, his father.