Belfast Ship Building

A Short History

The first recorded vessel was built in Belfast for the Presbyterian clergy and registered in 1663 which was called the Eagles Wing.
The 'Ballast Board', later to become the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, were formed in 1785 and immediately set about straightening the meandering River Lagan and building new quays. The deposited spoil eventually formed an Island known as Dargan's Island, named after the contractor. This was later re-named Queen's Island in celebration of the visit of Queen Victoria in 1849.

A keen-eyed shipbuilder named William Ritchie from Saltcoats in Scotland soon realised the potential of all this new building work and in 1791 was granted permission to build a small boat repair yard on the banks of the River Lagan, eventually building his first ship, the 300 ton Hibernian. William Ritchie's arrival in Belfast set in motion a train of events that would eventually lead to, without a doubt, what would be the greatest shipyard in the world. Edward Harland was born in Scarborough in 1831 and showed great promise as an engineer. He eventually served his apprenticeship with Robert Stephenson and Company of Newcastle, eventually moving to the shipyard of Hickson in Belfast.

As he progressed in his studies he became friendly with a wealthy German merchant by the name of Gustav Christian Schwabe, whose sister Fanny was married to Moritz Wolff. Interestingly this was the same Gustav Schwabe that financed Thomas Henry Ismay, (father of Bruce Ismay) in the buying of the White Star Line in 1864 on the condition that the company would order their new ships from Harland and Wolff.

Fanny and Moritz had a son, Gustav Wilhelm Wolff in 1835 who at fourteen years old left home to become an engineer studying at Liverpool College. He later took up an apprenticeship with Joseph Wentworth & Company of Manchester. In 1856 Gustav Wolff accepted a position as junior manager with another Belfast shipbuilder, Robert Hickson & Co. Two years previously Edward Harland himself had joined the same company and had set about instilling some discipline and good working practices into what was a company in shambles. His 'get tough' regime with the lazy workforce resulted in them going on strike so he sacked them all replacing them with workers from Scotland. The strike ended soon after and the Belfast workers returned to work under the new working practices.
Hickson was losing a fortune in his yard and Harland was having to fund the day to day running of it from his own pocket. To help him in re-building the company, Harland appointed Gustav Wolff in 1857 as his assistant and they proceeded to devise a rescue package for the ailing yard. Totally dejected in 1857, Hickson offered to sell the yard to Harland for the princely sum of £5,000, Harland, after seeking help and advice from his friend, Gustave Schwabe, bought Hickson out and with the sterling help of his assistant Wolff and proceeded to totally re-plan the shipyard to his own design.

Harland later disposed of the original Hickson yard and moved to the New Queen's Island site. The two hard working men, Harland and Wolff soon realised they had shared views as to the way forward in shipbuilding and their friendship grew, so much so that in 1861 they entered into a partnership by establishing the shipbuilding and engineering company of Harland and Wolff Limited.

The first iron ship to be built by the newly formed company of Harland and Wolff in 1859 was the Venetian and truly deserves a place in maritime history. She was a 4-masted barque-rigged steamer of some 1,500 tons. She had an overall length of 290 feet with a rather simple 2 cylinder 450 hp engine giving a top speed of approx 6-7 knots. In 1872 she had her engine replaced with a new and more powerful compound - expansion engine giving her much needed headway in those fiercely competitive days when time was money. After 21 years of hard work she was renamed the Landana and headed for African waters. Ten years later she was again renamed the Tarapaca, owned by Gerard and Co at Valparaiso before being wrecked in 1894. The Venetian was built as Yard No.1 and yet by the end of her 35-year career her builders had reached such a state of dominance in World shipbuilding that Harland and Wolff had over 200 ships, including many luxury liners sailing the Oceans of the World.

From 1862 they led the World with their innovative and technologically advanced designs for ships. An illustration of the build quality of their ships since then can be found in the price paid for second-hand vessels built by Harland & Wolff, they consistently attracted the highest prices and scrap, values mainly due the strength of their construction which made them exceedingly hard to destroy. The partnership of Edward James Harland and Gustav Wilheim Wolff changed the face of shipbuilding globally; as the history of the company shows, they were indeed, "Shipbuilders to the World".

At the height of their operations, Harland & Wolff had several shipyards in such diverse locations as Liverpool, Southampton, Glasgow and London and directly employed some 65,000 people with perhaps five times as many working indirectly through sub contractors and suppliers. Recognised throughout ship-owning circles as innovative shipbuilders they produced many technologically advanced and beautiful vessels as, Titanic and Canberra, ships known and respected throughout the world by shipbuilders and enthusiasts alike.

A ship from the H&W yard was a "Belfast Boat", as affectionately referred to by the workforce, hard men working in a hard industry. These employees nevertheless experienced a tremendous sense of pride and achievement when a completed ship sailed from her place of birth for the oceans of the world. Similarly, the sudden loss of a vessel - like that of the R.M.S. Titanic, was felt as deeply as a personal tragedy. Such was the depth of emotion and pride engendered in the art of shipbuilding and which can only truly be appreciated by those who have dedicated their lives to this industry. Dedication that went into each and every one of the near 1,750 ships built in this yard. Ships that set the standards for the world to follow, yes while they can be built cheaper elsewhere they will always be sub-standard and not "A Belfast Ship". Here are only two of them, the British Steel and the Seillean, both at the cutting edge of technology.

This is only a very short history of Harland and Wolff and does not do justice to the imagination and sheer hard work of the greatest shipbuilders in the world. I can truly recommend you read the FULL history of Harland and Wolff found in "Shipbuilders to the World" (125 years of Harland and Wolff, Belfast 1861-1986) by Michael Moss and John R Hume published by the Blackstaff Press, Belfast 1986. This book is now out of print so some detective work will be required but you will be well rewarded - I guarantee it.


Seillean, (Gaelic for Bee) will go from well to well collecting the remnants of oil, as a bee collects nectar. She was launched in 1987 and described as "the most sophisticated merchant vessel in the world." She is categorised as a SWOPS vessel which stood for "Single-well oil-production system." Seillean is used by B.P. in the North Sea for exploiting marginal oil fields. Processing plant on board can separate oil from gas and water.

The last ship to be built by Harland & Wolff was the 20,000 ton Anvil Point, ship number 1742, launched 1st April 2003. A sad end to a fantastic story of World-class shipbuilding.