This new exhibition is a great insight into the tragic ship's building and the era's social history

Until I visited the new Titanic Belfast exhibition this week I’d never been one of those fascinated with the history of the great ship or the terrible tragedy of her loss in 1912. But after going round this cleverly organised and very beautiful new museum, I’m flabbergasted by the enormity of its fate – everything: the ambition and scale of the ship’s build to the unfathomably hopeless loss of more than 1,500 people.

The history of RMS Titanic has been so mythologised the story seemed to me slightly unreal even though there’s a very hands-on family connection: my grandfather was a caulker at Harland & Wolff and worked on the ship, his job being to cut clean heads on finished rivets and check that the steel plates were watertight.

During his long, hard working life at the Belfast shipyard my grandfather helped build many of the big ships. The one he was proudest of was Titanic, the biggest ocean liner then ever built. To him, as to many of the shipyard men a century ago, it was indescribably luxurious and grand. When the news broke that she had sunk on her maiden voyage he said it was like hearing your own mother had died.

Titanic Belfast concentrates a good deal on the industrial background to the province’s linen and shipbuilding boom, and on the huge preparations for the massive side-by-side builds of the earlier White Star Line liner RMS Olympic (launched 1910) and Titanic. Here is the enormous Arrol gantry built over H&W slipways No.2 and 3. It was 840ft long and 228ft high. 


There is a fair bit on the trades of the working men of the shipyard, the dangers they faced and how it affected them. For example, the four-man rivetting teams worked long hours in cramped conditions, starting at 0600 and finishing at 1730 every day for six days a week. They were paid per rivet.

To speed things up, they worked if possible with a left-handed and right-handed ‘basher’ to hammer in the 1lb rivets. The record for a team during one six-day week was 12,000 rivets. It was defeaning work and the majority of the rivetters ended up hard of hearing, if not completely deaf.

At the time these two big liners were built, about 15,000 men worked at Harland & Wolff. They worked a 49-hour week and had half an hour for lunch.

On the design side, the conditions were, of course, a lot more civilised. This is one of two of H&W’s design offices on Queen’s Island, today a listed building that there are plans to restore.

Titanic was lofted in a traditional manner. This photo from the exhibition shows the mould loft, which was several hundred feet long and 100ft wide. Loftsmen would chalk out the lines at cross section full size and the length at quarter scale. Any corrections were updated on the plans, and templates for all structural parts were made here as well.

The exhibition gives a lot of fascinating facts and insights into life on board the ship once complete as well: the numbers of bottles of soda, the inventory of 45,000 starched linen napkins for the maiden voyage, photos of the enormous galleys.

There are sections on the sinking and the US and British Inquiries that followed, too, but not in too much detail. It’s this aspect that, for me, is among the most fascinating. What exactly happened and in what order?

Why did the ship break into two before sinking? How was it holed? Why were so many lifeboats sent off half-empty?

For more on that, there’s the new SeaCity Museum in Southampton, which looks at the disaster from another perspective. Southampton is where most of the ship’s crew came from, and this museum has a section on the 1912 Inquiry and its findings.

But equally, there’s a brilliant insight into what happened that night from online transcripts of all the evidence given by witnesses at the US and British inquiries. They make compelling reading and show the extremely thorough processes of investigation. You can read it here at the Titanic Inquiry Project.

There are some interesting facts here froma press perspective as well because it paints a picture of chequebook journalism at its most cut-throat. The sinking of the ship became, from that instant to this day, a huge story.

The ship Californian, which was probably less than 10 miles away from where the Titanic sank, had stopped overnight after finding herself in the midst of field ice. The radio operator on board reported this to Titanic but had been cut off by them – “Shut up, shut up, I am busy working Cape Race!” He turned in for the night 15 minutes before Titanic’s first ‘CQD’ distress signal was sent.

Wireless man Cyril Evans told the inquiry that his employers Marconi paid him a monthly wage of £4. That puts in perspective the lifechanging $500 sum reportedly offered by a newspaper to the much more poorly paid second donkeyman of the same ship for the story of how his sighting of white distress rockets was discounted by the Californian’s captain. Ernest Gill gave a sworn statement which cost him his berth that the captain of Californian had tried to ‘hush up the men’.

The scale of everything about this ship, its huge loss of life and its aftermath is mind-boggling. If you get a chance to visit Titanic Belfast, do. It is, by the way, only one of several excellent museums in or near the city.