New exhibition features unseen photographs of Titanic

Pictures capture image of ‘Downton Abbey at sea’

A new exhibition has been launched of the Titanic and its sister ship, the Olympic.

The never before publicly seen photographs capture a social image of "Downton Abbey at sea", according to William Blair of the National Museums of Northern Ireland.

A family album with pictures of the Titanic when it first came off the slipway at Harland and Wolff dockside in Belfast in May 2011 and when it first sailed out of Belfast on its ill-fated voyage in April 2012 has gone on display at the Ulster Transport Museum on the outskirts of Belfast.

The album containing 116 prints belonged to John W Kempster who was a director and master of ceremonies at Harland and Wolff at the time of the building of the Titanic and Olympic. Thirteen pictures relate to the Titanic.


Many of the pictures show Kempster and members of his family sailing to New York on the Olympic which was launched from Belfast in 1910. The Olympic was the same size as the Titanic, although the ship which sank in the early morning of April 15th, 1912 – with the loss of more than 1,500 passengers and crew – had some additional features.

The album is on loan to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in Cultra, Co Down from Englishman Steve Raffield who bought it at auction. It is an addition to the TITANICa exhibition running at the Transport Museum since 2011.

"This album allows us unparalleled access to previously unseen images of the Titanic and Olympic," said Mr Blair.

"One of the striking things about this album is that the photographs exude an excitement in Belfast on that momentous day of April 2nd, 1912. Family photographs from the Olympic's maiden voyage also give us a fascinating insight into how the passengers spent their days at sea," he added.

Mr Blair said the story of the Titanic always would be of interest. "The album captures a wonderful sense of social history. It reflects life at that time with all its class distinctions and social codes. It is almost Downton Abbey at sea. It is very evocative of an Edwardian age, that world before it was swept away with the cataclysm of the First World War," he added.

“As a story it seems to have everything,” said Mr Blair. “It has elements of Greek tragedy, hubris and nemesis. It has celebrity culture in the form of the first class passengers. It has a very compelling social history in terms of the third class, second class and first class passengers. It is almost a mythic tale, a huge symbol of disaster.”

While on display the album will be closed due to its sensitivity to light. Visitors to the museum however can view each photograph on a digital display.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times