Historic images of life building the Titanic described as “Downton Abbey at sea.”John W Kempster collection

Never before seen photographs of the Titanic and her sister ship the Olympic went on exhibition in Northern Ireland, in September.

The pictures were described as a “Downton Abbey at sea” by William Blair of the National Museums of Northern Ireland who spoke to The Irish Times.

There are 116 prints in the album, 13 of them from the Titanic itself.

They were owned by John W Kempster a director and master of ceremonies at Harland and Wolff shipyard at the time the Titanic was built.

The pictures include one taken of the ship as it was first launched into the water at Belfast Lough for sea trials. Ironically the caption under the photograph stated “Going, Going, Gone.”

Many of the pictures are of Kempster and his family sailing to New York on the Olympic, a ship similar in size to the Titanic, which sank on April 15, 1912 on its maiden voyage to America with the loss of 1,500 lives.

The album of rare pictures has been loaned to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in County Down by English businessman Steve Raffield, who purchased it at auction.

“This album allows us unparalleled access to previously unseen images of the Titanic and Olympic,” said Blair.

“One of the striking things about this album is that the photographs exude an excitement in Belfast on that momentous day of April 2nd, 1912. Family photographs from the Olympic’s maiden voyage also give us a fascinating insight into how the passengers spent their days at sea,” he added.

Blair told The Irish Times that the story of the Titanic would always be of interest. “The album captures a wonderful sense of social history. It reflects life at that time with all its class distinctions and social codes. It is almost 'Downton Abbey' at sea. It is very evocative of an Edwardian age, that world before it was swept away with the cataclysm of the First World War,” he added.

“As a story it seems to have everything,” said Blair. “It has elements of Greek tragedy, hubris and nemesis. It has celebrity culture in the form of the first class passengers. It has a very compelling social history in terms of the third class, second class and first class passengers. It is almost a mythic tale, a huge symbol of disaster.”