Report by Sandra Millsopp
Members of Bangor Historical Society met on 14th October for an illustrated talk by Charlie Warmington on the Lagan Legacy. He is a journalist and has been helping for several years on a project called The Lagan Legacy. Sponsors include Belfast City Council, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and the Heritage Lottery Fund. An exhibition is going to open in a barge which is permanently moored on the Lagan near the Waterfront Hall. It will tell the story of the Lagan and the industries which developed on her banks.
Mr. Warmington has been gathering information by talking to people such as shipyard workers and recording their memories. The exhibition will be a kind of tabloid history. He pointed out that most people throughout the world associate the city with the Titanic, but have not heard of all its other industrial achievements. Thus one of the names of the project is “The Greatest Story Never Told.”
The firm of Harland and Wolff had a close relationship with the White Star Line, but it built many other ships besides the Titanic. Belfast also had over three hundred other manufacturing establishments, producing goods ranging from pins to aircraft. Virtually none of this could have happened without the Lagan as it was used for importing raw materials and exporting finished goods. One example of a great Belfast industry was the Sirocco engineering works. Its ventilation units were used in power stations, ships such as the Titanic, the Royal Victoria Hospital and many other places. Yet today the site of this great industry lies desolate. Only the tall chimney remains. This prompted the speaker to use the term ‘memory banks’ for the area along the Lagan, since so much of Belfast’s industrial past has vanished. Towering buildings now stand on the banks of the Lagan and there is little to remind us of the many products such as soap, rope, lime and handkerchiefs which were produced in the city.
Among the early industries of Belfast were the glass works and potteries in Ballymacarret. The glass kiln was probably the biggest in the UK and certainly in Ireland. We were shown pictures of the beautiful pottery produced in the area. By the 1880s over 40 Belfast mills were producing cloth. In 1894 over 645 million miles of yarn were spun in Belfast. During World War Two the city produced fabric for parachutes and cloth for uniforms. The city was known as Linenopolis. Other industries contributed to Belfast’s prosperity such as the aircraft factory, Gallaher’s tobacco factory, iron foundries and distilleries.
By the end of the nineteenth century the city also had many coach and carriage drivers, jaunting cars, butchers, shoemakers etc. Trams and omnibuses were introduced and there were three railway routes. All these industries and other occupations depended on the Lagan: yet very little is left. Apartments have replaced the industrial past, although we still have the Titanic slipway, the Thompson Graving Dock and the pump house.
Mr. Warmington again emphasised the fact that while the Titanic is known the world over, most people are unaware of this great industrial past. Recently a watch found on one of the victims of the sinking was sold for 100,000 dollars. The Titanic has also inspired many products such as a bouncy castle in China and a desktop toy. Artefacts from James Cameron’s film are also much sought after. Yet the Titanic was only one of many ships which were built in Belfast.
Throughout the history of shipbuilding in Belfast at least one ship was launched or completed on every day of the year except for Christmas and 12th July. Since the talk was given on the 14th October Mr. Warmington picked out a number of ships associated with that date. The first was the Michigan in 1887. It was a passenger liner which during World War One served as a replica battleship. It was given mock turrets etc and ballasted so that it was low in the water. It served from October 1914 until it was sunk in January 1916. The next ship was the Metapan which was launched from Workman and Clark. It was a passenger and fruiterer ship. It was struck by a mine on 1st October 1943 and sank, but the crew and passengers survived. Workman and Clark was known as the “wee yard” as it was small compared to Harland and Wolff, yet it was at least the third largest yard in the world.
The Cliona was launched on 14th October 1931. It was a 9,000 ton oil tanker. During World War Two it joined a convoy of 11 oil tankers sailing to supply the allies in North Africa who were running out of fuel. The convoy left the USA on its journey across the Atlantic, but the Germans were determined to stop it. Admiral Doenitz personally ordered the attack. Only two of the tankers, the Cliona and one from Norway, made it through the U boat attacks to the Mediterranean. The next ship was the Norissa, a 9,000 ton ocean type tanker from 1943. It was one of Harland and Wolff’s pre-fabricated ships. It worked on convoys and was scrapped in 1960. The ship from 1948 was the Soestdyk, a cargo vessel. In 1953 came the Fleetbank, the first of the Beaverbank class built for the Bankline.
Then Mr. Warmington turned to some historical facts. Belfast had received it charter in 1613 from James I and one of the aims was to establish a wharf or quay on the Lagan. We were then shown a picture of the first page of the launch diary of Harland and Wolff. Ship number 1 was the Venetian a steam ship from 1860. The Lagan was in fact unsuitable for ship building. It was shallow, had mud banks, meandered along and was difficult to navigate. It was William Ritchie from Ayrshire who had established ship building as a major industry in Belfast. The river was later dredged and rerouted, but the Belfast mud or sleech remained a problem. It was known as reinforced water, but it was suitable for brickmaking. Harland and Wolff pioneered the Belfast bottom on its ships. This enabled them to combine speed and stability. The Istria was built for the Bibby line in the 1860s with this bottom and it was copied world wide.
The speaker then told the story of the Mullogh, launched by Coates and Young in 1855. This is one of the forgotten yards of Belfast which lay up river from Harland and Wolff. The Mullogh was an early steam vessel with a crew of five. In 1859 it went to Lyttleton in Australia where her owner used it as a sailing ship for coastal trade. From Australia it brought materials for the first telegraph system and the first railway system to New Zealand. In 1865 it ran aground when carrying a cargo of whiskey. It still lies on the beach and we were shown a photograph of the rotting ship.
Belfast also built trains for Canada and steel structures for the Foyle Bridge, the Bank of England and the BBC building. The Avro aircraft of World War One was another Belfast product. Harland and Wolff built the prototype of the Churchill tank to a ministry design, but it did not work. The Vauxhall Company were more successful with it and Harland and Wolff then built many of these tanks. Emigration was very important in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We were shown a picture of a steerage cabin of 1905. Every unit could be removed and the space used for cargo on the return journey to Europe.
Mr. Warmington finished his interesting and informative talk by returning to the idea of the Greatest Story Never Told and stated that the exhibition on the barge should be open before Christmas. He then answered a series of questions from members which brought further interesting information. Harland and Wolff had built some sailing ships such as the Star of Greece and the Star of Germany for J.P.Corry. In the late 1800s the Star of Austria left New York with a crew of 60 on the South American run. She then disappeared for two years and nothing was heard of her. Then a bottle was found on a beach in Scotland. A message inside gave the latitude and longitude of the ship and stated it was sinking. Anyone who found the message was to tell Belfast. Amazingly the bottle had crossed the Atlantic and ended up not too far from the city. Another Belfast ship was the Polly Woodside, built by Workman and Clark and now one of Australia’s nautical treasures. Another question brought interesting information about the flower class corvettes. Harland and Wolff built more of these than any other yard, including one called HMS Pimpernel. These ships helped to guard the convoys and protect Britain’s supply lines during wartime. There are monuments to them all over the world, but not in Belfast. There is only one of these ships still in existence and it is now in Canada. When asked about how he acquired his material, Mr. Warmington said that it came from various source, such as interviews with surviving shipyard workers, archives, newspapers and societies dedicated to particular ships. Randal Gill then proposed a vote of thanks to the speaker.