R.M.S. Titanic–The legacy lives on
By Thomas C. Wilmer
When White Star Lines’ R.M.S. Titanic was launched on May 31, 1911 the vessel was hailed as the world’s largest and most expensive ocean liner ever built. Touting every imaginable cutting-edge luxury such as electric elevators, telephones, a heated swimming pool, a Turkish bath, a squash court and two barbershops—the technological marvel was dubbed “unsinkable” by White Star’s vice president.
Financed by American industrialist, J.P. Morgan, the ship was outfitted with the finest woodwork, artwork, carpets and fabrics available at any cost. The piece de resistance was the Grand Staircase, clad in oak paneling with gilded balustrades and intricate wrought iron railings illuminated by a glass-dome above.
Some people presume that the Titanic was built in England, as she was a British-flagged vessel and “Liverpool” was the hailing port emblazoned on her stern. Others think the ship was a Southampton lady as that’s where she sailed from on her maiden voyage. But the legendary vessel will forever remain as a proud part of Belfast’s history–in spite of its disastrous maiden voyage.
Built at Harland and Wolff Shipyards on the River Lagan one hundred years ago–the ship builder, at the time the world’s largest, employed close to 15,000 Belfast workers. According to Belfast Titanic historian and founder of the Belfast Titanic Schools Project, Terry Madill, says, “The H&W workforce was rotated on ships of this size and it’s likely more than 12,000 worked on the ship.”
Madill also noted that skilled craftsmen from all over Europe, including Italian stonemasons and Portuguese draftsmen, were directly involved in constructing the nine-deck high, four-city-block-long ship. Stood on end the Titanic would be as tall as the Empire State Building. No quarter of Belfast, a city of 390,000 at the time, was untouched by the behemoth vessel’s construction. Cabinetmakers, tile setters, steamfitters, riveters, riggers, millwrights, and subcontractors including suppliers of English cutlery and crockery, Belfast linen makers and provisioners were all abuzz with the business of catering to the R.M.S. Titanic. Her sister ship, the R.M.S. Olympic (launched October 20th 1910), and other vessels were also under construction at the shipyards. The web of industry at Harland and Wolff spun off good times throughout Belfast, at the time the fastest growing industrial city in the world. Barkeeps, milliners, innkeepers, grocers, bakers, hackney drivers, accountants, doctors, lawyers and more savored the boom times. “Teams of riveters, platers and caulkers would have met in the pub every Saturday lunchtime to get their share of the teams’ wages from the charge hand,” says Madill.
When the Titanic was launched, the pride and enthusiasm for the vessel, likened to the space shuttle of the era, attracted more than 100,000 fans to witness the historic occasion. Madill commented, “Belfast was the Cape Canaveral of 1912!”
Today in Belfast, when the conversation turns to the Titanic, odds are locals will share stories of her sinking, relatives who lost their lives or were involved in its construction. A poignant Titanic memorial statue in front of Belfast City Hall pays tribute to those who died in modern history’s worst sea disaster. Madill said, “following the sinking, H&W instructed their employees never to mention the ship, and the shame lingered for many years.”
The shared tales told by locals will also focus on the good times when the Titanic was under construction. You will also hear prideful stories about a great grandfather employed as a cabinetmaker who worked on the grand staircase, or maybe a great uncle who was a riveter or draftsman. After Titanic was launched down the slipway, Titanic spent ten months afloat in Belfast Harbor fitting-out before commencing sea trials. She finally departed April 2, 1912 for Southampton, England and her ill-fated maiden voyage that commenced April 10th. One local business, Lagan Boat Tours, humorously sums up Belfast’s optimistic attitude with the tagline, “She was alright when she left here!”
Belfast’s passionate affinity for Titanic’s legacy was palpably evident as I attended the 100th anniversary of Titanic’s launch this past May at Harland and Wolff shipyards. The ceremony, overlooking Titanic’s dry dock and slipway, included descendants of those who built the Titanic, civic dignitaries, and cadres of TV and radio press from around the world. Most touching of all was a battalion of Belfast school children representing the Titanic Schools Project, all dressed in the garb of circa-1911 shipyard workers.
At the exact instant of Titanic’s launch 100-years previous, horns blared, whoops and cheers from kids and octogenarians alike lit up the air for exactly 62 seconds…the time it took Titanic to travel down the slipway and settle in the bay.
In addition to the vintage 21-million-gallon dry dock and pump house that remain uncannily frozen in time, adjacent is an elegant, Edwardian-era brick building known as the “Drawing Offices” where draftsmen hand-inked the blueprints. Plans are in process to repurpose the historic structure as a boutique hotel.
The 220-foot-long S.S. Nomadic, constructed concurrently with the Titanic, presently rests a few steps from Titanic’s dry dock. Dubbed “Titanic’s Little Sister” Nomadic was purpose-built (launched April 25th, 1911) as a “tender” to shuttle first and second-class passengers between shore and ship in Cherbourg, France. Her companion, “Traffic”, transferred third-class passengers. Currently completing a major renovation, the Nomadic was outfitted with identical materials used on the Titanic such as the intricate rosettes around the lights, door hardware, portholes and detailed millwork. Once the refit is finished Nomadic will open as a historic tourist attraction offering visitors a living vestige of her “big sister”.
The New Titanic-Belfast
Speaking of attractions, the largest tourist project ever undertaken in Northern Ireland, Titanic-Belfast opened March 31st, 2012. The new interpretive center is an architecturally stunning, head-turning work of art. It is a massive building that defies proper description.
Imagine if you will, four nine-story-tall ship’s bows (the same height as Titanic’s) thrusting outward at 90-degrees from one another and you’ll have a glimmer of the new Titanic-Belfast’s grandeur and dynamic visual symbolism. Titanic-Belfast is a one-stop showcase of anything and everything relative to R.M.S. Titanic—from keel laying to her sinking and aftermath. Appropriately situated steps away from Titanic’s dry dock, nine distinctive galleries tell the tale through state-of-the-art interactive displays, computer simulations and full-scale recreations. Visitors climb aboard cars that sail through space and zoom through a virtual Titanic under construction. An array of interactive computer-generated imagery brings to life the ship’s interior, staterooms, dining rooms, engine room and more. Individual galleries situated on six levels focus on aspects such as The Maiden Voyage, The Sinking, The Aftermath, and a most vivid experience—Titanic Beneath offers a stunning virtual journey to the Titanic as it lies on the North Atlantic seabed 2.5 miles below the surface.Titanic-Belfast is a multi-faceted facility with restaurants, cafes and shops, an exhibition gallery along with conference and banquet facilities.It will also function as a year-round learning center for students, highlighted by the Ocean Exploration Center. Operated in partnership with various local and international universities and research facilities, the OEC offers engaging programs in marine archeology, marine biology and more.
Titanic-Belfast anchors the City’s repurposed 185-acre shipyard area, now affectionately dubbed “Titanic Quarter”. The urban renewal project, Europe’s largest, consists of new hotels, more than 7,500 apartment units, high-tech R&D facilities and an array of trendy eateries, pubs and shops spanning a linear-mile of waterfront. Titanic Quarter positions Belfast as a world-class tourist destination, and serves as a metaphor for today’s Belfast, a friendly, peaceful and seductively charming city that grew up around the River Lagan.By the way, Harland and Wolff now produces and exports wind turbines rather than ocean going vessels.
A “Culinary Taste” of the Titanic
If you visit historic Belfast and the new Titanic Interpretive center, your journey will not be complete without an overnight at the historic circa-1886 eleven-bedroom Ryanne House guesthouse in nearby Holywood (five miles from Belfast City Center). Personally, I will forever cherish my visit to Ryanne House, as they put on a Titanic dinner affair that’s the stuff of memories.
You see, chef and proprietor, Conor McClelland and his wife, Bernie, did some painstaking historical research and created an enchanting nine-course dinner that is an exact, course-by-course recreation of the final meal (April 14, 1912) served to the first-class passengers aboard Titanic. Conor noted that Titanic’s first class passengers might well have actually been served 11 or 12 courses throughout their leisurely three or four hour meal. Each place-setting is graced with a perfect-reproduction Titanic boarding pass. Elegant, candlelit touches such as fine crystal, period china and shot-glasses emblazoned with the White Star Line logo propels the evening affair to a dreamy trip back in time. An added touch is a ribbon-tied menu booklet detailing each course along with accompanying wines served aboard ship as well as Titanic factoids and culinary anecdotes.
Here’s a menu sampler: a cream of Barley Soup finished with Bushmills Whiskey and Cream; and a Filet Mignon topped with foie gras and truffle served with French buttered potatoes Anna, creamed carrots and zucchini Farci—of course accompanied by a robust-red Bordeaux—some things never change!
Titanic Dinners at Ryanne House are offered throughout the year, so be sure to check the dates if you decide to come for a stay. A visit to Belfast is an opportunity to savor the legacy of the Titanic along with the vibrant culture of modern Belfast with its cutting edge food scene, a hopping nightlife, welcoming and charming locals, and rich culture, history and period architecture at every turn.
IF YOU GO TO BELFAST:
Belfast-Titanic interpretive center:
Ryanne House guesthouse:
Ryanne House Titanic Menu:
Lagan Boat Company Tours—offers narrated tours aboard small harbor vessels (heated and covered).
Titanic Tours– Belfast Luxury Tour—conducted by Susie Millar, great-granddaughter of shipyard worker Thomas Millar who sailed as an engineer on Titanic’s ill-fated maiden voyage.
One Stop Shopping for everything to do with Belfast, the Titanic and Northern Ireland explorations: Tourism Ireland: www.discoverireland.com
Belfast Welcome Center
Northern Ireland Tourist Board
National Museums of Northern Ireland, Ulster Folk & Transport Museum and Titanica Museum
Titanic Historical Society
Befast’s Titanic Schools Project:
Listen to author, TomWilmer’s audio podcast series recorded live in Belfast during Titanic’s 100th anniversary celebration as well as a segment about exploring Northern Ireland:
Video on new Titanic-Belfast facility under construction:
Want to visit the real Titanic?
$40,000(us) will get you a ride on the MIR submersible for a journey 2.5 miles underwater for an up-close visit to the R.M.S. Titanic.
Titanic Lives on in America
If you can’t make it “over-the-pond” for a Belfast visit, you can still experience the Titanic not too far from home. Titanic Attractions, located in Branson Missouri & Pigeon Forge, Tennessee operates Titanic museums with full recreations of first class staterooms, the Grand Staircase, hundreds of artifacts along with tour guides dressed as first class maids and ship’s officers. A visit to either museum is highly recommended. www.titanicAttraction.com or call 1-800-381-7670
Titanic Memorials around the world:
- Cobh (Queenstown) Ireland
- New York City
- Southampton (numerous memorials, including one for the band that played on as the ship sank).
- Washington D.C.
- Halifax, Nova Scotia Canada (120 victims retrieved from the sea are buried in Fairview Cemetery).
- Equipped to carry 64 lifeboats, Titanic carried 20
- 6 iceberg warnings received before collision
- 160 minutes from impact to sinking 2:20 a.m. April 14, 1912
- Total capacity crew & passengers 3,547
- R.M.S. stands for Royal Mail Ship
- 2,228 passengers total, 1,343 passengers, 885 crew
- 1,517 died (333 bodies recovered from sea)
- 706 survivors
- 832 passenger deaths (1 child from 1st class, 49 from 3rd class)
- 685 crew deaths
- 724 crewmembers lived in Southampton (including the illustrious eight members of the band), 175 survived. In one Southampton school fifty percent of the kids were left fatherless.
- The passenger manifest included some of the world’s richest tycoons—John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim, Macy’s owner Isador Staus, and the legendary “Unsinkable” Molly Brown”
- Survivors reached NYC April 18 1912 aboard the rescue vessel S.S. Carpathia
- Titanic’s fate was sealed on a moonless and wind free night with dead-flat seas that made visibility minimal. Two days later with a new moon and choppy seas, would lookouts have seen the berg in time?
- Some analysts speculate that if the ship had not changed course and struck the iceberg bow first, she would have suffered extensive damage, but survived the impact.
- Some question whether the Titanic’s rudder was undersized and thus prohibited the ship from changing course in time.
- Did Captain Smith ignore iceberg warnings and continue at cruising speed to ensure an early landfall in New York Harbor?
- While preparing to depart Southampton, Titanic’s props started to suck in the adjacent SS New York. The ships missed each other by mere feet. William Blair, head of History with National Museums of Northern Ireland notes that Titanic’s departure would have been delayed by at least six hours for an inquiry. Blair says, “This is a real what if moment as who knows where the iceberg would be, or if it would now be daylight when the Titanic intercepted the North Atlantic ice fields.”
Archeotechnology: The iceberg did not “gash” a hole in the hull but rather buckled the steel plates and popped rivets that opened a large discontinuous seem approximately 300 feet long. Recent metallurgical analysis has revealed that Titanic’s steel plates and rivets became brittle at low temperatures.
The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society JOM Magazine article:
Archival photography: courtesy of National Museums of Northern Ireland