A day of pomp and pride - for the chosen few


WHEN THE magnificent RMS Titanicwas launched in Belfast on May 31st, 1911 – a century ago today – there was great rejoicing by her owners the White Star Line, by her builders Harland and Wolff, and by the population at large.

This was the second of the ultra-modern Olympic class liners built in Belfast to compete with rival company Cunard on the lucrative trans-Atlantic route.

They were “triple-screw” vessels, and the early designs were brilliantly refined by a team headed by Lord Pirrie’s brother-in-law Alexander Carlisle and his nephew Thomas Andrews, who perished with Titanic.

The day of Titanic’s launch was a cause for a double celebration, because the trail-blazing Olympic was also handed over to her White Star owners on that day.

Among those who looked on as Titanic moved gracefully down the slipway in Belfast Harbour were American entrepreneur JP Morgan, who had helped to finance the Olympic Class liners, J Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line and Lord Pirrie, the chairman of Harland and Wolff. While the ship’s passage into the water was aided by gravity, it was also greased by 23 tons of tallow, soft soap and oil, and it eased into the Victoria Channel in just 62 seconds.

The ceremony was watched by thousands, and proceeds from the sale of admission tickets were given to two children’s hospitals in Belfast.

There was a special stand for spectators, including White Star directors and their important guests, as well as Harland and Wolff white-collar staff. However, the blue-collar shipyardmen were not allowed to attend.

Rumours persisted that some of those who had built Titanicand had managed to attend the ceremony without permission, had their pay docked as a result.

The News Letterreported that “No-one doubted for a single moment that this huge vessel would take to the water without any trouble occurring . . . but they could hardly have anticipated that the scene presented would be so inspiring and impressive as it actually was.”

The launch of Titanicdemonstrated the immense pride of the people of Belfast in their achievements. It was carried out with great style, with Lord Pirrie masterminding the details.

A first rocket was fired at noon to warn the many thousands who had crowded into the harbour estate that the launch was imminent. A second rocket was fired a short time later to signify that the shipyard gates were about to close.

Then Pirrie, ever the showman, made a last inspection of the wooden props, in the company of the elegantly-dressed Ismay, who was to become one of the survivors of the stricken vessel.

At 12.15pm, a final rocket was fired, and Titanicslid into the water amid thunderous cheers. William MacQuitty, who was then only six years old, recalled watching the launch in his later book titled A Life To Remember. MacQuitty, who became a merchant banker and later the producer of the acclaimed Titanicfilm A Night To Remember, starring Kenneth More, recalled his sense of awe at the launch of the vessel.

He wrote: “All at once, the workers onboard gave a cheer in which the crowds on the shore joined. The slide had begun. Every ship in the Lough sounded its siren, the noise drowning the roar of the lines of restraining anchors as they were dragged along the ground.

“Slowly gathering speed, the Titanicmoved smoothly down the ways, and a minute later was plunging into the water and raising a huge wave. I felt a great lump in my throat, and an enormous pride in being an Ulsterman.”

It took nearly a year for the fitting-out to be completed in the gigantic Thompson Dock nearby. On April 2nd, 1912 when Titanicfinally left Belfast en route for Southampton, the News Letterreported: “The mammoth vessel presented an impressive and picturesque spectacle, looking perfect from keel to truck . . . and the latest triumph of the shipbuilders’ art then left for Southampton, carrying with her the best wishes of the citizens of Belfast.”

The Belfast Evening Telegraphwas more matter-of-fact, and carried only a grainy picture of Titanicamid billowing smoke. The newspaper conceded that following the vessel’s departure, “there will be a blank in Belfast harbour. These huge liners have been responsible for the circulation of hundreds of thousands of pounds, and we hope that similar orders will soon come to Harland and Wolff.”

Alf McCreary is the author of Titanic Port-The Illustrated History of Belfast Harbour, published by Booklink. Further details are available at titanicport.com