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Walter Henry Wilson

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Walter Henry Wilson (1839-1904) of Harland and Wolff


1904 Obituary [1]

WALTER H. WILSON, until 1902 one of the principals of Messrs. Harland and Wolff, Belfast, was born in Belfast on 4th November 1839.

After finishing his education at Chester College, he adopted naval architecture and engineering as his profession, and entered the works of Messrs. Hickson and Co., iron shipbuilders, Belfast, as an apprentice in 1857. Messrs. Hickson's yard was the forerunner of the present world-famed Queen's Island establishment of Messrs. Harland and Wolff, with which Mr. Wilson was connected during his professional career, and of which he became a partner in 1874.

He showed great industry and remarkable talents as an apprentice and subsequently an official, and later still, a principal in the firm, and became one of the most capable exponents in the art of shipbuilding and engineering. As a draughtsman and designer he had few equals, and nearly every department of the works, as well as the vessels constructed by the firm, bore evidence of his mechanical genius. He was possessed of great inventive capacity, and many of the appliances brought out by him have been eminently successful.

The following are some of the principal mechanical improvements and developments he was responsible for:— Improvements in cabins by which staterooms were rendered more comfortable by an ingenious arrangement of the berths; invention of a steering gear in which springs were applied to the arms, spokes, or other parts of the tiller, yoke, or quadrant, thus creating an elastic medium between the rudder head and the steering chains, and permitting the chains to be always kept equally tight, while allowing the rudder to yield to severe shocks or strains. A second patent of his, taken out in 1890, for improvements in the structure and arrangement of steam steering-gear developed and perfected this principle for minimising by means of steel springs the effect of the shocks and strains to which the rudder of a ship is subjected. A notable feature in the later gear was the placing of the engine immediately beside the tiller with a worm on crank-shaft driving a wheel on a vertical intermediate shaft, the shaft carrying a spur pinion driving a spur wheel tiller secured to the rudder head through an elastic medium consisting of fiat or spiral steel springs. In this gear one of the great advantages is the dispensing with the chains formerly required, and the engine can be drawn completely out of gear with the tiller or quadrant when it is required to steer the ship by band steering. This improved steering-gear, as invented and worked out by him in 1890, is generally considered to-day to be one of the best, safest, and most reliable available, and has not only been fitted in all vessels of Messrs. Harland and Wolff's build since that date, but has been adopted in many others by owners and builders both British and foreign.

Many other inventions, also, were the creation of his brain and unremitting energy, including a combined square deck-house sidelight and ventilator; boat disengaging gear; improvements in ships' watertight doors; and improvements in ships and other structures of metal plates riveted together—air improved form of connection for the transverse joints of shell and other plated structures, commonly known as "Harland and Wolff's scarphed or lapped butts."

Amongst other improvements introduced by Mr. Wilson, or for which he was chiefly responsible, is the structural arrangement of the stern of vessels for carrying the shaft within the hull instead of the old-fashioned brackets outside, and lie also conceived the idea of the single-plate rudder now almost universally adopted in large steamers, instead of the old arrangement which gave so much trouble. He avoided publicity in every way, but was persuaded at the beginning of 1904 to become President of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, a position he held at the time of his death.

He was also a member of the Northern Counties Committee of the Midland Railway. On the occasion of the Summer Meeting of this Institution in Belfast in 1896 he was chairman of the Reception Committee, and rendered great service in connection with the various arrangements for the visit.

His death took place suddenly in the train between Mina and Portrush on 14th May 1904, in his sixty-fifth year.

He became a Member of this Institution in 1888; and was also a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and of the Institution of Naval Architects.


1904 Obituary [2]

WALTER HENRY WILSON, a member of the shipbuilding firm of Harland and Wolff, Belfast, died suddenly on the 4th May, 1904, in his sixty-fifth year, terminating an association with the Queen’s Island works which had lasted nearly fifty years, during which time he rose from an apprentice to be a partner in the firm.

Born in Belfast on the 15th November, 1839, the subject of this notice was educated at the Gracehill Schools and at Chester college.

At the age of 16, he was apprenticed to the shipbuilding firm of Robert Hickson and Co, who two years previously had appointed as their manager E. J. Harland, afterwards Sir Edward Harland, Bart.

In 1858 the business passed into the hands of Mr. Harland, who was joined later by Mr. Wolff, Mr. Wilson continuing in the service of the new proprietors.

On completing his apprenticeship in 1861, Mr. Wilson was given a place in the drawing-office, and in 1863 his ability and devotion to duty bore fruit in his appointment to the position of chief draughtsman. After retaining that post for five years, he was promoted to be sub-manager in 1868, and two years later, the business having greatly developed in the interval, he became general manager of the works. As general manager he continued until 1874, when he was taken into partnership.

Thenceforward, until his retirement a few years ago, Mr. Wilson shared with Sir Edward Harland the active direction of the affairs of the Belfast firm, which was enabled, by the experience, energy and foresight of its principals, to play a prominent part in the remarkable development of shipbuilding and marine engineering which took place in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

During Mr. Wilson’s connection with its fortunes the business developed from a small factory employing less than a hundred hands into a great shipbuilding and engineering establishment covering an area of more than 50 acres and giving employment to thousands of workmen.

A man of quiet tastes and of reserved demeanour in public, Mr. Wilson’s kindly disposition and attractive social qualities showed to best advantage among his friends and in the home life to which he was so strongly attached. He was not, however, unmindful of his responsibilities as a large employer of labour and a prominent citizen, and always took a keen interest in the welfare of his workmen and in local affairs. He was closely identified with the old Working Men’s Institute and helped to found the new Technical Institute in Belfast. The Midland Railway Company appointed him to the directorate of the Northern Counties Railway of Ireland, when it took over the line ; and besides being a Justice of the Peace, Mr. Wilson, at the time of his death, filled the office of President of the Chamber of Commerce in his native city.

He was a Member of the Institution of Naval Architects and of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Mr. Wilson was elected a Member of this Institution on the 1st December, 1891.



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Sources of Information

  1. 1904 Institution of Mechanical Engineers: Obituaries
  2. 1904 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries