The Mystery of March 22, 1909 and Titanic’s Keel-Blocks

When were Titanic's keel blocks laid.

Titanica!

The Mystery of March 22, 1909 and Titanic’s Keel-Blocks

Due to a Harland & Wolff record book1 that gives the date of Titanic’s keel being laid as March 22nd, 1909 as opposed to the generally accepted date of March 31st, 1909, there have evolved some theories as to what this date of March 22nd is in reference to. The theory that will be of focus here, is that this is the date in which Titanic’s keel-blocks2 were laid.

Let us look at the entry for Titanic as contained in the record book and dispose of at least one other theory first. This picture was taken by Mark Doherty and posted in the Facebook group ‘Titanic Tech’ on October 3, 2019.3

Document

The date of March 22nd can easily be read along with the description of ‘Keel laid – No. 3 slip’. One theory that has been put forward is that the ‘09’ written after the word ‘Mar’ is a correction stating that the date as written (the 22nd) is nine days off. Nine days past the 22nd would in fact be the 31st. However, the ‘09’ is clearly written as being an indicator of what year March falls in (1909) - which follows suit all the other year markers listed. Had it been a correction it would most likely have been written by the number 22 and not above the ‘Mar’, or simply the number 22 would have been crossed out and replaced. Plus, there would be no reason to put a zero in front of the nine.

With that, now let us look at the main theory of focus. To do this we will first look at what information we can gather for the Olympic’s keel-blocks being laid.

According to the National Gazette, as re-published in the Naval Institute Proceedings of 1908,4 Olympic’s keel-blocks were to be laid in September of that year with its launch being planned to take place two years later in September of 1910; which actually took place in October of that year. This article, however, also states that Olympic was to be driven by four propellers, two by quadruple reciprocating engines and two by turbines, which may draw into question its accuracy.

On the other hand, the Timber Trade Journal5 would publish on September 12, 1908, that the keel-blocks for Olympic were ‘laid in position at Belfast on Wednesday afternoon.’ September 12th was a Saturday, which puts Wednesday as being the ninth. This small article would also state that the keel-blocks for the sister ship were ‘expected to be laid early in January.’ The Railway News6, published on the same date as the last article, would state something similar, but place the keel-blocks that were ‘to support the stem’ of the Olympic being laid on Thursday, September 10th, the same date as the launching of the Laurentic. If Harland & Wolff had wanted to make a scene that day, by having a launch and the laying of the first keel-block, this date does not seem too farfetched.7 This article also points out that the name of the ‘latter’ vessel had yet to have ‘been decided upon.’

The article would also write of the progress of the slipways, “Piling operations are in rapid progress on both the new 1,000 ft. ships [sic], and when these are completed, each will be capable of bearing a deadweight of 75,000 tons.” The United Society of Boilermakers & Iron Shipbuilders would publish their September district reports in their October publication8, which included the report for the Belfast district. The writers of the report would include a ‘cutting from the press’ which read:

Messrs. Harland & Wolff have booked a gigantic shipbuilding order. The first steps were taken yesterday towards the building of two enormous White Star liners when the keel blocks were laid for the OLYMPIC, the first of the two twin vessels. Piling operations are in rapid progress on both of the one thousand feet slips, which when completed will be capable of bearing a dead weight of 75,000 tons...

They then finish their report stating, “The piling operations should be completed by the end of the year, when we hope to see a decided improvement all round and trade in a normal condition towards the spring next.” Unfortunately, there is no date attributed to the ‘cutting’, so it is hard to say as to what date ‘yesterday’ refers to. This does, however, seem to be of similar, if not the same information as relayed in the article from the Railway News which gives that article added credence.9

The fifth issue of the first volume of The Master, Mate and Pilot10, dated October 1908  says:

“A start has been made with the construction of the new 50,000 ton White Star Liner Olympic, the keel blocks being laid down on No. 2 new slip in North Yard, Belfast. Early in the new year a similar vessel to be named the Titanic, will be laid down in No. 3 berth.”

According to The Master, Mate and Pilot, it was published the 25th of every month.11 A slightly earlier publication, The Presbyterian Banner, dated October 15th, 190812, would state that, “The name of the second of the two great liners which are to be built for the White Star Line at Harland & Wolff’s yards, at Belfast, was officially announced a few days ago. It will be the Titanic.” It would also state that the, “…keel blocks for the first of these gigantic ships, the Olympic, were laid down at Belfast two weeks ago,” and that, “The keel blocks for the Titanic will be laid down early in January next.”

Two weeks before Thursday October 15th, 1908 was October 1st, or three weeks after the dates of September 9th and 10th. The vagueness of the ‘few days ago’ statement does not allow us to get a fixed date, as we do know that as early as April 25th, 190813 the press, though having little information as to the exact dimensions of the new White Star ships and while suspecting they were to be run by both turbines and reciprocating engines, knew the first ship was to be called Olympic, while ‘the name of the other’ though it had ‘not been definitely fixed’, it was speculated, ‘that the name’ was to ‘be the “Titanic”.’ Even as late as September 5th, 1908 it was known that, “One is to be called the ‘Olympic’; the name of the other is not yet decided upon, but will probably be the ‘Titanic.’14 Besides these predictions this author cannot find an exact date for the announcement of Titanic’s name, though it appears to have taken place between September 12th and October 15th, but closer to the latter.

The November 1908 edition of The American Marine Engineer15 would merely write that the White Star Line officially announced the name of the second great liner, that being Titanic. It would also state that, “The keel blocks for the first of these amazing ships, the Olympic, were laid down at Belfast a few weeks ago and work is now progressing on her. The keel blocks for the Titanic will be laid down early in January next.” Again the ‘few weeks ago’ statement does little to establish a timeline for Olympic’s keel-blocks, and the timeline we know of Olympic’s building (as will be discussed) does not match work being progressed on ‘her’ as early as November 1908.

It is here that we will look at what the Harland and Wolff record book has to say about the Olympic.

Document

It clearly reads the date for Olympic’s keel being laid as December 16th, 1908 which is the accepted date for this event. However, the ‘Marine Engineering’ of December 191016 reads, “The keel of the Olympic was laid on December 15, 1908, and framing was completed on November 20, 1909.” As one can see, the date of the Olympic being completely framed matches that of the record book. Further, ‘The Technical World Magazine’17 of March 1911, would read similarly, “From the time the keel was laid, December 15, 1908, to October 20, 1910, the date of the launching….” Again, the date of the launch matches that of the record book.

Overall this illustrates that even the date for the laying of Olympic’s keel is not always agreed upon in contemporary texts, however, this one-day difference can be explained away as mistakes by the writers - having been written sometime afterwards. What can be seen, if we accept that the keel-blocks were being laid as early as September 9th or 10th, is a 13 week 5 day (or a 96 day) period, which is just over 3 months, from the laying of the keel-blocks to the laying of the keel.

This would make some sense, for keel-blocks as they are described in the book ‘All About Ships’18, seem quite large and would require some time to lay down and position.19 They are described as below:

As soon as the laying off is well in hand, and the material begins to arrive, the blocks on which the vessel will be built are put in place. These blocks are very tough timber some four to six feet long, and are placed in piles at varying distances apart, according to the weight of the ship being built. They must be high enough to allow men to work underneath the ship’s bottom, and their tops slope towards the water’s edge in a gradient of half an inch in one foot, so that the ship may be easily launched when the time comes.

We have already seen a couple of sources that stated Titanic’s keel-blocks were expected to be laid in January of 1909. This is furthered by two more sources, the first being the Industrial World dated November 30, 190820, which states, “The keel blocks of a sister ship will be laid down in January.” The next source is from the 1908 publication of the Annual Report of the Lake Carriers’ Association21 which reads exactly the same except they put a date of 1909 after January.

Depending on when the keel-blocks were actually set in place in January, as this author has yet to find a specific date,22 this could easily give around a three to two month time period, which agrees with the timeframe for Olympic’s keel-blocks being set up as early as September 9th/10th to as late as October 1st - our last quasi date. Overall, the data shows that the date of March 22nd most certainly is not the date for the set up of Titanic’s keel-blocks, as the timeframe needed for this task seems to have been much broader.

Could it be that the date coordinates to that of the last keel block being put in place? It seems unlikely as the date for this specific event is not documented for the Olympic nor any other ship that this author is aware of in the record book. Plus, it would seem odd that the last keel block would be related to as ‘keel laid.’ The only plausible scenario that seems to allow for this, is if this is the date that the last keel block was laid and perhaps got mistaken for the date the keel was laid.23

So, what is the 22nd in reference to? Unfortunately, this author has no answer. When studying the record book though, one thing becomes strikingly obvious. The months listed for the Titanic are not in order, while - based on the limited material this author has seen, the months for other vessels are.24 The Olympic’s months are written in chronological order. Starting with 1908 they read July, Sept. and Dec. Then for 1909 it reads Feb., Mar., Apr., so on and so forth. As for Titanic, 1908 and 1910 read correctly, but the months for 1909 (which is merely labeled ‘09’, when the rest of the years are distinguished with a ‘19’ in front of them) reads Mar., Feb., May, Apr.

It is also clear that these records were done by several individuals, meaning the dates were entered separately. Below, are again, the pictures for the entries of both Olympic and Titanic with similar penmanship between the two (red, green and black), and two lines of similar penmanship on Titanic’s (blue) being highlighted.

Document

Document

What can also be seen between the penmanship of the word ‘Apr’, of the red and black circles of Titanic’s entry, is that this is the same writer. A hypothesis to what all this may imply, as far as Titanic’s entries are concerned, is that the entries for July and September of 1908 were filled in first. This was followed by the entry date for February. This was then probably followed by May, with April 20th being wedged in at possibly the same time April 6th, 1910 was written. At some point it was realized that there was no marking for when the keel was laid, so this was added into the last open spot for ‘09’ which would have been above February 26th.

Of course, this is merely a hypothesis that this author can provide no evidence to back up. It does however present at least an example as to why the dates for the Titanic are jumbled. Perhaps, since the two ships were being built simultaneously, better track was being kept of the Olympic, while Titanic fell to the wayside – at least for this document. If this is the case, what it may also imply is that this date of March 22nd, was just a clerical error, and the person who penned the date may have gotten the date (which, in this hypothesis, was written well after the fact) wrong - much like what may have occurred with the dates of the 15th for the laying of Olympic’s keel, as opposed to the excepted 16th.

Overall, though this author cannot verify what the date of March 22nd stands for, and why it is different from the excepted date of March 31st by nine days, this author hopes that the evidence presented here of the keel-blocks, and when they were set up, allows us to look beyond this theory in search of a resolution.

  1. Records held by the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland
  2. A modern recreation of Titanic’s keel blocks can be seen here and more can be found here.
  3. Photos used with kind permission from Mark Doherty.
  4. Volume 34 pg. 1090
  5. Volume 64 pg. 387
  6. Volume 90, pg. 498
  7. The launching of Titanic was coupled with the sailing from Belfast of the Olympic.
  8. No. 435 October, 1908 Pg. 49
  9. It is also possible that keel-blocks were set on both dates, with the first being done on the 9th, and the ones to support the stem, as stated, being done a day later.
  10. Pg. 163
  11. Pg. 162
  12. Volume 95 Pg. 4 (584)
  13. The Railway Times, Vol. 93 pg. 448
  14. The Railway News, Vol. 90 Pg. 451
  15. Page 29
  16. Volume 15 Pg. 495
  17. Volume 15 pg. 75
  18. Henry Dorling; 1912 Page 192
  19. See endnote 2.
  20. Page 1424
  21. Page 120
  22. This may call into question as to rather or not they were placed in January, but as of this writing there is no other source to contradict them being placed in January.
  23. So if the last keel-block was laid on the 22nd and was mistaken for the actual keel being laid nine days later.
  24. This author has only seen a small fraction of the entries. See comments on the Facebook post listed above for more pictures.

Relates to Place:

Belfast, Northern Ireland

Comment and discuss

Leave a comment

Citation

Encyclopedia Titanica (2020) The Mystery of March 22, 1909 and Titanic’s Keel-Blocks (Titanica!, ref: #95, published 16 January 2020, generated 28th June 2020 06:50:49 PM); URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-keel-blocks.html