by Frank Cox
In the early 20th century, Belfast was a vibrant, thriving industrial city. People streamed in from the surrounding counties in search of jobs in the linen mills, the shipyard and the countless spin-off industries they spawned.
Both the mills and the 'Yard' were labour intensive, with women workers dominant in the linen industry. The 'heavier' work of shipbuilding employed only men. The women in the mills – 'the Millies' as they were called – worked long, hard hours, too, at their machines, exposed to levels of noise that would not be tolerated today. Accidents were common and often fatal. The health and safety regulations that most of us enjoy today, were practically non-existent. They would have amounted to not much more than young workers relying heavily on the 'old hands' to advise them on the safe way to do things. The new and powerful technologies of electricity and hydraulics were not always fully understood, or respected, by the workers employed to use them. A severe injury to a hand or a limb might result in amputation. That, in turn could lead to loss of your job and your livelihood.
By 1910, Harland and Wolff were the world leaders in shipbuilding. They had a veritable army of 15,000 men employed in 'The Yard', the majority of whom lived in the maze of little, narrow streets of East Belfast. Their working day began at 6am every morning, except Sunday. Quitting time was 5.30pm, Monday to Friday and 1pm on Saturday. Large areas of East Belfast have been redeveloped and changed since then. Houses have been modernised and whole streets have gone. But the majority of the original streets remain, some of them displaying fine examples of that unique Belfast art form, the political wall mural.
Loyalist Mural in Ballymacarret
On Saturday afternoons, many of those workers would have made their way to 'The Oval', home of Glentoran FC, to shout and cheer on the 'Glens' – the shipyard team - especially when they played their arch rivals from across the city, Linfield FC. That night, in the pubs of East Belfast, they might meet up, to celebrate a win, or drown their sorrows if they lost. The game would be replayed endlessly and praise or blame apportioned, where due. The next day, Sunday was always quiet. A Protestant dominated city, Belfast practised strict observance of the Sabbath Day. All shops, public houses, factories, schools and even the public parks and playgrounds remained closed. The day was given over to honouring God by attending your chosen place of worship.
Samuel Scott was one such worker. He lived in Templemore Street, just off the Newtownards Road. The 1911 census records tell us his mother, Jane and six of her children , aged between 12 and 20 years old, were lodgers in 104 Templemore Street. Twelve people were crowded into the small, two-up, two-down house, as it was also the home of Samuel Foster (28) and his wife Annie (26) and their three young children. Annie Foster might well have been an older daughter of Jane Scott's. Two other daughters, whom we shall meet later, worked in the linen mills. As Presbyterians, they had all been reared with that strong work ethos their religion embraces. At 15 years old, her oldest son, Samuel, seemed to have the whole world at his feet, with a good paying job and a level of independence. Maybe he even harboured dreams of one day running out onto the grass at The Oval to play for 'The Glens'. (Why not? He was a 15 year old boy! From those same little streets of East Belfast, in the 1960s, came, arguably the greatest footballer of the 20th century – Georgie Best.) Samuel Scott had recently moved out of number 104 and taken lodgings, further along the same side of the street, in number 70. This was a common practice among the large families of the time, to ease the overcrowding. He was a 'catch-boy' with a riveting gang. The rivets were heated in a small furnace - a bucket of burning coals – by the 'bellow-boy', until they were white hot. Picked out of the fire with a pair of tongs, they were thrown high in the air, where the 'catch-boy' caught them with his tongs. He put them in the hole and the 'holder-on' drove them home with a sledge hammer. The 'holder-on' then held against them with his sledge, whilst two riveters on the other side of the steel plates, with special hammers , banged alternately to shape the rivet. As the little steel pins cooled, they contracted, pulling the plates tight together. Being were paid by the rivet, a gang who gelled well could make good money. A 'bellows-boy' who didn't heat the rivets enough, or a clumsy 'catch-boy' who missed them too often, would be quickly out of a job.
On the morning of Wednesday, April 20th 1910, young Samuel Scott left his lodgings at number 70 Templemore Street, in the Ballymacarret area of Belfast. He might have called into his Ma's for a minute. Maybe she had made him a 'piece' for his lunch, before he joined the throngs of other workers, heading for 'The Yard'. A light mist hung over the city that day, and it felt very cold in the breaking dawn. As thousands of men streamed out of the narrow streets of East Belfast, to converge on the bridge over to Queen's Island, the crunching of hob-nail boots on the cobbles, combined with the murmur of countless conversations and endless banter, would have grown ever louder. Samuel lined up with the other workers to collect his 'bourd' – a small rectangle of wood with his works number on it – at the timekeepers hatch. He then made his way to SS 401, the ship he was working on that day.
Some time that afternoon, Samuel Scott slipped off a ladder on the staging, high up the side of SS401 and fell to his death. At the inquest, two days later, witnesses were called in an effort to establish what happened. Nobody had actually seen Samuel fall, but one riveter gave evidence of seeing him lying, motionless and bleeding on the ground. His mother, Jane was called, but all she could add was that she had seen and spoken to him that morning, before he left for work. Dr Dixon, the coroner, gave evidence that Samuel Scott's death resulted 'from shock following fracture of the skull'. A year later, SS 401 was launched into Belfast Lough, amidst great fanfares and celebrations. She was to become the most famous ship ever built and that day she was given a name that befitted her enormous size - RMS Titanic.
Samuel Scott, the wee lad who was first to die on that ill-fated ship, lies buried in Belfast City Cemetery. In April, 2010, one hundred years after his death, I was, with kind assistance from the Parks and Leisure Department, able to locate and visit his grave. There was no marker to remember him by, just a plot of well-kept grass. I am delighted to say, that in August 2011, following efforts by a number of people and organisations in Belfast, this stone was erected to his memory. At last, recognition has been given to young Samuel, who not only built the ships, but also helped build the city of Belfast.
An extract from :In Titanic Times by Frank Cox
'A glimpse of some ordinary lives in an extraordinary time.'