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Carlisle's Retirement – Separating fact from fiction

Why did the esteemed naval architect retire so suddenly


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Carlisle's Retirement – Separating fact from fiction

Alexander Montgomery Carlisle left Harland & Wolff in 1910; he had joined the firm as a student apprentice at age 16 in 1870. Over recent years speculation about the circumstances of his leaving the firm have become popular "fact".

According to that story, Carlisle left Harland & Wolff following an argument about how many lifeboats the Olympic and Titanic should have. While Carlisle had formed his own opinion on this matter, it seems he never mentioned it directly to White Star Line management who were presented at meetings by Bruce Ismay and Harold Sanderson.1

The 1983 documentary Titanic – A Question of Murder suggests that Carlisle might have left because of the lifeboat issue; he having wanted more lifeboats fitted, while Ismay and Lord Pirrie wanted only 16 lifeboats, as required by law. In the documentary's conclusion, the narrator stated that Carlisle never talked about the Titanic in his later life, nor about a “battle he lost” regarding the lifeboat affair. The apparent conflict was put forward again in the 2005 documentary drama Titanic: Birth of a Legend. There, Carlisle got into a heated argument with Ismay and Pirrie, which resulted in his departure from Harland & Wolff. This version seems to have made popular rounds, but is there any truth in it? It is known that Carlisle left the shipyard in 1910. In 1912 he had to say this about his departure at the British Inquiry (Day 20, 10 June 1912):

21268. At the present moment I think you have retired from business? – I retired on the 30th of June, 1910.
21362. You had resigned your position with Harland and Wolff in 1910? – I had.

Carlisle himself made it clear that he had retired. There is no mention whether he left on his own, nor that this had something to do with the lifeboats. Actually, the meetings with Ismay, Sanderson and Pirrie took place in October 1909 and January 1910,2 so if his leaving resulted had from an argument about the lifeboats, one has to wonder why he had not left already in January. Furthermore, Carlisle gave an interview to the Daily Mail published on 18 April 1912 and makes no mention of any conflict there either. Instead, we learn a few questions later at the British Inquiry, from Carlisle himself, that no decision had been reached about the boats before he left H&W.

21416. If it was not settled, was there any circumstance discussed or any time mentioned at which it should be decided what should be the number of boats? – Not that I heard of.
21417. Now then, from January, 1910, when this interview took place, until June, 1910, when you left, was there anything more said in your presence by the White Star directors or any member of the White Star Company? – No.
21418. Nothing? – No. I merely ordered the davits after that - the same month.
21420. And was there, while you were still connected with the firm, any decision arrived at to your knowledge with regard to the number of boats? – None that I know of.
21421. Do you know what you were waiting for at that time; that is to say, do you know why no definite decision had been arrived at up to June, 1910, as to the number of boats? – I would say they were entirely waiting to see what the Board of Trade would require.

Carlisle was also questioned on 3 April 1914 during the Limitation on Liability Hearings. Again he mentioned his retirement and makes clear that the lifeboat question was still open when he left.

Q. Did you allow the Directors: Messrs. Ismay and Sanderson, to understand perfectly how many lifeboats could be fitted? – The plan showed how the pair of davits held them, but the number of boats was not gone into. The actual number of boats fitted in the ship was settled after I left the yard.

With those statements made during two inquiries, it can be safely stated, that his retirement was planned and had nothing to do what was presented in recent years. This leaves the question open regarding his retirement. At the age of 55, one month before his 56th birthday,3 it seems unlikely that his age played a role and there is more to it as the Evening Telegraph dated 8 August 1910 shows:4

Mr. Alexander Montgomery Carlisle, the general manager and chairman of the managing directors of Messrs. Harland & Wolff, shipbuilders of Belfast has retired from his position owning to nervous breakdown.”

It seems Carlisle had some health issues, and his retirement has more to do with this than anything else. When Olympic was launched on 20 October 1910 Carlisle was not present. The magazine The Shipping World reported her launch in her 26 October 1910 issue stating:5

“There was a general feeling of regret that Mr. A.M. Carlisle, who until the end of June had been for many years so closely associated with the chairman of the company in all the great projects of the firm, was not present, and the hope was expressed that the rest he is taking will restore him to his wonted vigour.

Also of interest is the incident during the Titanic Memorial Service at the St. Paul’s Cathedral in London on 19 April 1912 as reported by the Daily Sketch on 20 April 1912 which also might point towards a possible weakness in his health:

“On all the service made a moving and memorable impression, and one, at any rate, in that vast congregation it touched with pathetic poignancy. This was Mr Carlisle, who was so overcome that he fainted and had to be carried out of the building. He was taken to the police ambulance, and medically attended, and was subsequently able to be sent home in a carriage.”

While some newspapers only had a small note that he retired there is indeed mention about a health issue. It seems that this had been already mentioned around August in British newspapers6 and the Evening Star printed on 28 September 1910:7

"The Right Hon. A. M. Carlisle, owing to ill-health, has retired from the management of the great shipbuilding yard on Queen's Island, Belfast."

Another reference was made in the 1948 book Viscount Pirrie of Belfast by Herbert Jefferson:8

"He had worked hard, and his health was not good. He crossed to live in London."

His little care about his own health was most obvious the reason for leaving H&W. About his death in 1926, Jefferson wrote:

"Mr. Carlisle took little care of his health. He was out in all kinds of weather without an overcoat. He had a daily swim in the Serpentine, even on Christmas day. A chill, which he could not shake off, was the cause of his death in 1925."

While there are no known reactions of Pirrie and Ismay to Carlisle's departure, it cannot be stated that there was any conflict among them, and even if there was one, it surely would not have been mentioned publicly. His retirement might have cause H&W some trouble as his position had to be replaced by someone else. A reporter by the name of Frank T. Bullen, who seems to have been at several launches of White Star steamers including the first and second Oceanic and was presented at the launch of the Olympic wrote;

"And yet to many of us there was a difference of the saddest import. (...) To me it was a positive grief to miss him, to know that he did not see what is the crowning feat of a full life.

The Right Hon. A. M. Carlisle is no longer of the great firm of Harland and Wolff, and although yesterday he took a final look round the microcosm which he has controlled so long, to-day he did not fill the place where he has for so long been the central figure.

Lord Pirrie and Mr Bruce Ismay, two of the foremost and worthiest figures in the shipbuilding and shipowning world to-day – one might almost say the foremost – were there, and must have missed him sadly, for from their serene heights of organising ability they could realise, perhaps better than any other person, what he has stood for in such a wonderful business as this; and none can know better than they how the wonderful certainty and smoothness of to-day's epoch-making ceremony were due to his plans, perfected months ago."

A similar stated can be found in the chapter about Carlisle in the book by Jefferson:

"His retirement caused general regret not only in shipbuilding circles in Belfast, but also in Great Britain and the Continent where he was well liked as a genial and friendly man. he had the highest capacity in managing men and controlling affairs, whether he was directing the 'thousand and one' details in connection with the largest shipbuilding yard in the world, or supervising the building of a mammoth liner that would break all records in size and speed. He was a "Captain of Industry," and any city might be proud of him."

This picture of Carlisle appears in the Daily Mail on 22 April 1912 showing Carlisle on his way to the Memorial Service in St. Paul's Cathedral.


Alexander Carlisle

The Right Hon. A. M. Carlisle, the late general manager of Messrs. Harland and Wolff, who built the Titanic and partly designed her.
He was present at the memorial
service at St. Paul's Cathedral when he fainted.
(Authors Collection)

As we see, Carlisle's retirement was due to health issues rather than on the question of how many lifeboats the ships would have, or any made-up conflict with his brother-in-law Lord Pirrie.


  1. As already shown in part 1 of "The lifeboat story", Titanic Post, Nr. 82, December 2012 (TVS), Atlantic Daily Bulletin, December 2012 (BTS), he thought the ships should carry at last 48 lifeboats. British Inquiry, Day 20, Questions 21373 - 21381.
  2. British Inquiry, Day 20, Question 21288, 21297.
  3. Carlisle was born 8 July 1854.
  4. The same report appears in The Courier dated 9 August 1910.
  5. Page 375, with thanks to Dr Paul Lee.
  6. The Daily Mail was quoted in a few other newspapers stating that Carlisle retired. According to Daniel Klistorner during his research for the book Titanic in Photographs, it was printed in August 1910.
  7. The report appears in the newspapers Wanganui Herald 3 October 1910, Auckland Star 6 October 1910.
  8. with thanks to Günter Bäbler.

© Ioannis Georgiou 2018

First Published:
Titanic Verein Schweiz (Swiss Titanic Society), Titanic Post Nr. 96, Juni 2016
Titanic International Society, Voyage 96, Summer 2016
British Titanic Society, Atlantic Daily Bulletin, December 2016

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Alexander Carlisle


Ioannis Georgiou


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Comment and discuss

  1. Harland Duzen

    Harland Duzen said:

    Interesting to read. Well done Ioannis for clearing up another myth that became airborne.

  2. Ioannis Georgiou

    Ioannis Georgiou said:

    Thank you! Sadly there are still many other myths out there and even some created new ones in the last years.

  3. Henry Sincic

    Henry Sincic said:

    Nice article, Ioannis!

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Encyclopedia Titanica (2018) Carlisle's Retirement – Separating fact from fiction (Titanica!, ref: #20240, published 21 January 2018, generated 20th November 2022 06:34:20 AM); URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/carlisle-retirement-separating-fact-from-fiction.html