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Harland and Wolff has forever become synonymous with the name Titanic, but of course the legacy of shipbuilding in Belfast did not end there. It continued its tradition of creating world-class liners and breaking new records and boundaries. Did your ancestor working in the shipyards? Discovering which vessels your ancestor helped to create and how they impacted the world is fascinating. Did it take passengers from Cork to America, seeking a new life and new opportunities or did your ancestor help to create a minesweeper used as part of the Artic convoy delivering essential supplies during the Second World War? Within the ‘yard’ workers endured extreme and dangerous conditions to produce massive vessels. Everyday thousands would walk into the yard to start work as the whistle blew.


Workers always had to be sure to make it to the yard on time. At the sound of the second whistle the gates were locked and if you were on the wrong side you lost a day’s work and a day’s wages. Inside the yard the bosses kept a close eye on workers so much so that they only allowed seven minutes to visit the toilets in a single day. If anyone took too long, his wages for the day would be reduced.


Most of the men were never known by their given name. Everyone had a nickname. The name usually referenced to a characteristic of the person or an embarrassing story. Some of the names heard around the yard included: Barking Dog, Nail in the Boot, Bits and Pieces, Steel Chest and Dread the Winter. Then there were the ‘hats,’ the name for the managers and foremen. They got their name from the distinctive bowler hats they would wear.


There were thousands of different positions within the shipyard. From the platers who cut the steel and the riveters who fit them together. The marine architects designing the ships and the draughtsmen making technical drawings. Plus there were heater boys, caulkers, engineers, plumbers, interior designers and so many more. While tracing your family history, many records like passenger lists include occupation or profession.

Of course it was not just men arriving at the shipyard every day. Women worked in clerical and secretarial roles, but there was also whole departments of women known as Tracers. They created copies of the ship plans with perfect penmanship and using mathematics to ensure exact proportions were represented.


The conditions within the yard could be dangerous and extreme at times. Those who worked in the platers shed, where the steel plates were cut and punched, would often lose their hearing due to the noise. Workers had to communicate by hand signals.

There is no better example of the dangers of the shipyard than the Juan Peron disaster in 1951. Juan Peron was a whaling ship being built for the Argentinian government. Staging or scaffolding was built around the enormous vessel. On 31 January 1951 the workers described hearing the sound of thunder then the gangways built around the hull of the ship collapsed. Eyewitness Thomas Hoey said, ‘It was an awful sight. Men fell on the jetty and the fender at the side of the ship and others dropped into the water.’ This was reported in the Dundee Courier, 1 February 1951 available through Findmypast’s newspapers. One man held on for his life to the steel plating until he could be rescued. In total 16 men lost their lives and a further 48 were hospitalised with injuries.


After the completion of a ship, thousands came to the quayside to witness the launch. When the Olympic was launched, the Dundee Evening Telegraph reported on 20 October 1910, ‘The quays were thronged with people, and the vessel, which is the largest in the world, left the ways and entered the water amid scenes of great enthusiasm.’

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