Queens Island which is now marketed as the 'Titanic Quarter' was created from the massive spoils of mud and earth excavated during workings to widen and deepen the channel into Belfast. The work was undertaken by William Dargan who literally opened Belfast up as a major port. It was originally called Dargan's Island after him but was renamed when Queen Victoria visited Belfast in 1849. The island was developed as a pleasure park with Botanical Gardens and Zoo, it even had bathing booths, people would catch a ferry across from the city side to spend a day in the park. Eventually though the park was overtaken by the developing ship building industry and the focus shifted from the County Antrim side of the river Lagan to Queens Island. Today you can still see many remains of this vast industry including:
THE HAMILTON GRAVING DOCK
When a ship is taken into a dry dock, the process of scraping the hull clean of barnacles and rust is known as ‘Graving’, a Graving Dock had the facility to be emptied of water which allowed this process to take place as well as repairs to ship hulls. The Hamilton Graving Dock was the first one built on Queens Island and was constructed after much controversy and debate. Harland & Wolff wanted the Harbour Commission to build a new dock on the County Down side of the river Lagan which the Commissioners had Parliamentary permission to do. The proposal however was challenged by the Belfast Shipwrights Society on the grounds that it would put the lives of workers at risk having to cross the river in boats during the hours of darkness. Prior to this the major focus of ship building and repairs had been on the County Antrim side of the Lagan.
The issue even became an election motion in a ballot for members of the Harbour Commission and to push their case Harland & Wolff indicated that if the dock was built on the County Antrim side then they would move their operations to Liverpool. The company won its argument for the new dock but the issue rumbled on until a compromise was arrived at where the Harbour Commission agreed to also build new facilities on the County Antrim side which led to the construction of a floating dock and the development of the Spencer and Dufferin docks.
Work started on the Hamilton Dock and Abercorn Basin in 1863, the 450 feet dock was serviced by the Abercorn Basin which covers some 12.5 acres of water. It was named after the Chairman of the Harbour commission, James Hamilton and formally opened on 2nd October, 1867 by the Marquis of Abercorn, whose name is carried by the Abercorn Basin. This area would have been where the massive Harland & Wolff industrial complex grew from. Interestingly today the Hamilton Dock is home to the ‘S.S. Nomadic’, one of the tenders especially built to service the ‘Titanic’ at Cherbourg. She left the same dock in April,1911 and 100 years later after extensive renovations she is back to her original appearance and open to the public.
HARLAND & WOLFF OFFICES AND DRAWING ROOMS
Further down from the Hamilton Dock is the somewhat neglected yet very impressive offices and drawing rooms. The red brick and sandstone building is the largest remaining building that links to the old yard and was built in stages between 1900-1919. The first construction to take place were the drawing offices at the rear of the building, followed by the main offices.
This was the hub of Harland & Wolff, all those at the helm of the company had offices here. Opposite but now gone were the Abercorn, Victoria and Alexandra Engine works and just down the road the Alexandra and Thompson Docks. Behind the offices are the massive slipways where the Olympic class liners were built, towering above was the 6,000 ton Arrol Gantry which dominated the skyline for 7 years. The oldest part of the building are the two drawing offices located behind the building, the cathedral like interiors were designed with high curved ceilings and large widows to maximize available natural light for the drawing tables below where the conceptual and detailed construction drawings of the Titanic, Olympic and Britannic were made. Why they never renovated and used these for the Titanic Centre is baffling. Within the main building were other drawing offices including the Admiralty Drawing Office where the construction plans for HMS Ark Royal and HMS Belfast were prepared. The building remained the headquarters of Harland & Wolff until October 1989. The company at one time employed 50,000 people throughout the United Kingdom, 30,000 of these in Belfast.
ALEXANDRA GRAVING DOCK
With the movement of shipbuilding from the county Antrim side of the river to Queens Island and the subsequent development of new wharfs and yards coupled with a growing industry, the need was identified for another facility to fit out ships. From 1881 Harland & Wolff petitioned the Harbour Commission for new facilities, they initially responded by building two new moorings at the Abercorn Basin, one in 1884 and another in 1885. These where not satisfactory for the expanding shipyard and eventually an enquiry was held which proposed that a new Graving Dock be built at the north end of Queens Island.
After meeting opposition from other shipyards the new graving dock was eventually started in 1885 when Princess Alexandra cut the first sod. The 830 feet dock was formally opened on May 21st, 1889, the occasion saw Prince Albert arrive aboard the White Star liner SS Teutonic, the first ship to enter the new dock. Completing the new facility was a parallel wharf with a steam crane capable of lifting 100 tons and the original pump house. Today the dock is home to HMS Caroline which was, until her recent decommissioning, the oldest serving Royal Navy ship after HMS Victory
THOMPSON GRAVING DOCK AND PUMP HOUSE
The Thompson Graving Dock was made to facilitate the ever increasing size of vessels being built and in particular to facilitate the new Olympic class: the Olympic, Titanic and Brittanic. The new graving dock was built between 1903 and 1911 and was the biggest of its kind in the world. The original pump house served the Alexandra Dock (where HMS Caroline is moored) but to cater for both docks, a new and radically upgraded pump house was constructed. The building we see today is a classic example of architectural elegance in industry and one of only two buildings left with direct links to the legacy of the Titanic.
Once you stepped inside the aesthetically pleasing building the floor dropped away into a deep pit which housed three steam powered pumps which were capable of emptying the Thompson Dock of twenty three million gallons of water in well under two hours. Serving both docks these pumps were the envy of maritime industries throughout the world and the pinnacle of Edwardian engineering.
On the wall of the pump house you will find a beautiful piece of terracotta which depicts the profile of a young army officer, it was created by the sculptress Rosamund Preagar and is the only public example of her work in terracotta. Her work can also be seen at the Giant's Causeway School, inside the 1st Presbyterian Church on Rosemary Street and in Hollywood where the sculpture ‘Johnny the Jig’ is on view.
To accommodate the construction of the proposed Olympic class liners, the three existing slipways were re-engineered into two new slips capable of taking the new hulls. They were directly behind the drawing offices and ran into the Victoria Channel. Four and a half feet of concrete was laid as foundations for the new slipways to support the weight of the planned hulls. It was from here that the Titanic was launched. The most ambitious and challenging construction was the famous Arrol Gantry, constructed by Sir William Arrol & Company of Glasgow, who built the famous Forth Rail Bridge in Scotland.
This was built over the two slipways. The Gantry was 840 feet 270 feet wide and 228 feet tall at its highest point and weighed weighed 6,000 tons. Constructed of three rows of eleven towers, it had one central revolving crane, ten walking cranes, and six travelling frames, three over each slipway. Four lifts and numerous walkways providing access to the ship and Gantry itself.