Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 163,364 pages of information and 245,906 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Men of Invention and Industry by Samuel Smiles: Shipbuilding in Belfast

From Graces Guide


"The useful arts are but reproductions or new combinations by the art of man, of the same natural benefactors. He no longer waits for favouring gales, but by means of steam he realises the fable of AEolus's bag, and carries the two-and-thirty winds in the boiler of his boat." —EMERSON.

"The most exquisite and the most expensive machinery is brought into play where operations on the most common materials are to be performed, because these are executed on the widest scale. This is the meaning of the vast and astonishing prevalence of machine work in this country: that the machine, with its million fingers, works for millions of purchasers, while in remote countries, where magnificence and savagery stand side by side, tens of thousands work for one. There Art labours for the rich alone; here she works for the poor no less. There the multitude produce only to give splendour and grace to the despot or the warrior, whose slaves they are, and whom they enrich; here the man who is powerful in the weapons of peace, capital, and machinery, uses them to give comfort and enjoyment to the public, whose servant he is, and thus becomes rich while he enriches others with his goods."— WILLIAM WHEWELL, D.D.

I was born at Scarborough in May, 1831, the sixth of a family of eight. My father was a native of Rosedale, half-way between Whitby and Pickering: his nurse was the sister of Captain Scoresby, celebrated as an Arctic explorer. Arrived at manhood, he studied medicine, graduated at Edinburgh, and practised in Scarborough until nearly his death in 1866. He was thrice Mayor and a Justice of the Peace for the borough. Dr. Harland was a man of much force of character, and displayed great originality in the treatment of disease. Besides exercising skill in his profession, he had a great love for mechanical pursuits. He spent his leisure time in inventions of many sorts; and, in conjunction with the late Sir George Cayley of Brompton, he kept an excellent mechanic constantly at work.

In 1827 he invented and patented a steam-carriage for running on common roads. Before the adoption of railways, the old stage coaches were found slow and insufficient for the traffic. A working model of the steam-coach was perfected, embracing a multitubular boiler for quickly raising high-pressure steam, with a revolving surface condenser for reducing the steam to water again, by means of its exposure to the cold draught of the atmosphere through the interstices of extremely thin laminations of copper plates. The entire machinery, placed under the bottom of the carriage, was borne on springs; the whole being of an elegant form. This model steam-carriage ascended with perfect ease the steepest roads. Its success was so complete that Dr. Harland designed a full-sized. carriage; but the demands upon his professional skill were so great that he was prevented going further than constructing the pair of engines, the wheels, and a part of the boiler, — all of which remnants I still preserve, as valuable links in the progress of steam locomotion.

Other branches of practical science such as electricity, magnetism, and chemical cultivation of the soil — received a share of his attention. He predicted that three or four powerful electric lamps would yet light a whole city. He was also convinced of the feasibility of an electric cable to New York, and calculated the probable cost. As an example to the neighbourhood, he successfully cultivated a tract of moor land, and overcame difficulties which before then were thought insurmountable.

When passing through Newcastle, while still a young man, on one of his journeys to the University at Edinburgh, and being desirous of witnessing the operations in a coal-mine, a friend recommended him to visit Killingworth pit, where he would find one George Stephenson, a most intelligent workman, in charge. My father was introduced to Mr. Stephenson accordingly; and after rambling over the underground workings, and observing the pumping and winding engines in full operation, a friendship was made, which afterwards proved of the greatest service to myself, by facilitating my being placed as a pupil at the great engineering works of Messrs. Robert Stephenson and Co., at Newcastle.

My mother was the daughter of Gawan Pierson, a landed proprietor of Goathland, near 1Zosedale. She, too, was surprisingly mechanical in her tastes; and assisted my father in preparing many of his plans, besides attaining considerable proficiency in drawing, painting, and modelling in wax. Toys in those days were poor, as well as very expensive to purchase. But the nursery soon became a little workshop under her directions; and the boys were usually engaged, one in making a cart, another in carving out a horse, and a third in cutting out a boat; while the girls were making harness, or sewing sails, or cutting out and making perfect dresses for their dolls — whose houses were completely furnished with everything, from the kitchen to the attic, all made at home.

It was in a house of such industry and mechanism that I was brought up. As a youth, I was slow at my lessons; preferring to watch and assist workmen when I had an opportunity of doing so, even with the certainty of having a thrashing from the schoolmaster for my neglect. Thus I got to know every workshop and every workman in the town. At any rate I picked up a smattering of a variety of trades, which afterwards proved of the greatest use to me. The chief of these was wooden shipbuilding, a branch of industry then extensively carried on by Messrs. William and Robert Tindall, the former of whom resided in London; he was one of the half-dozen great shipbuilders and owners who founded "Lloyd's." Splendid East Indiamen, of some 1,000 tons burden, were then built at Scarborough; and scarcely a timber was moulded, a plank bent, a spar lined off; or launching ship-ways laid, without my being present to witness them. And thus, in course of time, I was able to make for myself the neatest and fastest of model yachts.

At that time, I attended the Grammar School. Of the rudiments taught, I was fondest of drawing, geometry, and Euclid. Indeed, I went twice through the first two books of the latter before I was twelve years old. At this age I was sent to the Edinburgh Academy, my eldest brother William being then a medical student at the University. I remained at Edinburgh two years. My early progress in mathematics would have been lost in the classical training which was then insisted upon at the academy, but for my brother who was not only a good mathematician but an excellent mechanic. He took care to carry on my instruction in that branch of knowledge, as well as to teach me to make models of machines and buildings, in which he was himself proficient. I remember, in one of my journeys to Edinburgh, by coach from Darlington, that a gentleman expressed his wonder what a screw propeller could be like; for the screw, as a method of propulsion, was then being introduced. I pointed out to him the patent tail of a windmill by the roadside, and said, "It is just like that!"

In 1844 my mother died; and shortly after, my brother having become M.D., and obtained a prize gold medal, we returned to Scarborough. It was intended that he should assist my father; but he preferred going abroad for a few years. I may mention further, with relation to him, that after many years of scientific research and professional practice, he died at Hong Kong in 1858, when a public monument was erected to his memory, in what is known as the "Happy Valley."

I remained for a short time under the tuition of my old master. But as the time was rapidly approaching when I too must determine what I was "to be" in life. I had no hesitation in deciding to be an engineer, though my father wished me to be a barrister. But I kept constant to my resolution and eventually he succeeded, through his early acquaintance with George Stephenson, in gaining for me an entrance to the engineering works of Robert Stephenson and Co, at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. I started there as a pupil on my fifteenth birthday, for an apprenticeship of five years. I was to spend the first four years in the various workshops, and the last year in the drawing-office.

I was now in my element. The working hours, it is true, were very long, — being from six in the morning until 8.15 at night; excepting on Saturday, when we knocked off at four. However, all this gave me so much the more experience; and, taking advantage of it, I found that, when I had reached the age of eighteen, I was intrusted with the full charge of erecting one side of a locomotive. I had to accomplish the same amount of work as my mate on the other side, one Murray Playfair, a powerful, hard-working Scotchman. My strength and endurance were sometimes taxed to the utmost, and required the intervals of my labour to be spent in merely eating and sleeping.

I afterwards went through the machine-shops. I was fortunate enough to get charge of the best screw-cutting and brass-turning lathe in the shop; the former occupant, Jack Singleton, having just been promoted to a foreman's berth at the Messrs. Armstrong's factory. He afterwards became superintendent of all the hydraulic machinery of the Mersey Dock Trust at Liverpool. After my four years had been completed, I went into the drawing-office, to which I had looked forward with pleasure; and, having before practised lineal as well as free-hand drawing, I soon succeeded in getting good and difficult designs to work out, and eventually finished drawings of the engines. Indeed, on visiting the works many years after, one of these drawings was shown to me as a "specimen;" the person exhibiting it not knowing that it was my own work.

In the course of my occasional visits to Scarborough, my attention was drawn to the imperfect design of the lifeboats of the period; the frequent shipwrecks along the coast indicating the necessity for their improvement. After considerable deliberation, I matured a plan for a metal lifeboat, of a cylindrico-conical or chrysalis form, to be propelled by a screw at each end, turned by sixteen men inside, seated on water-ballast tanks; sufficient room being left at the ends inside for the accommodation of ten or twelve shipwrecked persons; while a mate near the bow, and the captain near the stern in charge of the rudder, were stationed in recesses in the deck about three feet deep. The whole apparatus was almost cylindrical, and watertight, save in the self-acting ventilators, which could only give access to the smallest portion of water. I considered that, if the lifeboat fully manned were launched into the roughest seas, or off the deck of a vessel, it would, even if turned on its back, immediately right itself, without any of the crew being disturbed from their positions, to which they were to have been strapped.

It happened that at this time (the summer of 1850) his Grace the late Duke of Northumberland, who had always taken a deep interest in the Lifeboat Institution, offered a prize of one hundred guineas for the best model and design of such a craft; so I determined to complete my plans and make a working model of my lifeboat. I came to the conclusion that the cylindrico-conical form, with the frames to be carried completely round and forming beams as well, and the two screws, one at each end, worked off the same power, by which one or other of them would always be immersed, were worth registering in the Patent Office. I therefore entered a caveat there; and continued working at my model in the evenings. I first made a wooden block model, on the scale of an inch to the foot. I had some difficulty in procuring sheets of copper thin enough, so that the model should draw only the correct amount of water; but at last I succeeded, through finding the man at Newcastle who had supplied my father with copper plates for his early road locomotive.

The model was only 32 inches in length, and 8 inches in beam and in order to fix all the internal fittings, of tanks, seats, crank handles, and pulleys, I had first to fit the shell plating, and then, by finally securing one strike of plates on, and then another, after all inside was complete, I at last finished for good the last outside plate. In executing the job, my early experience of all sorts of handiwork came serviceably to my aid. After many a whole night's work—for the evenings alone were not sufficient for the purpose — I at length completed my model; and triumphantly and confidently took it to sea in an open boat; and then cast it into the waves. The model either rode over them or passed through them; if it was sometimes rolled over, it righted itself at once, and resumed its proper attitude in the waters. After a considerable trial I found scarcely a trace of water inside. Such as had got there was merely through the joints in the sliding batches; though the ventilators were free to work during the experiments.

I completed the prescribed drawings and specifications, and sent them, together with the model, to Somerset House. Some 280 schemes of lifeboats were submitted for competition; but mine was not successful. I suspect that the extreme novelty of the arrangement deterred the adjudicators from awarding in its favour. Indeed, the scheme was so unprecedented, and so entirely out of the ordinary course of things, that there was no special mention made of it in the report afterwards published, and even the description there given was incorrect. The prize was awarded to Mr. James Beeching, of Great Yarmouth, whose plans were afterwards generally adopted by the Lifeboat Society. I have preserved my model just as it was; and some of its features have since been introduced with advantage into shipbuilding. [1]

The firm of Robert Stephenson. and Co. having contracted to build for the Government three large iron caissons for the Keyham Docks, and as these were very similar in construction to that of an ordinary iron ship, draughtsmen conversant with that class of work were specially engaged to superintend it. The manager, knowing my fondness for ships, placed me as his assistant at this new work. After I had mastered it, I endeavoured to introduce improvements, having observed certain defects in laying down the lines - I mean by the use of graduated curves cut out of thin wood. In lieu of this method, I contrived thin tapered laths of lancewood, and weights of a particular form, with steel claws and knife edges attached, so as to hold the lath tightly down to the paper, yet capable of being readily adjusted, so as to produce any form of curve, along which the pen could freely and continuously travel. This method proved very efficient, and it has since come into general use.

The Messrs. Stephenson were then also making marine engines, as well as large condensing pumping engines, and a large tubular bridge to be erected over the river Don. The splendid high-level bridge over the Tyne, of which Robert Stephenson was the engineer, was also in course of construction. With the opportunity of seeing these great works in progress, and of visiting, during my holidays and long evenings, most of the manufactories and mines in the neighbourhood of Newcastle, I could not fail to pick up considerable knowledge, and an acquaintance with a vast variety of trades. There were about thirty other pupils in the works at the same time with myself; some were there either through favour or idle fancy; but comparatively few gave their full attention to the work, and I have since heard nothing of them. Indeed, unless a young fellow takes a real interest in his work, and has a genuine love for it, the greatest advantages will prove of no avail whatever.

It was a good plan adopted at the works, to require the pupils to keep the same hours as the rest of the men, and, though they paid a premium on entering, to give them the same rate of wages as the rest of the lads. Mr. William Hutchinson, a contemporary of George Stephenson, was the managing partner. He was a person of great experience, and had the most thorough knowledge of men and materials, knowing well how to handle both to the best advantage. His son-in-law, Mr. William Weallans, was the head draughtsman, and very proficient, not only in quickness but in accuracy and finish. I found it of great advantage to have the benefit of the example and the training of these very clever men.

My five years apprenticeship was completed in May 1851, on my twentieth birthday. Having had but very little "black time," as it was called, beyond the half-yearly holiday for visiting my friends, and having only "slept in" twice during the five years, I was at once entered on the books as a journeyman, on the "big" wage of twenty shillings a week. Orders were, however, at that time very difficult to be had. Railway trucks, and even navvies' barrows, were contracted for in order to keep the men employed. It was better not to discharge them, and to find something for them to do. At the same time it was not very encouraging for me, under such circumstances, to remain with the firm. I therefore soon arranged to leave; and first of all I went to see London. It was the Great Exhibition year of 1851. I need scarcely say what a rich feast I found there, and how thoroughly I enjoyed it all. I spent about two months in inspecting the works of art and mechanics in the Exhibition, to my own great advantage. I then returned home; and, after remaining in Scarborough for a short time, I proceeded to Glasgow with a letter of introduction to Messrs. J. and G. Thomson, marine engine builders, who started me on the same wages which I had received at Stephenson's, namely twenty shillings a-week.

I found the banks of the Clyde splendid ground for gaining further mechanical knowledge. There were the ship and engine works on both sides of the river, down to Govan; and below there, at Renfrew, Dumbarton, Port Glasgow, and Greenock — no end of magnificent yards — so that I had plenty of occupation for my leisure time on Saturday afternoons. The works of Messrs. Robert Napier and Sons were then at the top of the tree. The largest Cunard steamers were built and engined there. Tod and Macgregor were the foremost in screw steamships — those for the Peninsular and Oriental Company being splendid models of symmetry and works of art. Some of the fine wooden paddle-steamers built in Bristol for the Royal Mail Company were sent round to the Clyde for their machinery. I contrived to board all these ships from time to time, so as to become well acquainted with their respective merits and peculiarites.

As an illustration of how contrivances, excellent in principle, but defective in construction, may be discarded, but again taken up under more favourable circumstances, I may mention that I saw a Hall's patent surface condensor thrown to one side from one of these steamers, the principal difficulty being in keeping it tight. And yet, in the course of a very few years, by the simplest possible contrivance — inserting an India rubber ring round each end of the tube (Spencer's patent) — surface condensation in marine engines came into vogue; and there is probably no ocean-going steamer afloat without it, furnished with every variety of suitable packings.

After some time, the Messrs. Thomson determined to build their own vessels, and an experienced naval draughtsman was engaged, to whom I was "told off" whenever he needed assistance. In the course of time more and more of the ship work came in my way. Indeed, I seemed to obtain the preference. Fortunately for us both, my superior obtained an appointment of a similar kind on the Tyne, at superior pay, and I was promoted to his place. The Thomsons had now a very fine shipbuilding-yard, in full working order, with several large steamers on the stocks. I was placed in the drawing-office as head draughts-man. At the same time I had no rise of wages but still went on enjoying my twenty shillings a week. I was however, gaining information and experience, and knew that better pay would follow in due course of time. And without solicitation I was eventually offered an engagement for a term of years, at an increased and increasing salary, with three months' notice on either side.

I had only enjoyed the advance for a short time, when Mr. Thomas Toward, a shipbuilder on the Tyne, being in want of a manager, made application to the Messrs. Stephenson for such a person: They mentioned my name, and Mr. Toward came over to the Clyde to see me. The result was, that I became engaged, and it was arranged that I should enter on my enlarged duties on the Tyne in the autumn of 1853. It was with no small reluctance that I left the Messrs. Thomson. They were first-class practical men, and had throughout shown me every kindness and consideration. But a managership was not to be had every day; and being the next step to the position of a master, I could not neglect the opportunity for advancement which now offered itself.

Before leaving Glasgow, however, I found that it would be necessary to have a new angle and plate furnace provided for the works on the Tyne. Now, the best man in Glasgow for building these important requisites for shipbuilding work was scarcely ever sober; but by watching and coaxing him, and by a liberal supply of Glenlivat afterwards, I contrived to lay down on paper, from his directions, what he considered to be the best class of furnace; and by the aid of this I was afterwards enabled to construct what proved to be the best furnace on the Tyne.

To return to my education in shipbuilding. My early efforts in ship-draughting at Stephensons' were further developed and matured at Thomsons' on the Clyde. Models and drawings were more carefully worked out on the 1/4-in. scale than heretofore. The stern frames were laid off and put up at once correctly, which before had been first shaped by full-sized wooden moulds. I also contrived a mode of quickly and correctly laying off the frame-lines on a model, by laying it on a plane surface, and then, with a rectangular block traversing it — a pencil in a suitable holder being readily applied over the curved surface. This method is now in general use.

Even at that time, competition as regards speed in the Clyde steamers was very keen. Foremost among the competitors was the late Mr. David Hutchinson, who, though delighted with the Mountaineer, built by the Thomsons in 1853, did not hesitate to have her lengthened forward to make her sharper, so as to secure her ascendency in speed during the ensuing season. The results were satisfactory; and his steamers grew and grew, until they developed into the celebrated Iona and Cambria, which were in later years built for him by the same firm. I may mention that the Cunard screw steamer Jura was the last heavy job with which I was connected while at Thomsons'.

I then proceeded to the Tyne, to superintend the building of ships and marine boilers. The shipbuilding yard was at St. Peter's, about two and a-half miles below Newcastle. I found the work, as practised there, rough and ready; but by steady attention to all the details, and by careful inspection when passing the "piece-work" (a practice much in vogue there, but which I discouraged), I contrived to raise the standard of excellence, without a corresponding increase of price. My object was to raise the quality of the work turned out; and, as we had orders from the Russian Government, from China, and the Continent, as well as from shipowners at home, I observed that quality was a very important element in all commercial success. My master, Mr. Thomas Toward, was in declining health; and, being desirous of spending his winters abroad, I was consequently left in full charge of the works. But as there did not appear to be a satisfactory prospect, under the circumstances, for any material development of the business, a trifling circumstance arose, which again changed the course of my career.

An advertisement appeared in the papers for a manager to conduct a shipbuilding yard in Belfast. I made inquiries as to the situation, and eventually applied for it. I was appointed, and entered upon my duties there at Christmas, 1854. The yard was a much larger one than that on the Tyne, and was capable of great expansion. It was situated on what was then well known as the Queen's Island; but now, like the Isle of Dogs, it has been attached by reclamation. The yard, about four acres in extent, was held by lease from the Belfast Harbour Commissioners. It was well placed, alongside a fine patent slip, with clear frontage, allowing of the largest ships being freely launched. Indeed, the first ship built there, the Mary Stenhouse, had only just been completed and launched by Messrs. Robert Hickson and Co., then the proprietors of the undertaking. They were also the owners of the Eliza Street Iron Works, Belfast, which were started to work up old iron materials. But as the works were found to be unremunerative, they were shortly afterwards closed.

On my entering the shipbuilding yard I found that the firm had an order for two large sailing ships. One of these was partly in frame; and I at once tackled with it and the men. Mr. Hickson, the acting partner, not being practically acquainted with the business, the whole proceeding connected with the building of the ships devolved upon me. I had been engaged to supersede a manager summarily dismissed. Although he had not given satisfaction to his employers, he was a great favourite with the men. Accordingly, my appearance as manager in his stead was not very agreeable to the employed. On inquiry I found that the rate of wages paid was above the usual value, whilst the quantity as well as quality of the work done were below the standard. I proceeded to rectify these defects, by paying the ordinary rate of wages, and then by raising the quality of the work done. I was met by the usual method — a strike. The men turned out. They were abetted by the former manager; and the leading hands hung about the town unemployed, in the hope of my throwing up the post in disgust.

But, nothing daunted, I went repeatedly over to the Clyde for the purpose of enlisting fresh hands. When I brought them over, however, in batches, there was the greatest difficulty in inducing them to work. They were intimidated, or enticed, or feasted, and sent home again. The late manager had also taken a yard on the other side of the river, and actually commenced to build a ship, employing some of his old comrades; but beyond laying the keel, little more was ever done. A few months after my arrival, my firm had to arrange with its creditors, whilst I, pending the settlement, had myself to guarantee the wages to a few of the leading hands, whom I had only just succeeded in gathering together. In this dilemma, an old friend, a foreman on the Clyde, came over to Belfast to see me. After hearing my story, and considering the difficulties I had to encounter, he advised me at once to "throw up the job!" My reply was, that "having mounted a restive horse, I would ride him into the stable."

Notwithstanding the advice of my friend, I held on. The comparatively few men in the works, as well as those out, no doubt observed my determination. The obstacles were no doubt great; the financial difficulties were extreme; and yet there was a prospect of profit from the work in hand, provided only the men could be induced to settle steadily down to their ordinary employment. I gradually gathered together a number of steady workmen, and appointed suitable foremen. I obtained a considerable accession of strength from Newcastle. On the death of Mr. Toward, his head foreman, Mr. William Hanston, with a number of the leading hands, joined me. From that time forward the works went on apace; and we finished the ships in hand to the perfect satisfaction of the owners.

Orders were obtained for several large sailing ships as well as screw vessels. We lifted and repaired wrecked ships, to the material advantage of Mr. Hickson, then the sole representative of the firm. After three years thus engaged, I resolved to start somewhere as a shipbuilder on my own account. I made inquiries at Garston, Birkenhead, and other places. When Mr. Hickson heard of my intentions, he said he had no wish to carry on the concern after I left, and made a satisfactory proposal for the sale to me of his holding of the Queen's Island Yard. So I agreed to the proposed arrangement. The transfer and the purchase were soon completed, through the kind assistance of my old and esteemed friend Mr. G. C. Schwabe, of Liverpool; whose nephew, Mr. G. W. Wolff, had been with me for a few months as my private assistant.

It was necessary, however, before commencing for myself, that I should assist Mr. Hickson in finishing off the remaining vessels in hand, as well as to look out for orders on my own account. Fortunately, I had not long to wait; for it had so happened that my introduction to the Messrs. Thomson of Glasgow had been made through the instrumentality of my good friend Mr. Schwabe, who induced Mr. James Bibby (of J. Bibby, Sons and Co, Liverpool) to furnish me with the necessary letter. While in Glasgow, I had endeavoured to assist the Messrs. Bibby in the purchase of a steamer; so I was now intrusted by them with the building of three screw steamers — the Venetian, Sicilian, and Syrian, each 270 feet long, by 34 feet beam, and 22 feet 9 inches hold; and contracted with Macnab and Co, Greenock, to supply the requisite steam-engines.

This was considered a large order in those days. It required many additions to the machinery, plant, and tools of the yard. I invited Mr. Wolff, then away in the Mediterranean as engineer of a steamer, to return and take charge of the drawing office. Mr. Wolff had served his apprenticeship with Messrs. Joseph Whitworth and Co., of Manchester, and was a most able man, thoroughly competent for the work. Everything went on prosperously; and, in the midst of all my engagements, I found time to woo and win the hand of Miss Rosa Wann, of Wilmont, Belfast, to whom I was married on the 26th of January, 1860, and by her great energy, soundness of judgment, and cleverness in organization, I was soon relieved from all sources of care and anxiety, excepting those connected with business.

The steamers were completed in the course of the following year, doubtless to the satisfaction of the owners, for their delivery was immediately followed by an order for two larger vessels. As I required frequently to go from home, and as the works must be carefully attended to during my absence, on the 1st of January, 1862, I took Mr. Wolff in as a partner; and the firm has since continued under the name of Harland and Wolff. I may here add that I have throughout received the most able advice and assistance from my excellent friend and partner, and that we have together been enabled to found an entirely new branch of industry in Belfast.

It is necessary for me here to refer back a little to a screw steamer which was built on the Clyde for Bibby and Co. by Mr. John Read, and engined by J. and G. Thomson while I was with them. That steamer was called the Tiber. She was looked upon as of an extreme length, being 235 feet, in proportion to her beam, which was 29 feet. Serious misgivings were thrown out as to whether she would ever stand a heavy sea. Vessels of such proportions were thought to be crank, and even dangerous. Nevertheless, she seemed to my mind a great success. From that time, I began to think and work out the advantages and disadvantages of such a vessel, from an owner's as well as from a builder's point of view. The result was greatly in favour of the owner, though entailing difficulties in construction as regards the builder. These difficulties, however, I thought might easily be overcome.

In the first steamers ordered of me by the Messrs. Bibby, I thought it more prudent to simply build to the dimensions furnished, although they were even longer than usual. But, prior to the precise dimensions being fixed for the second order, I with confidence proposed my theory of the greater carrying power and accommodation, both for cargo and passengers, that would be gained by constructing the new vessels of increased length, without any increase of beam. I conceived that they would show improved qualities in a sea-way, and that, notwithstanding the increased accommodation, the same speed with the same power would be obtained, by only a slight increase in the first cost. The result was, that I was allowed to settle the dimensions; and the following were then decided on: Length, 310 feet; beam, 34 feet; depth of hold, 24 feet 9 inches; all of which were fully compensated for by making the upper deck entirely of iron.

In this way, the hull of the ship was converted into a box girder of immensely increased strength, and was, I believe, the first ocean steamer ever so constructed. The rig too was unique. The four masts were made in one continuous length, with fore-and-aft sails, but no yards, — thereby reducing the number of hands necessary to work them. And the steam winches were so arranged as to be serviceable for all the heavy hauls, as well as for the rapid handling of the cargo.

In the introduction of so many novelties, I was well supported by Mr. F. Leyland, the junior partner of Messrs. Bibby's firm, and by the intelligent and practical experience of Captain Birch, the overlooker, and Captain George Wakeham, the Commodore of the company. Unsuccessful attempts had been made many years before to condense the steam from the engines by passing it into variously formed chambers, tubes, &c., to be there condensed by surfaces kept cold by the circulation of sea-water round them, so as to preserve the pure water and return it to the boilers free of salt. In this way, "salting up" was avoided, and a considerable saving of fuel and expenses in repairs was effected. Mr. Spencer had patented an improvement on Hall's method of surface condensation, by introducing India rubber rings at each end of the tubes. This had been tried as an experiment on shore, and we advised that it should be adopted in one of Messrs. Bibby's smallest steamers, the Frankfont. The results were found perfectly satisfactory. Some 20 per cent. of fuel was saved; and, after the patent right had been bought, the method was adopted in all the vessels of the company.

When these new ships were first seen at Liverpool, the "old salts" held up their hands. They were too long! they were too sharp! they would break their backs! They might, indeed, get out of the Mersey, but they would never get back! The ships, however, sailed; and they made rapid and prosperous voyages to and from the Mediterranean. They fulfilled all the promises which had been made. They proved the advantages of our new build of ships; and the owners were perfectly satisfied with their superior strength, speed, and accommodation. The Bibbys were wise men in their day and generation. They did not stop, but went on ordering more ships. After the Grecian and the Italian had made two or three voyages to Alexandria, they sent us an order for three more vessels By our advice, they were made twenty feet longer than the previous ones, though of no greater beam; in other respects, they were almost identical. This was too much for "Jack." "What!" he exclaimed, "more Bibby's coffins" Yes, more and more; and in the course of time, most shipowners followed our example.

To a young firm, a repetition of orders like these was a great advantage, — not only because of the novel design of the ships, but also because of their constructive details. We did our best to fit up the Egyptian, Dalmatian, and Arabian, as first-rate vessels. Those engaged in the Mediterranean trade finding them to be serious rivals, partly because of the great cargos which they carried, but principally from the regularity with which they made their voyages with such surprisingly small consumption of coal. They were not, however, what "Jack " had been accustomed to consider "dry ships." The ship built Dutchman fashion, with her bluff ends, is the driest of all ships, but the least steady, because she rises to every sea. But the new ships, because of their length and sharpness, precluded this; for, though they rose sufficiently to an approaching wave for all purposes of safety, they often went through the crest of it, and, though shipping a little water, it was not only easier for the vessel, but the shortest road.

Nature seems to have furnished us with the finest design for a vessel in the form of the fish: it presents such fine lines — is so clean, so true, and so rapid in its movements. The ship, however, must float; and to hit upon the happy medium of velocity and stability seems to me the art and mystery of shipbuilding. In order to give large carrying capacity, we gave flatness of bottom and squareness of bilge. This became known in Liverpool as the "Belfast bottom;" and it has been generally adopted. This form not only serves to give stability, but also increases the carrying power without lessening the speed.

While Sailor Jack and our many commercial rivals stood aghast and wondered, our friends gave us yet another order for a still longer ship, with still the same beam and power. The vessel was named the Persian; she was 360 feet long, 34 feet beam, 24 feet 9 inches hold. More cargo was thus carried, at higher speed. It was only a further development of the fish form of structure. Venice was an important port to call at. The channel was difficult to navigate, and the Venetian class (270 feet long) was supposed to be the extreme length that could be handled there. But what with the straight stem, — by cutting the forefoot away, and by the introduction of powerful steering-gear, worked amidships, the captain was able to navigate the Persian, 90 feet longer than the Venetian, with much less anxiety and inconvenience.

Until the building of the Persian, we had taken great pride in the modelling and finish of the old style of cutwater and figurehead, with bowsprit and jib-boom; but in urging the advantages of greater length of hull, we were met by the fact of its being simply impossible in certain docks to swing vessels of any greater length than those already constructed. Not to be beaten, we proposed to do away with all these overhanging encumbrances, and to adopt a perpendicular stem. In this way the hull might be made so much longer; and this was, I believe, the first occasion of its being adopted in this country in the case of an ocean steamer; though the once celebrated Collins Line of paddle steamers had, I believe, such stems. The iron decks, iron bulwarks, and iron rails, were all found very serviceable in our later vessels, there being no leaking, no caulking of deck-planks or waterways, nor any consequent damaging of cargo. Having found it impossible to combine satisfactorily wood with iron, each being so differently affected by temperature and moisture, I secured some of these novelties of construction in a patent, by which filling in the spaces between frames, &c., with Portland cement, instead of chocks of wood, and covering the iron plates with cement and tiles, came into practice, and this has since come into very general use.

The Tiber, already referred to, was 235 feet in length when first constructed by Read, of Glasgow, and was then thought too long; but she was now placed in our hands to be lengthened 39 feet, as well as to have an iron deck added, both of which greatly improved her. We also lengthened the Messrs. Bibby's Calpe — also built by Messrs. Thomson while I was there by no less than 93 feet. The advantage of lengthening ships, retaining the same beam and power, having become generally recognised, we were intrusted by the Cunard Company to lengthen the Heck, Olympus, Atlas, and Marathon, each by 63 feet. The Royal Consort P.S., which had been lengthened first at Liverpool, was again lengthened by us at Belfast.

The success of all this heavy work, executed for successful owners, put a sort of backbone into the Belfast shipbuilding yard. While other concerns were slack, we were either lengthening or building steamers as well as sailing-ships for firms in Liverpool, London, and Belfast. Many acres of ground were added to the works. The Harbour Commissioners had now made a fine new graving-dock, and connected the Queen's Island with the mainland. The yard, thus improved and extended, was surveyed by the Admiralty, and placed on the first-class list. We afterwards built for the Government the gun vessels Lynx and Algerine, as well as the store and torpedo ship Hecla, of 3,360 tons.

The Suez Canal being now open, our friends the Messrs. Bibby gave us an order for three steamers of very large tonnage, capable of being adapted for trade with the antipodes if necessary. In these new vessels there was no retrograde step as regards length, for they were 390 feet keel by 37 feet beam, square-rigged on three of the masts, with the yards for the first time fitted on travellers, as to enable them to be readily sent down; thus forming a unique combination of big fore-and-aft sails, with handy square sails. These ships were named the Istrian, Iberian, and Illyrian, and in 1868 they went to sea; soon after to be followed by three more ships — the Bavarian, Bohemian, and Bulgarian — in most respects the same, though ten feet longer, with the same beam. They were first placed in the Mediterranean trade, but were afterwards transferred to the Liverpool and Boston trade, for cattle and emigrants. These, with three smaller steamers for the Spanish cattle trade, and two larger steamers for other trades, made together twenty steam-vessels constructed for the Messrs. James Bibby & Co.'s firm; and it was a matter of congratulation that, after a great deal of heavy and constant work, not one of them had exhibited the slightest indication of weakness, — all continuing in first-rate working order.

The speedy and economic working of the Belfast steamers, compared with those of the ordinary type, having now become well known, a scheme was set on foot in 1869 for employing similar vessels, though of larger size, for passenger and goods accommodation between England and America. Mr. T. H. Ismay, of Liverpool, the spirited ship-owner, then formed, in conjunction with the late Mr. G. H. Fletcher, the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, Limited; and we were commissioned by them to build six large Transatlantic steamers, capable of carrying a heavy cargo of goods, as well as a full complement of cabin and steerage passengers, between Liverpool and New York, at a speed equal, if not superior, to that of the Cunard and Inman lines. The vessels were to be longer than any we had yet constructed, being 400 feet keel and 41 feet beam, with 32 feet hold.

This was a great opportunity, and we eagerly embraced it. The works were now up to the mark in point of extent and appliances. The men in our employment were mostly of our own training: the foremen had been promoted from the ranks; the manager, Mr. W. A. Wilson, and the head draughtsman, Mr. W. J. Perrie (since become partners), having, as pupils, worked up through all the departments, and ultimately won their honourable and responsible positions by dint of merit only — by character, perseverance, and ability. We were therefore in a position to take up an important contract of this kind, and to work it out with heart and soul.

As everything in the way of saving of fuel was of first-rate importance, we devoted ourselves to that branch of economic working. It was necessary that buoyancy or space should be left for cargo, at the same time that increased speed should be secured, with as little consumption of coal as possible. The Messrs. Elder and Co., of Glasgow, had made great strides in this direction with the paddle steam-engines which they had constructed for the Pacific Company on the compound principle. They had also introduced them on some of their screw steamers, with more or less success. Others were trying the same principle in various forms, by the use of high-pressure cylinders, and so on; the form of the boilers being varied according to circumstances, for the proper economy of fuel. The first thing absolutely wanted was, perfectly reliable information as to the actual state of the compound engine and boiler up to the date of our inquiry. To ascertain the facts by experience, we dispatched Mr. Alexander Wilson, younger brother of the manager who had been formerly a pupil of Messrs. Macnab and Co., of Greenock, and was thoroughly able for the work — to make a number of voyages in steam vessels fitted with the best examples of compound engines.

The result of this careful inquiry was the design of the machinery and boilers of the Oceanic and five sister-ships. They were constructed on the vertical overhead "tandem" type, with five-feet stroke (at that time thought excessive), oval single-ended transverse boilers, with a working pressure of sixty pounds. We contracted with Messrs. Maudslay, Sons, and Field, of London, for three of these sets, and with Messrs. George Forrester and Co., of Liverpool, for the other three; and as we found we could build the six vessels in the same time as the machinery was being constructed; and, as all this machinery had to be conveyed to Belfast to be there fitted on board, whilst the vessels were being otherwise finished, we built a little screw-steamer, the Camel, of extra strength, with very big hatchways, to receive these large masses of iron; and this, in course of time, was found to work with great advantage; until eventually we constructed our own machinery.

We were most fortunate in the type of engine we had fixed upon, for it proved both economical and serviceable in all ways; and, with but slight modifications, we repeated it in the many subsequent vessels which we built for the White Star Company. Another feature of novelty in these vessels consisted in placing the first-class accommodation amidships, with the third-class aft and forward. In all previous ocean steamers, the cabin passengers had been berthed near the stern, where the heaving motion of the vessel was far greater than in the centre, and where that most disagreeable vibration inseparable from proximity to the propeller was ever present. The unappetising smells from the galley were also avoided. And last, but not least, a commodious smoking-saloon was fitted up amidships, contrasting most favourably with the scanty accommodation provided in other vessels. The saloon, too, presented the novelty of extending the full width of the vessel, and was lighted from each side. Electric bells were for the first time fitted on board ship. The saloon and entire range of cabins were lighted by gas, made on board, though this has since given place to the incandescent electric light. A fine promenade deck was provided over the saloon, which was accessible from below in all weathers by the grand staircase.

These, and other arrangements, greatly promoted the comfort and convenience of the cabin passengers; while those in the steerage found great improvements in convenience, sanitation, and accommodation. "Jack" had his forecastle well ventilated and lighted, and a turtle-back over his head. when on deck, with winches to haul for him, and a steam-engine to work the wheel; while the engineers and firemen berthed as near their work as possible, never needing to wet a jacket or miss a meal. In short, for the first time perhaps, ocean-voyaging, even in the North Atlantic, was made not only less tedious and dreadful to all, but was rendered enjoyable and even delightful to many. Before the Oceanic, the pioneer of the new line, was even launched, rival companies had already consigned her to the deepest place in the ocean. Her first appearance in Liverpool was therefore regarded with much interest. Mr. Ismay, during the construction of the vessel, took every pains to suggest improvements and arrangements with a view to the comfort and convenience of the travelling public. He accompanied the vessel on her first voyage to New York in March, 1871, under command of Captain, now Sir Digby Murray, Brt. Although severe weather was experienced, the ship made a splendid voyage, with a heavy cargo of goods and passengers. The Oceanic thus started the Transatlantic traffic of the Company, with the house-flag of the White Star proudly flying on the main.

It may be mentioned that the speed of the Oceanic was at least a knot faster per hour than had been heretofore accomplished across the Atlantic. The motion of the vessel was easy, without any indication of weakness or straining, even in the heaviest weather. The only inducement to slow was when going head to it (which often meant head through it), to avoid the inconvenience of shipping a heavy body of "green sea" deck forward. A turtle-back was therefore provided to throw it off, which proved so satisfactory, as it had done on the Holyhead and Kingston boats, that all the subsequent vessels were similarly constructed. Thus, then, as with the machinery, so was the hull of the Oceanic, a type of the succeeding vessels, which after intervals of a few months took up their stations on the Transatlantic line.

Having often observed, when at sea in heavy weather, how the pitching of the vessel caused the weights on the safety-valves to act irregularly, thus letting puffs of steam escape at every heave, and as high pressure steam was too valuable a commodity to be so wasted, we determined to try direct-acting spiral springs, similar to those used in locomotives in connection with the compound engine. But as no such experiment was possible in any vessels requiring the Board of Trade certificate, the alternative of using the Camel as an experimental vessel was adopted. The spiral springs were accordingly fitted upon the boiler of that vessel, and with such a satisfactory result that the Board of Trade allowed the use of the same contrivance on all the boilers of the Oceanic and every subsequent steamer, and the contrivance has now come into general use.

It would be too tedious to mention in detail the other ships built for the White Star line. The Adriatic and Baltic were made 37 feet 6 inches longer than the Oceanic, and a little sharper, being 437 feet 6 inches keel, 41 feet beam, and 32 feet hold. The success of the Company had been so great under the able management of Ismay, Imrie and Co., and they had secured so large a share of the passengers and cargo, as well as of the mails passing between Liverpool and New York, that it was found necessary to build two still larger and faster vessels — the Britannic and Germanic: these were 455 feet in length; 45 feet in beam; and of 5,000 indicated horse-power. The Britannic was in the first instance constructed with the propeller fitted to work below the line of keel when in deep water, by which means the "racing" of the engines was avoided. When approaching shallow water, the propeller was raised by steam-power to the ordinary position without any necessity for stopping the engines during the operation. Although there was an increase of speed by this means through the uniform revolutions of the machinery in the heaviest sea, yet there was an objectionable amount of vibration at certain parts of the vessel, so that we found it necessary to return to the ordinary fixed propeller, working in the line of direction of the vessel. Comfort at sea is of even more importance than speed; and although we had succeeded in four small steamers working on the new principle, it was found better to continue in the larger ships to resort to the established modes of propulsion. It may happen that at some future period the new method may yet be adopted with complete success.

Meanwhile competition went on with other companies. Monopoly cannot exist between England and America. Our plans were followed; and sharper boats and heavier power became the rule of the day. But increase of horse-power of engines means increase of heating surface and largely increased boilers, when we reach the vanishing point of profit, after which there is nothing left but speed and expense. It may be possible to fill a ship with boilers, and to save a few hours in the passage from Liverpool to New York by a tremendous expenditure of coal; but whether that will answer the purpose of any body of shareholders must be left for the future to determine. "Brute force" may, be still further employed. It is quite possible that recent "large strides" towards a more speedy transit across the Atlantic may have been made "in the dark."

The last ships we have constructed for Ismay, Imrie and Co. have been of comparatively moderate dimensions and power — the Arabic and Coptic, 430 feet long; and the Ionic and Doric, 440 feet long, all of 2,700 indicated horse-power. These are large cargo steamers, with a moderate amount of saloon accommodation, and a large space for emigrants. Some of these are now engaged in crossing the Pacific, whilst others are engaged in the line from London to New Zealand; the latter being specially fitted up for carrying frozen meat.

To return to the operations of the Belfast shipbuilding yard. A serious accident occurred in the autumn of 1867 to the mail paddle-steamer the Wolf, belonging to the Messrs. Burns, of Glasgow. When passing out of the Lough, about eight miles from Belfast, she was run into by another steamer. She was cut down and sank, and there she lay in about seven fathoms of water; the top of her funnel and masts being only visible at low tide. She was in a dangerous position for all vessels navigating the entrance to the port, and it was necessary that she should be removed, either by dynamite, gunpowder, or some other process. Divers were sent down to examine the ship, and the injury done to her being found to be slight, the owners conferred with us as to the possibility of lifting her and bringing her into port. Though such a process had never before been accomplished, yet knowing her structure well, and finding that we might rely upon smooth water for about a week or two in summer, we determined to do what we could to lift the sunken vessel to the surface.

We calculated the probable weight of the vessel, and had a number of air-tanks expressly built for her floatation. These were secured to the ship with chains and hooks, the latter being inserted through the side lights in her sheer strake. Early in the following summer everything was ready. The air-tanks were prepared and rafted together. Powerful screws were attached to each chain, with hand-pumps for emptying the tanks, together with a steam tender fitted with cooking appliances, berths and stores, for all hands engaged in the enterprise. We succeeded in attaching the hooks and chains by means of divers; the chains being ready coiled on deck. But the weather, which before seemed to be settled, now gave way. No sooner had we got the pair of big tanks secured to the after body, than a fierce north-north-easterly gale set in, and we had to run for it, leaving the tanks partly filled, in order to lessen the strain on everything.

When the gale had settled, we returned again, and found that no harm had been done. The remainder of the hooks were properly attached to the rest of the tanks, the chains were screwed tightly up, and the tanks were pumped clear. Then the tide rose; and before high water we had the great satisfaction of getting the body of the vessel under way, and towing her about a cable's length from her old bed. At each tide's work she was lifted higher and higher, and towed into shallower water towards Belfast; until at length we had her, after eight days, safely in the harbour, ready to enter the graving dock, — not more ready, however, than we all were for our beds, for we had neither undressed nor shaved during that anxious time. Indeed, our friends scarcely recognised us on our return home.

The result of the enterprise was this. The clean cut made into the bow of the ship by the collision was soon repaired. The crop of oysters with which she was incrusted gave place to the scraper and the paintbrush. The Wolf came out of the dock to the satisfaction both of the owners and underwriters; and she was soon "ready for the road," nothing the worse for her ten months' immersion. [2]

Meanwhile the building of new iron ships went on in the Queen's Island. We were employed by another Liverpool Company — the British Shipowners' Company, Limited — to supply some large steamers. The British Empire, of 3,361 gross tonnage, was the same class of vessel as those of the White Star line, but fuller, being intended for cargo. Though originally intended for the Eastern trade, this vessel was eventually placed on the Liverpool and Philadelphia line; and her working proved so satisfactory that five more vessels were ordered like her, which were chartered to the American Company.

The Liverpool agents, Messrs. Richardson, Spence, and Co., having purchased the Cunard steamer Russia, sent her over to us to be lengthened 70 feet, and entirely refitted — another proof of the rapid change which owners of merchant ships now found it necessary to adopt in view of the requirements of modern traffic.

Another Liverpool firm, the Messrs. T. and J. Brocklebank, of world-wide repute for their fine East India-men, having given up building for themselves at their yard at Whitehaven, commissioned us to build for them the Alexandria and Baroda, which were shortly followed by the Candahar and Tenasserim. And continuing to have a faith in the future of big iron sailing ships, they further employed us to build for them two of yet greater tonnage, the Belfast and the Majestic.

Indeed, there is a future for sailing ships, notwithstanding the recent development of steam power. Sailing ships can still hold their own, especially in the transport of heavy merchandise for great distances. They can be built more cheaply than steamers; they can be worked more economically, because they require no expenditure on coal, nor on wages of engineers; besides, the space occupied in steamers by machinery is entirely occupied by merchandise, all of which pays its quota of freight. Another thing may be mentioned: the telegraph enables the fact of the sailing of a vessel, with its cargo on board, to be communicated from Calcutta or San Francisco to Liverpool, and from that moment the cargo becomes as marketable as if it were on the spot. There are cases, indeed, where the freight by sailing ship is even greater than by steamer, as the charge for warehousing at home is saved, and in the meantime the cargo while at sea is negotiable.

We have accordingly, during the last few years, built some of the largest iron and steel sailing ships that have ever gone to sea. The aim has been to give them great carrying capacity and fair speed, with economy of working; and the use of steel, both in the hull and the rigging, facilitates the attainment of these objects. In 1882 and 1883, we built and launched four of these steel and iron sailing ships — the Walter H. Wilson, the W. J. Pirrie, the Fingal, and the Lord Wolseley — each of nearly 3,000 tons register, with four masts, — the owners being Mr. Lawther, of Belfast; Mr. Martin, of Dublin; and the Irish Shipowners Company.

Besides these and other sailing ships, we have built for Messrs. Ismay, Lurie and Co. the Garfield, of 2,347 registered tonnage; for Messrs. Thomas Dixon and Son, the Lord Downshire (2,322); and for Messrs. Bullock's Bay Line, the Bay of Panama (2,365).

In 1880 we took in another piece of the land reclaimed by the Belfast Harbour Trust; and there, in close proximity to the ship-yard, we manufacture all the machinery required for the service of the steamers constructed by our firm. In this way we are able to do everything "within ourselves "; and the whole land now occupied by the works comprises about forty acres, with ten building slips suitable for the largest vessels.

It remains for me to mention a Belfast firm, which has done so much for the town. I mean the Messrs. J. P. Corry and Co., who have always been amongst our best friends. We built for them their first iron sailing vessel, the Jane Porter, in 1860, and since then they have never failed us. They successfully established their "Star" line of sailing clippers from London to Calcutta, all of which were built here. They subsequently gave us orders for yet larger vessels, in the Star of France and the Star of Italy. In all, we have built for that firm eleven of their well-known "Star" ships.

We have built five ships for the Asiatic Steam Navigation Company, Limited, each of from 1,050 to 2,059 tons gross; and we are now building for them two ships, each of about 3,000 tons gross. In 1883 we launched thirteen iron and steel vessels, of a registered tonnage of over 30,000 tons. Out of eleven ships now building, seven are of steel.

Such is a brief and summary account of the means by which we have been enabled to establish a new branch of industry in Belfast. It has been accomplished simply by energy and hard work. We have been well-supported by the skilled labour of our artisans; we have been backed by the capital and the enterprise of England; and we believe that if all true patriots would go and do likewise, there would be nothing to fear for the prosperity and success of Ireland.

See Also

Foot Notes

  1. Although Mr. Harland took no further steps with his life boat, the project seems well worthy of a fair trial. We had lately the pleasure of seeing the model launched and tried on the lake behind Mr. Harland's residence at Ormiston, near Belfast. The cylindrical lifeboat kept perfectly water-tight, and though thrown into the water in many different positions — sometimes tumbled in on its prow, at other times on its back (the deck being undermost), it invariably righted itself. The screws fore and aft worked well, and were capable of being turned by human labour or by steam power. Now that such large freights of passengers are carried by ocean-going ships, it would seem necessary that some such method should be adopted of preserving life at sea; for ordinary lifeboats, which are so subject to destructive damage, are often of little use in fires or shipwrecks, or other accidents on the ocean.
  2. A full account is given in the ‘Illustrated London News’ of the 21st of October, 1868, with illustrations, of the raising of the Wolf; and another, more scientific, is given in the Engineer of the 16th of October, of the same year.