Sectarianism and the shipyard

The history of Harland and Wolff in many ways mirrored the history of Belfast, and the bitter divisions that took hold outside…

The history of Harland and Wolff in many ways mirrored the history of Belfast, and the bitter divisions that took hold outside its gates acted as a barrier to working-class solidarity, writes Kevin Johnson

WHEN ROBERT HICKSON offered the position of shipyard manager to 23-year-old Edward Harland, he had no reason to suppose that he was bringing to Belfast the man who would define, more than any other individual, the industrial future of Belfast.

Hickson had an ironworks in the Cromac area of Belfast, and established a yard building ships with the iron that he was finding difficulty getting rid of at a profit. He chose as his site the artificial island created from the spoil taken from the recently deepened channel into the new quays. It was known as Queen's Island, named in honour of the visit of Queen Victoria in 1849. His first manager, unfortunately, was a total incompetent. Hickson sacked him and put an advertisement in the papers.

Edward Harland arrived in Belfast in Christmas 1854. Son of a Scarborough doctor, he had gone against the wishes of his family to train as an engineer. His primary interest was the building of ships and he jumped at the chance of coming to Belfast.


His task was difficult, as the men were being paid above-average wages for below-average work. He cut wages and imposed a smoking ban. The men went on strike in protest. Undeterred, Harland went to Scotland and recruited skilled men from the Clyde. Past mismanagement was catching up with the firm, however, and creditors were demanding payment. Harland had to guarantee wages personally. Nevertheless, his determination prevailed. Men came back to work and he was able to appoint competent foremen. For the first time, the firm was making money.

The money wasn't enough for Hickson, however, whose creditors were still pressing. He offered to sell the yard to Harland for £5,000. This was a lot of money at the time, but Harland was able to raise it through the good offices of his "old and esteemed friend" GC Schwabe, a Liverpool businessman late of Hamburg. As part of the deal, Schwabe's nephew, Gustav Wolff, was to become Harland's personal assistant.

Harland had undertaken to complete Hickson's outstanding orders, but was able to obtain orders on his own account, again through the good offices of Schwabe. By 1859, pressure of work was increasing and he felt he needed a partner he could trust to supervise the firm while he was away soliciting orders. The man he chose was Gustav Wolff, and the firm of Harland Wolff was born.

FROM THE START, the firm was noted for its innovations. The partners tried to look at ships from the owners' point of view and made changes to design that allowed ships to travel further, carry larger cargoes, berth in smaller harbours, and require less maintenance than previously. When Schwabe introduced Wolff to Thomas Ismay, who had just bought the White Star Line, a new element came into their ship design.

Ismay had decided to work the North Atlantic trade. He would need new ships, and he came to a mutually beneficial agreement with Harland Wolff. They would build the ships at cost plus a fixed 4 per cent. To help Ismay raise the capital, both Harland and Wolff bought a substantial amount of shares in Ismay's company. The first White Star ship, Oceanic, was ordered in 1869. The last, Georgic, was in 1932. Throughout, they were characterised by speed, elegance and passenger comfort, so that even those passengers who travelled steerage class found ocean travel an enjoyable experience.

These developments were all taking place against the background of a divided town. One of the concessions that had been made to the Protestants of Ulster before Catholic emancipation could be granted was the Union of the Governments of Great Britain and Ireland. This meant that, even with full Catholic emancipation, Protestants would always be in a majority in any government. From the middle of the 19th century onwards, there was increasing pressure from Catholic politicians for a repeal of the Union. Protestants saw this was a threat to their freedoms, and opposed Repeal with all their vigour. When Daniel O'Connell visited the city, he required an RIC escort when he was leaving.

Protestants were confirmed in their fears by an increasingly triumphalist and confrontational Catholic clergy. Cardinal Paul Cullen declared that Protestants were not to be trusted, and claimed that he had never dined with one. Up until the 1840s, Catholics had formed a growing proportion of Belfast's population, peaking at roughly 36 per cent. This changed after the Famine, when a growing number of the newcomers to the town were rural Protestants, who brought with them what had previously been a mainly rural organisation, the Orange Order.

After a particularly violent summer in 1856, Rev Hugh Hanna preached a series of public sermons showing Catholics the errors of their ways. The violence went on into September. Every day, there were fights at the Custom House steps, and the group that protected Rev Hanna from the nationalist mob was made up of shipwrights from the yard, armed with staves. It was the first time that the shipyard men identified themselves with the cause that would typify them for the next century and a half, that of Protestant Ulster.

In 1864, there were more riots involving the shipyard workers. A group of Catholic navvies from the west of Ireland had been brought in to excavate new docks in the harbour. On August 15th, they attacked a national school in the Protestant district of Brown Square. Protestant workers from a nearby foundry spilled on to the streets to intervene. Fighting spread rapidly and there was shooting on both sides. The shipyard workers now appeared on the scene and attacked the Catholic Malvern Street National School. They then went to gun dealers in High Street and confiscated arms, while others went into hardware shops and took spades and shovels.

The following day, the shipyard workers returned to the town. This time, they went straight to the docks and attacked the navvies. Caught by surprise and unable to group together for defence, the latter were driven into the river and one was killed.

VIOLENCE OF THIS nature was regular in Belfast till the 1890s and the failure of Gladstone's second Home Rule Bill. In spite of this, the prosperity of the shipyard increased, as did the prosperity of most workers in Belfast. One reason was that the nature of Belfast's industries was such that both partners in a marriage could find work of a kind: the husband in one or other of the heavy industries that built up around the shipyards, the wife in one of the linen mills, which employed thousands of women.

There were different levels at the yard among the workers. At the top were the foremen. These were the men who, when times were hard, decided who among the unskilled would work and who wouldn't. By reputation, they weren't above taking a bribe, and were hated for it. Just below this, and almost as secure, were the skilled men, the riveters and carpenters and many other trades. Entry was by apprenticeship, and you could only be accepted by recommendation. This meant that trades stayed within families; it was a closed shop.

At the bottom were the semi-skilled and unskilled, looked down on by all. They were mostly employed casually, and were not even protected by trade unions, which existed in Belfast to protect the interests of skilled men.

Yet even the unskilled men saw themselves as privileged, better off than Catholics. Only twice did the downtrodden workers, Catholic and Protestant, come together to stand against their employers. In 1907, James Larkin held them together for a whole summer, before the call of sectarianism became too great. During the depression of the early 1930s, Protestant and Catholic unemployed managed to stand together for a time. Once again, sectarianism broke through in the end and working-class solidarity was deferred indefinitely.

The shipyard workers identified with a Protestant state for a Protestant people. In the 1920s, Catholic workers were expelled from the shipyards while the shipyard workers in turn became the target of nationalist gunmen. The violence of the unionist retaliation was such that it was an exacerbating factor in the troubles of 1969, when Catholics whose homes had been attacked when they were children found themselves being attacked again in what seemed a re-run of the 1920s pogroms.

It was inevitable that the Belfast shipyards would ultimately fail. The assumption that no government could afford to make thousands of Protestants redundant in the middle of the Troubles meant that there was no incentive to change their productivity or work practices. Foreign ownership simply created another barrier between workers and management.

For a while the decline was camouflaged by the size and innovation of some of the projects undertaken. Now the mighty cranes, Samson and Goliath, look down on the Titanic Quarter, as the yard that was becomes an entertainment centre. Although one of the cranes is kept in working order, it seems there is no going back. The giants have left Queen's Island.

Kevin Johnston is a teacher and freelance writer. His book In the Shadow of Giants: A Social History of the Belfast Shipyardsis published by Gill and Macmillan