If J Bruce Ismay, the White Star Line chairman, is held up as the antihero of the Titanic story, the undoubted hero is Thomas Andrews, chief naval architect, managing director of the design department at Harland and Wolff and the leader of the Guarantee Group.
At 39, Thomas Andrews had risen to these lofty heights in record time. Titanic was the first ship for which he was responsible from start to finish, having taken over the Olympic project from Alexander Carlisle when he left the company. As the nephew of the shipyard chairman, Lord Pirrie, he would have been seen as the natural successor to take control of the company on his uncle’s retirement.
His Early Years
Andrews came from a wealthy linen mill owning family in Comber, County Down about eight miles from Belfast. He was one of four boys, all of whom went on to excel in their chosen careers in politics, law and management. When he married Helen Reilly Barbour in June 1908, the couple moved to a town house in Belfast’s Windsor Avenue but it appears that Thomas’s heart lay in County Down as he would return at weekends to play cricket or sail on Strangford Lough. The couple had one daughter, Elizabeth Law Barbour Andrews, known as Elba. The 1911 census shows the family living comfortably at 12 Windsor Avenue with five live-in servants to attend them. Thomas Andrews lists his profession as “shipbuilder”
He was coming to the top of his game when the Olympic class liner deal was struck. Andrews had worked on the “big four” leading up to Olympic. The Celtic, Cedric, Baltic and Adriatic were seen as rehearsals for what Harland and Wolff were about to build. When Carlisle stepped aside as chief designer, reportedly in a fall-out with Lord Pirrie over the number of lifeboats which should be put on Olympic, Andrews took over.
Thomas Andrews took his wife to see Titanic as she neared completion in the deep water wharf. On seeing some of his workers, he is reported to have said to her, “There go my pals, Nellie.” Any account of Andrews as a manager and a boss portray him as a fair, concerned man who cared about his workers.
Andrews’ notebook about Olympic still exists and is in the collection of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum just outside Belfast. It was carried in his top pocket and was annotated as ideas, problems and solutions occurred to him. A similar notebook existed for Titanic’s construction but was still with him in his last hours aboard Titanic. Olympic’s notebook shows a diligent attention to detail which manifested itself so clearly when Andrews was called upon to assess the damage to Titanic after the collision with the iceberg.
The last time Andrews saw his Belfast home was on the morning of April 2nd 1912. He was picked up by a driver and a horse and carriage in the driveway of Windsor Avenue and taken to the shipyard where Titanic was to hold her sea trials before departing for Southampton that evening. Andrews probably thought he would see his wife and daughter in a matter of weeks. It was not to be.
Once Titanic departed, Thomas Andrews’ role was to head up the Harland and Wolff Guarantee Group, a specially selected group of men who were there to make a snag list. They represented the engineering and electrical departments and were joined by a group of young apprentices representing a range of skills. None of these men were to survive. On arrival in New York, Andrews would have been the official representative of the company.
Assessing the Damage
When Titanic hit the iceberg at 11.40pm on 14th April 1912, Andrews was dispatched below by Captain Smith to assess the extent of the damage and to calculate the ship’s fate. Knowing the ship as well as he did, it did not take him long to ascertain that the damage was fatal to the ship and that at most they had two and a half hours before sinking.
Amongst the last reported sightings of Thomas Andrews are that he was staring at a painting In the first class smoking room and when asked if he would make a try for a lifeboat place, he did not answer. Other accounts have him throwing deckchairs into the water. Whatever his last moments were, the phrase which echoed back was “heroic until death.” Those were the words used by his cousin, James Montgomery when he telegrammed back to the Andrews family from New York with the news of his loss.
A Hero from History
Was Andrews the hero that history has portrayed him as? His great nephew, John, often remarks that at 39 he had not yet had time to make his mistakes. In a world that needs heroes to define right and wrong, Thomas Andrews has been given the role whether it is wholly true or not. There is certainly no evidence to suggest anything other than strength of character and an adherence to the Andrews family motto, “Always Faithful”
Memorials and Reminders
There are memorials and reminders of Thomas Andrews which can be visited today. In his home town of Comber, a primary school has been named in his honour. Two years after his death, a memorial hall was erected across the road from the family mill. His young daughter attended the opening ceremony. Today, the hall has just undergone a restoration and is used as part of the school and as a community facility. The Andrews name is also the first on the role of honour at the Titanic Memorial at Belfast City Hall and on the Engineers’ Memorial in Southampton, England. There is also a brass plaque dedicated to him at the Ulster Reform Club in Royal Avenue in Belfast. At his old school, the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, the Belfast Titanic Society and the Andrews family have arranged for the restoration of a plaque commemorating Andrews and Titanic’s second class surgeon, Dr John Edward Simpson.