Encyclopedia Titanica

Harland & Wolff and the partition of Ulster


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Harland and Wolff is at the symbolic forefront of Ulster's identity, its economic importance pivotal in explaining what gave Ulster Unionists political leverage during the Home rule question. To accurately portray Harland & Wolff’s role, it is important to understand the yard’s beginnings, the politics of those who owned it and those who worked in it, and the circumstances and events which led to H&W securing Belfast’s importance in not just Great Britain, but on a worldwide level.

Ireland got home rule at the price of partitioning Ulster and leaving the six northern counties within the Union. This partial victory for the loyalists could not have been achieved but for the economic vitality of their stronghold, Belfast. (Bardon 1992 p386)

Bardon argues that economics secured partition for Ulster. In examining its economic vitality, it is important to look at Harland & Wolff whilst not neglecting the importance of other interdependent industries and the relationship between each which encouraged Belfast to economically flourish.

Belfast ‘rose from being the 22nd largest town in the British isles in 1800 to the 9th largest in 1911, a rate of increase unmatched by any other town; while in the same period Dublin dropped from 2nd largest to 11th’ (Patton 1993 p.ix), it is important to understand the growing divide which took place between the industrialising Ulster and the agricultural South. This growing divide would determine attitudes and shape politics so it is vital to explain how H&W’s growth was pivotal in creating this divide.

Belfast in 1850 was a town seen as having ‘few of the assets needed to become a great shipbuilding centre’ (Bardon 1992 p336). Why then did Belfast shipbuilding become so important that its economic vitality secured partition? The answer can be found in the men who founded and developed the yard.

The beginnings of modern Belfast shipbuilding can be traced back to the founding of the Belfast Iron works in Eliza Street, Belfast, in 1850. It was set up at a cost of £25,000 by two Liverpool businessmen, Robert Pace and Thomas Gladstone. The business soon faced troubles as ‘hopes that coal would be found on the Downshire estate were not realised and the enterprise soon found it difficult to compete with English and Scottish ironmasters with ample supplies of fuel close at hand’ (Bardon 1992 p334). By the time a yard on Queens Island was commissioned for the purpose of building iron ships in 1853, Pace and Gladstone had leased their debt-laden concern to Liverpool engineer, Robert Hickson. However Hickson, ‘recognising his inexperience, engaged a manager for the shipyard, Edward J. Harland. This appointment was of monumentous importance for the industrial future of Ulster’ (Bardon 1992 p334). It is imperative to explain Harland’s multifaceted importance. His engineering innovation led to the yard’s engineering reputation and his business relations meant orders were guaranteed, fuelling the yard’s growth.

Harland took up the post of manager in Robert Hickson & Co in late 1854. On arriving in Belfast the 23 year old Yorkshireman ‘showed the ruthless determination he was to display all his life: he cut wages, banned smoking and brought in shipwrights from the Clyde when the men went on strike’ (Bardon 1992 p334). If Harland’s character can account for the improvement in output from the yard, his technical prowess and family relations can also account for the business’s rapid growth. Harland’s Aunt’s sister was married to Gustav Christian Schwabe, who was ‘a junior partner in John Bibby & Sons, a Liverpool shipping company’ (Crossland & Moore 2003 p66). It was through this relationship that in ‘1857 he recruited Gustav Wilheim Wolff as his assistant. Wolff, a German, was the son of Schwabe’s sister…with the assistance of Schwabe, the sale of the yard to Harland was completed in 1858, and the yard was renamed Edward James Harland & Company’ (Crossland & Moore 2003 p67). Harland’s relationship with Schwabe prompted the order for ‘three screw propelled steamers for J. Bibby Sons & Co…these were the first of a succession of orders from Bibby, which firmly established the shipyard as a major player in the world of shipbuilding’ (Crossland & Moore 2003 p67). The relationship between Harland, Wolff and Schwabe can be seen as instrumental in securing the beginnings of shipbuilding in Belfast. Without them, shipbuilding in Belfast would have most likely foundered. Following the completion of its initial order for J Bibby, a further order for six larger vessels was placed. ‘In 1861 this increased work load led Harland to take on Gustav Wilheim Wolff as a partner to form Harland & Wolff’ (Crossland & Moore 2003 p67).

If Harland’s personal contacts ensured that the yard’s order books were full, it was his own engineering prowess which facilitated the rise of the yard’s reputation amongst shipbuilders, owners and operators throughout the world. Of notable interest are the innovations Harland applied to Bibby’s second order:

Harland adopted a radically different design…with greater length to accommodate the increased tonnage, while not increasing the beam or breadth and with a flat bottom. This required very little increase in power to achieve the same speed. To achieve the necessary strength he made the upper deck entirely of iron thus creating what was essentially a very strong box girder. Despite the sceptics…by 1870 Harland & Wolff had built eighteen ships for J. Bibby. (Crossland & Moore 2003 p67)

The ships were called ‘Bibby coffins…they caused a sensation in the shipbuilding world. The characteristic square bilge and flat underside of the hull soon became known as the Belfast bottom’ (Bardon 1992 p335). The early beginnings of the yard and Harland’s vital role in determining Belfast’s future cannot be underestimated in determining its later importance as Bardon highlights:

In 1857 Harland applied to Liverpool City council for ground at Garstang to build a shipyard there, he was rejected due to youth and inexperience. The history of Northern Ireland would have been very different if Harland had been accepted. The Ulster bank had already foreclosed on the ironworks and in September 1858 Hickson offered Harland the Queens Island yard for £5,000’ (Bardon 1992 p335).

If the yard’s fortunate beginnings can be attributed to ‘Harland’s head for business with imaginative and innovative engineering genius, Wolff’s financial and technical prowess and Schwabe’s supplying of venture capital and market’ (Bardon 1992 p336), then it would be beneficial to examine the external factors which led to the yards growth and the establishing of Belfast’s worldwide importance. Harland & Wolff cannot be viewed as an independent Ulster business, Scotland and the north west of England supplied inexpensive coal and iron; the Clyde provided indispensable specialist engine-making and metal working; and Liverpool beckoned as the gateway of the fast-growing empire’ (Bardon 1992 p336). In recognising this, it is obvious Harland & Wolff was tied to British interests more so than they could ever be to the South. The dependence on British raw materials cemented a mindset of an industrial link existing between Belfast and Britain which the rest of Ireland did not share. Harland & Wolff’s reliance on international shipping companies prompted a mindset of belonging to an international economic scene, an ideology far removed from the nationalists who sought to promote agriculture and self sufficiency over industry.

Bardon states ‘business was brisk during the American Civil War when the confederate ships were eager to buy fast steamers capable of running the Union blockade. The Harbour commissioners greatly improved facilities on Queens Island during this time by building the Hamilton graving dock and the Abercorn basin’ (Bardon 1992 p335). If the American Civil war can be used to account for a temporary boom in Belfast’s shipping output, then it is incomparable with Europe’s population explosion which had occurred in Ireland and Britain in the eighteenth century and spread east as far as Russia and the Balkans. ‘Thousands sought a better life in America-not to speak of the added impulse given by the suppression of Poland in 1863, Bismarck’s wars, Bulgarian horrors and Tsarist pogroms-thus creating a market of unprecedented size in the transport of emigrants across the ocean’ (Bardon 1992 p336).

This rapid increase in demand for transport to America can be seen as instrumental in Harland & Wolff’s rapid growth during the latter nineteenth and early twentieth century, again Schwabe’s business relationships were instrumental in securing Harland & Wolff’s growth:

Schwabe along with Thomas Ismay (who had just bought the bankrupted White Star Line) proposed to create a new shipping line capable of competing with the well-established Cunard and Inman lines on the profitable North Atlantic run. The company was registered as the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company on the 6th September 1869. It was a time of rapid technological advance in shipbuilding and Harland & Wolff, vital to White Star’s plans, was in the van. (Bardon 1992 p337)

Schwabe ‘organised the necessary financial support on the understanding that Harland & Wolff built the ships…this required a major modernisation of the yard and set a pattern for the next forty years of regular refurbishment and improvement’ (Crossland & Moore 2003 p67). The Oceanic was the first White star ship launched and is:

Regarded as the first modern liner… making all other North Atlantic liners obsolete… The White Star won international fame for Harland & Wolff, but, equally, it was Harland & Wolff which made the White Star line’ (Bardon 1992 p337)

In 1874 the partnership was extended to include William J. Pirrie, Walter Wilson and Alexander Wilson as both Harland and Wolff expanded into other ventures and politics.

Harland involved himself in public affairs, becoming ‘Mayor of Belfast in 1885/86 and conservative MP for North Belfast from 1887 until his death in 1895. Harland ‘opposed Home Rule for Ireland which he feared would greatly harm the business prospects for Harland & Wolff and other companies in Belfast’ (Crossland & Moore 2003 p70). In 1891 Wolff was elected conservative MP for East Belfast, the heartland of Harland & Wolff employees. East Belfast was largely Protestant and so it could be argued that even if Protestants were not a majority throughout Ulster, their dominance over the Belfast economy was unquestionable, helping to explain why they were able to defeat a Roman Catholic majority and secure partition.

Crossland & Moore argue that:

The involvement of senior industrialists in local and national politics might seem surprising in this day and age but at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century Home Rule for Ireland was perceived as a threat to Ulster. The fear of industrialists and their predominantly Protestant workforce was that Home Rule for Ireland would lead to full independence which it was considered would be a serious threat to industry in the North of Ireland. The partners of Harland & Wolff were so concerned that serious consideration was given to relocating their business to the mainland’ (Crossland & Moore 2003 p177)

In order to appreciate the mindset of industrial Unionists it is necessary to address the fears they perceived. Bardon argues:

The vast majority of Ulster Catholics thought of themselves as part of an Irish nation, worthy of self Government; and Ulster Protestants, drawn largely from the intelligentsia, saw themselves as Britons, albeit with their own regional characteristics, who should not be cut loose from the U.K. (Bardon 1992 p402)

John Redmond, who lead the Irish Parliamentary party from 1900-1918 argued that if Belfast was left out, Catholics were 55% of the whole population of Ulster. If Redmond’s argument was correct, then it supports the view that it was Belfast’s Protestant controlled economy that helped secure partition for Unionists.

It is interesting to note the Home Ruler’s seeming disregard for Belfast’s importance within the British economic structure. Parnell proclaimed in a speech in 1886 ‘Protestant Ulster…say they want a separate Parliament for this little patch up in the North East’ (Bardon 1992 p402). However ‘Parnell…underestimated how formidable the obstacle thrown up by Ulster Protestantism to Home Rule was. Parnell thought…Northern Unionists comprised only landlords, carpenters and ‘the artisans of towns such as Portadown’ (Bardon 1992 p402). However Northern Unionists were in control of Belfast’s industries, which were each the largest of their kind in the world. Such importance in worldwide economics meant Harland & Wolff’s economic security would take priority over the wants of Irish nationalists.

Protestants were right to fear Home Rule as many nationalists ‘regarded Belfast as an un-Irish aberration, the Gaelic revival encouraging them to see industrialisation as corrupting’ (Bardon 1992 p403). Loyalists were proud of ‘Belfast’s pre-eminence as the city with the world’s largest shipyard, ropeworks, tobacco factory, linen-spinning mill, tea machinery works, aerated water factory and dry dock’ (Bardon 1992 p438). These industrial achievements drove the divide further between North and South and despite Henry Labouchere (Gladstonial liberal) arguing ‘the area over which the Orangemen hold sway is growing smaller and smaller every year…there is now but one single Northern Irish county which does not return a Parnellite-Antrim’ (Crawford 1986 p133) Labouchere failed, like Parnell, to take into account the political power that Belfast’s industrial success brought to its Protestant population.

The retirement of Harland and Wolff marked a new era in which the yard would be dominated by William Pirrie. On August 2nd 1886 Thomas MacKnight dined with leading businessmen. He asked Pirrie ‘whether it was true…that if the Home rule bill ever became law, his firm would withdraw their great shipbuilding works from Belfast, and take them to the Clyde. “Most certainly this would be done” was his response’ (Bardon 1992 p404)

MacKnight stated that businessmen agreed:

That under an Irish Parliament and Government there would be no security for life or property…that utter want of commercial confidence without which Belfast could not continue to prosper. The great manufacturing and industrial enterprises of their town would have to seek a new home on the other side of the Irish Sea. (MacKnight 1896 p152-3).

This was not empty talk:

Harland & Wolff papers…show preparations were well under way to find a haven on the Mersey. Gladstone’s defeat put these plans in cold storage. On November 10th 1893 Harland & Wolff answered an advertisement for vacant shipyards owned on the Mersey dock and Harbour board, requesting ‘information as to the situation, accommodation and rent of the premises in question’. The danger of Home rule passed and on January 1st 1894 having ‘carefully considered the question of becoming tenants of one of the vacant yards on the Mersey’, the directors dropped the matter’ (Moss & Hume 1986 p73).

Harland & Wolff’s removal from Queens Island would have had a devastating blow on the Ulster economy and way of life. Not only would the shipyard workers find themselves jobless, but such was the yards influence that other industries would have been affected if not destroyed by the transfer. Wolff had became active in the Belfast ropeworks, which was located adjacent to the shipyard in East Belfast. Crossland & Moore argue:

Wolff’s association with the ropeworks gave Harland & Wolff the competitive edge in the supply of rope and sailcloth required for their steamships, which still had sails, and also for the many sailing vessels they continued to construct up until 1890. The ropeworks also provided employment for many wives and daughters of Harland & Wolff employees. Belfast ropeworks…developed and manufactured their own machines using castings produced by local foundries. Gradually machinery for producing rope and cordage from jute was made by the local textile machinery manufacturers…James Mackie & Sons. This led to the pre-eminence of Mackie’s in developing and marketing a complete range of jute machinery’ (Crossland & Moore 2003 p175).

If Harland & Wolff can be credited with the rapid growth of the ropeworks in relation to supplying its rope and cordage needs and later ‘producing 50% of the Royal Navy’s cordage requirements’ (Bardon 1992 p457) during and following the first world war then it is worth investigating what effect Harland & Wolff had on other industries. Belfast’s growth as a port due to shipbuilding encouraged the city’s import and export abilities, the shipyard itself demonstrated that ‘Ulster was in the forefront of international economic advance, with an industry dependent on the outside world both for raw materials and sales’ (Bardon 1992 p339). Bardon argues that the very vessels launched from Queens Island drew the North of Ireland into closer contact with ideas and movements overseas, a further example of the growing divide between Ulster Protestants and the rest of Ireland:

America’s open ranges were tamed by barb wire, making unprecedented quantities of inexpensive meat available to the old World. Steel-hulled vessels made it economic to carry food in bulk across the ocean for the first time. Belfast shipbuilding firms were well to the fore in this revolution. The urban working classes appreciated the consequent fall in the cost of groceries, but for the small farmers in Ireland this was disastrous’ (Bardon 1992 p361).

Not only did the growing prosperity of the North divide the attitudes of the people, it negatively affected the Southern economy, unable to compete with the cheaper import prices, people faced the choice of changing from agricultural employment or face ruin. The growth of the port explains the growth of Gallagher’s tobacco worldwide, the ability to export large amounts of linen goods, etc and have the means to import large quantities of raw materials. In reassessing Belfast’s suitability as both a port and for shipbuilding, head of maritime history at the Ulster folk & transport museum Michael McCaughan was keen to stress:

With the widespread use of cars, lorry’s and trains people have the tendency to see the ocean as a great divider. But to those with a ship the ocean becomes a great highway on which to transport and travel. It was no more an inconvenience to sail a ship to England and back to acquire coal than it would have been to build miles of track in order to transport it by train. When you comprehend that, you are faced with a different picture entirely. (Interview with M. McCaughan conducted at Ulster Folk & Transport museum 06/03/09).

The point of view of industrialists was made clear in an 1893 address to Gladstone by the Belfast chamber of commerce:

All our progress has been made under the union…since the union and equal laws; we have been wedded to the Empire and made a progress second to none…why should we be driven by force to abandon the conditions which have led to that success? (Buckland 1973 p.xxx)

For businessmen, the question of Home rule as merely another term for Rome rule was not the main issue, but as Bardon argues:

Northern Protestant businessmen feared that a Dublin parliament would be dominated by farmers neither competent to administer industrial Ulster nor concerned about its welfare. They were sure that Nationalists would tax the North too heavily and damage its industries by protective tariffs designed to promote Southern self-sufficiency, which in turn, would subject Ulster’s raw materials to ruinous import duties. In 1901, better paid skilled workers formed 24% of the city’s workers, the majority Protestant. By contrast 41% of low paid dockers and 50% of female linen-spinners were Catholic. A Dublin Parliament might contemplate to redress this state of affairs. (Bardon 1992 p405)

It could be argued that the Protestant reaction to home rule was a defensive move to protect their way of life, which they identified as not being typical of Ireland and so did not consider themselves Irish but rather due to strong cultural and economic linkage, deemed themselves British. However the Protestant population of Belfast deemed themselves, it must be conceded that Protestants had only a small majority over Catholics in the province and so attention must be given to what assets the small Protestant majority held, rather than wrongfully assume that a population majority secured partition for Ulster’s Unionists. ‘Most of the land and all but a small proportion of businesses were owned by Protestants…they dominated its economic life’ (Bardon 1992 p405). During the period of the home rule question Harland & Wolff was the leading shipbuilder in the world, its yard employing a large section of East Belfast’s Protestant population. It could be argued that as the yard grew, its labour requirements encouraged people to migrate from rural communities into Belfast, fuelling economic growth. In regards to Harland & Wolff’s central role in the city’s developments, Patton argues:

Belfast developed…in the course of the nineteenth century…accelerated by the rapid growth of the cotton and then linen industries, followed after the middle of the century by shipbuilding. The housing stock of the town quadrupled between 1870 and 1900, partly to accommodate the incoming workers, partly as speculation to cope with those to come. By 1914 Belfast was the largest linen producing centre in the world, and had the greatest shipyard and ropeworks. (Patton 1993 p.ix)

Certain factors explain why the interlinked industries of Ulster encouraged the incoming of skilled labourers. Harland & Wolff had sought skilled labour from England and Scotland when there proved to be a shortage of it in Belfast. Men were encouraged to settle in Belfast as it offered further benefits not available to those who instead sought to work on the Clyde or in other yards, mainly the linen industry and ropeworks. Whilst the shipyard offered employment for men, the scale of the linen industry meant wives and daughters accompanying them had better chances of employment. This would be reflected in the family enjoying a higher income whilst living costs in Belfast where the lowest throughout the United Kingdom.

As a result of Pirrie’s aggressive involvement in international shipping, most notably the International Mercantile Marine (IMM) group, financed by J.P. Morgan, Pirrie secured that all of IMM’s orders would go to Harland & Wolff. The relationship between IMM and Harland & Wolff can be reduced in complexity to the following: IMM had sought to monopolise North Atlantic shipping interests and so had bought up a large number of British shipping firms. Pirrie had been pivotal in arranging the mergers and securing finance for the new company. Pirrie’s financial investment in the company meant that Harland & Wolff would build IMM’s ships on what was termed, a cost-plus basis, i.e. that the final price would be the build price plus four percent commission to represent Harland & Wolff’s profit. The shipping companies who benefited from this relationship were termed the ‘commission club’ and the full extent of the relationships was known only to Pirrie, cementing him as an authoritarian figure in the yard’s history. The volume of work received by Harland & Wolff by means of these relationships ensured order books were full and Pirrie could justify expansion of the yard.

The most famous commission club member was the White Star Line who, seeking to rival the Cunard liners Lusitania and Mauretania, commissioned the building of three Olympic class liners to be named Olympic, Titanic and Gigantic (later renamed Brittanic). The technology to be used to build the liners were tried and tested designs employed by the yard for decades, narrow beam and long box girder hulls. However the size of the liners presented the yard with a problem, there was simply no way the yard could begin work on the 882ft liners without major reorganisation and expansion of the yard.

Harland & Wolff’s influence in Belfast was so great that the yard even altered the geography of the region. Before work could begin on the liners, two huge slipways over which a massive gantry would stand had to be built. The Lough had to be dredged and deepened and the reclaimed land was used to expand the artificial island, creating new space. The Thompson dry dock was commissioned only after Pirrie threatened to transfer shipbuilding to the mainland if it was not built.

However the sinking of Titanic ‘cast a shadow over Belfast and the White Star Line-the firm’s most valuable customer’ (Bardon 1992 p438) and the Arrol gantry, along with the Thompson graving dock would never again be used to construct ships of the Titanic’s scale. However, any possible decline in the yard’s output was soon offset by the outbreak of World War I.

At the time war broke out, Belfast had been the ‘fastest-growing shipbuilding region ever since 1878, with an annual growth of 7.8%, twice that of Clydeside. In 1914 Harland & Wolff was responsible for almost 8% of world output’ (Bardon 1992 p456). However Harland & Wolff were at a crucial disadvantage to other UK yards as they did not have any admiralty work on hand and as the Government gave priority to the building of Naval vessels during wartime, the workforce ‘fell from 24,425 to 18,412 between July and November 1914’ (Bardon 1992 p456). The fall in the workforce was as a result of depletion by enlistment and shortage of building materials. The situation would soon reverse as ‘realising this would not be a short war; Churchill ensured that orders flowed in’ (Bardon 1992 p456). Harland & Wolff’s output soared as:

Germany launched a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917. In April 1917 U-boats sank 555,056 tons of British merchant vessels, while in the same month UK yards launched only 69,711 tons. More than ever the skills and capacity of the Belfast shipbuilding industry were urgently required’ (Bardon 1992 p456).

It could be argued that Harland & Wolff’s involvement in the British war effort was symbolic in showcasing its industrial and political linkage with Britain, further strengthening Protestant loyalty and resolve. Regardless:

From 1917 Harland & Wolff built ‘standard ships’, simplified cargo vessels urgently needed to replace losses on the high seas. In March 1918 Lloyd George appointed Lord Pirrie controller-general of merchant shipping and under his direction output was raised by nearly 50% by the time of the armistice’ (Bardon 1992 p456). ‘During 1918 alone, Harland & Wolff launched 201,070 tons of merchant shipping, 120,000 tons more than the firm’s nearest UK rival’ (Bardon 1992 p457).

War had delayed any possible decline in the shipyards fortunes and it could be argued, had Harland & Wolff not been so prominent in allied shipping output, her fortunes may have declined enough that when partition was being decided the yard was no longer the economically vibrant leverage she once was. However the shipyard alone was not responsible for Belfast’s prosperous export industry during WWI:

Linen had been making a strong recovery before the war and now-to meet the demands for uniforms, tents, knapsacks, stretchers, sheets and aeroplane fabric-mills and factories worked at full stretch, raising the workforce from 76,000 in 1913 to 90,000 by 1918’ (Bardon 1992 p457).

The war, which had secured Belfast industry from decline, ended in 1918. However the post-war shipping boom would again ensure the yard would not fall into decline. At the end of armistice week, 1918, Lord Pirrie declared:

‘The war is over in the fields, but not in the shipyards, Germany is beaten but she cannot give us back all the shipping she has destroyed…there must be no slackening of effort in shipbuilding as ships are as vitally necessary today as at any period in the history of this country’ (Moss & Hume 1986 p206).

It is important to note that Harland & Wolff’s situation was not typical, Bardon argues:

In 1919, unemployment was already severe on the Clydeside, however Belfast’s high reputation for quality and Pirrie’s business acumen kept the shipyards busy, raising the workforce to a historic peak of almost 30,000 (Bardon 1992 p464).

It is important to recognise the seeming growing prosperity of the yard in the years leading to Partition. If World War I had been instrumental in strengthening Belfast’s industrial vitality and hardening Protestant attitudes in regards to retaining the linkage between Britain and the North of Ireland, it had also witnessed a change in Southern Irish attitudes. During the four years of conflict, Ireland had refused to join the war on the side of the allies and events such as the 1916 Easter Rising and the 1918 conscription crisis had altered Irish politics, with Sinn Fein emerging as the dominant party in the quest for Irish nationalism. The call for home rule gave way to Ireland’s demand for complete independence from Britain and self sufficiency.

As Harland and Wolff was the dominant employer of Belfast’s Protestant population, the actions of its men can be taken as a reflection of attitudes prevalent within the community towards the South’s aggressive quest for full independence:

July 21st 1920-notices were posted in the shipyards calling Protestant and Unionist workers to meet at lunch time outside the gates of the south yard. The call to drive out ‘disloyal’ workers was enthusiastically supported. At the end of the meeting hundreds of apprentices and rivet boys…ordered out Catholics and Socialists. Some were kicked and beaten, others were pelted with rivets, and some were forced to swim for their lives. One Catholic remembers; “the gates were smashed down with sledges, the vests and shirts of those at work were torn open to see if the men were wearing any Catholic emblems and woe betide the man who was. One man was set upon, thrown into the dock, had to swim the Musgrave channel, and having been pelted with rivets, had to swim two or three miles, to emerge in streams of blood and rush to the nearest police station in a nude state’ (Bardon 1992 p471).

It could be argued that this violent reaction found its roots in widespread, deeply embedded beliefs which were claimed to exist amongst the Protestant population. In 1887 Mabel Sharman Crawford had stated ‘the widespread belief that Irish poverty and turbulence originate in the baleful influences of creed and race is very generally held as an unquestionable truth in North East Ulster’ (Bardon 1992 p407). In establishing the prevalent Protestant mindset, Bardon argues:

Protestants visualised a Dublin government putting education in the hands of the Church and reserving public employment exclusively for Catholics. Together with a widely held belief in their own moral and racial superiority, made Protestants unwilling to accept the rule of Catholics who…were judged utterly incapable of protecting hard-won prosperity and Protestant liberties in the North’ (Bardon 1992 p407).

However despite the violence which ensued, Moss & Hume reflectively summarise:

The Ulster Unionists accepted the compromise which guaranteed the six northern counties continuing membership of the United Kingdom. On the formation of the Stormont Parliament, Pirrie became a Senator-public recognition of his return to the Unionist fold. It took almost a year and several further outbreaks of sectarian violence for all those who had been expelled to return. The only permanent loss would seem to have been 120 apprentices. (Moss & Hume 1986 p224)

In examining Pirrie’s involvement in politics, there is considerable conflict in his attitude to Home rule and later, partition. ‘During the 1906 election Pirrie helped finance Liberal candidates in Ulster...his new found friends, the Phillipps brothers, were active Liberals and keen Home rulers. They also held the keys to London society where the Pirrie’s longed for acceptance’ (Moss & Hume 1986 p128). As the largest employer in Ulster, Pirrie’s motives must be examined as it is feasible to assume that Pirrie was already aware of the attitudes of his workers and the fact that his yard would be a natural target for sectarian trouble due to its predominantly Protestant population.

In examining the 1906 elections it could be argued Pirrie’s loyalties ultimately lay with those with whom he was connected too in business, his desire for social acceptance also playing its part. In examining Harland, Wolff and Pirrie, it is clear that the politics and economics of North East Ulster were intertwined from the yards beginnings. However, despite Pirrie’s Unionist leanings at the time when partition was implemented, ‘as on other occasions in the past when there was a threat of strife in Belfast, the Company was making contingency plans for moving to the mainland’ (Moss & Hume 1986 p225). In regards to the latter, Pirrie’s loyalty to his Belfast yard is questionable, regardless of where his political sympathies lay. In trying to disentangle Pirrie’s seemingly conflicting attitudes to politics, economics, unionism, Liberalism and nationalism, Moss & Hume offer a lengthy explanation:

The liberalism of his youth had become conservatism in his old age. The attitudes that had persuaded him to support Home rule in 1912 struck few chords with the policies of Sinn Fein. On the wider political stage he had no sympathy with those liberals who supported nationalism and state intervention in industry. At a personal level his close business ally Sir Owen Phillips had become a staunch Conservative and, as a result, was no longer on speaking terms with his brother, Lord St. Davids, who had stood by Lloyd George. Pirrie could not afford a similar difficulty with the man nominated to succeed him at the head of the company. Socially, home rule was anything but fashionable and Pirrie’s war service had earned him a place in public life, if not in society...they (the Pirrie’s) had earned that status in British life they so hankered after in their youth, and nothing was going to take it from them. Harland & Wolff was now spread throughout the United Kingdom, with links to many important British shipping lines. It would have been unthinkable for Pirrie to allow its massive Belfast shipyard to fall under control of a new republic. (Moss & Hume 1986 p225)

If Moss & Hume’s assumption is an expansion of Bardon’s opening argument, when Pirrie’s wavering loyalty to Unionism is examined it then could be argued that although the owners of the yard were politically active, their main priorities lay with the business operations of the yard and although they had threatened to move should home rule be introduced, it was not an idle threat to safeguard British links with Belfast. Instead it was a sincere promise to safeguard their business from Irish interference. Such was the importance of Harland & Wolff in Northern Ireland that when work began to decline and Pirrie struggled to ‘find work and secure orders...he could not jettison Belfast, and by implication the new province of Northern Ireland, at a moment of intense political crisis’ (Moss & Hume 1986 p239). Regardless of Pirrie’s motives, he understood the importance the shipyard had played in securing partition for Northern Ireland, and the importance it would play in securing its survival.

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Macknight, T. (1896). Ulster as it is Volume II. London.
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McCaughan, M. (1991). Sailing the Seaways. The Friar’s Bush Press, Belfast.
McCaughan, M. (1998). The Birth of Titanic. Blackstaff Press, Belfast.
McCluskie, T. (2007). No Place for a boy, a life at Harland & Wolff. Tempus, Gloucestershire.
Moss, M & Hume, J.R. (1986). Shipbuilders to the World: 125 years of Harland & Wolff, Belfast 1861-1986. Blackstaff Press, Belfast.
Patton, M. (1993). Central Belfast, an Historical Gazetteer. Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, Belfast.
Pritchard, M. (2008). The Belfast child. SS Nomadic, exploring the world’s last great link to RMS Titanic. Queens Island Press, Belfast.
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The Shipbuilder (Summer 1911). The White Star triple-screw Atlantic liners Olympic & Titanic. Patrick Stephens, London.

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Belfast, Ireland


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Comment and discuss

  1. Senan Molony

    Senan Molony said:

    The very title is a misomer. While there are 9 historical counties in the province of Ulster and 6 remained within the UK, it would be more accurate to refer to the partition of Ireland, which had never had a border imposed on its landmass before. 'Quis Separabit' I believe is the phrase!     Perspectives should make an effort at balance: otherwise we might talk about those who would secede from the secessionists...   

  2. joe mcelwee

    joe mcelwee said:

    Joe I asked how many catholics and protestants worked 0n the buiilding of the titanic! Instead, I got a history lessons. At one stage i understand that at one stage , out of 36000 workers some 400 were catholics-although the population of the city was roughly equal.

  3. joe Bloggs

    joe Bloggs said:

    This is an extremely well crafted piece of sectarian rubbish, written to justify a well entrenched bigotry which has been intermingled with fact to give it some "credence"

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Encyclopedia Titanica (2011) Harland & Wolff and the partition of Ulster (Titanica!, ref: #13643, published 3 September 2011, generated 19th November 2022 10:49:34 PM); URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/harland-and-wolff-and-the-partition-of-ulster.html