“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”
“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”
Belfast, Northern Ireland, United Kingdom

Shipbuilding & Mapmaking [Part 1]

Shipbuilding & Mapmaking Marker [Part 1] image. Click for full size.
Photographed By William Fischer, Jr., May 13, 2019
1. Shipbuilding & Mapmaking Marker [Part 1]

'Belfaste is a place meet for a corporate town, armed with all commodities, as a principal haven, wood and good ground, standing also upon a border, and a place of great importance for service ...'
Extract from a letter to the Privy Council from the Earl of Essex, 1573.

The sheltered anchorages of Belfast Lough were the 'haven' to which the Earl of Essex referred. Capitalising upon this direct access to the sea, Belfast has been building ships of all sizes for more than four centuries. Drawn from the archives of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, this outdoor gallery of historic maps charts the development of port, harbour and shipyards from the 1785 inception of their predecessors, the Ballast Board, to the present day. The members of that board recognised that the key to Belfast's future prosperity lay buried beneath the wide expanse of silt that choked the approaching channel. If ocean-going vessels were to bring their precious cargoes straight to the waiting quays, then the sea of mud and sand had to be conquered.

Through the intricate lines and washes of these maps the viewer can discern the sheer scale of this

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ambitious undertaking, for the very ground upon which these panels stand was once submerged beneath the ebbing tide. The scale of this engineering landscape matches that of the mighty ships built upon it, that then projected Belfast's craftsmanship around the globe. Synonymous with the world's greatest shipyards, Queen's Island remains a tribute to this city's spirit of enterprise.

1785 Belfast at the Ballast Board's Inception

This sketch map shows the River Lagan as it would have appeared when the Ballast Board, (latterly the Belfast Harbour Commissioners), was created by Act of Parliament in 1785. They were tasked with '...Preserving and Improving the Port and Harbour of Belfast': a brief that they have actively pursued for more than 200 years, creating Queen's Island in the process.

This particular map was produced in 1874, on the eve of the board's first centenary, and is certified as being a true copy by the Deputy Keeper of the Records. It shows a proposed ship canal that would have bypassed the last bends in the Lagan and brought ships directly to the city's quays.

1785 Belfast's Early Shipyards

John Williamson's 1791 map of 'The Town and Environs of Belfast' remains one of the most beautiful pre-19th century records of the harbour. Dedicated to the 1st Marquis of Donegall, one of the 15 founder members of the

Shipbuilding & Mapmaking Marker image. Click for full size.
Photographed By William Fischer, Jr., May 13, 2019
2. Shipbuilding & Mapmaking Marker
Ballast Board, the engraving is adorned in each corner by images of buildings that the Marquis had gifted to the town.

1791 was also the year that William Ritchie was invited to Belfast by the Ballast Board to establish a timber shipbuilding and repair yard at the head of the old Lime Kiln Dock, where Corporate Square now stands. Ships had been constructed locally on the Lagan before this date, but this industry began gradually expanding with the arrival of Ritchie and 10 men and much material from his existing yard in Saltcoats, Ayrshire. The first vessel launched from the new shipyard was the 300-ton Hibernia that entered the water on 7th July 1792, just a year after Ritchie's arrival.

By sheer coincidence, when overlaid with the modern outline of Belfast's reclaimed land, Williamson's compass rose (shown in the map above), closely correlates in both form and location to the plan of the four-bowed Titanic Belfast.

1821 The Quest to Straighten the Lagan

Belfast's aspiration to be Ireland's foremost port was hampered by the banks of mud and sand through which the Lagan meandered. Larger ships were restricted to the deeper water of the Pool of Garmoyle, requiring a laborious transfer of cargoes onto shallow-draft lighters to be ferried the last leg. This increased costs for merchants and prices for customers, as well as complicating the duties

Shipbuilding & Mapmaking Marker [Part 1] image. Click for full size.
Photographed By William Fischer, Jr., May 13, 2019
3. Shipbuilding & Mapmaking Marker [Part 1]
Titanic Belfast museum in background
of customs officials.

Money tends to focus the mind, and when in 1814 the revenue from customs duties approached £400,000, both the Ballast Board and the Commissioners of Customs sought advice on improving their port. A Mr Bevan of London advocated building a ship canal to cut the first bend in the river, while Mr John Killay of Dublin suggested building both a canal [and] a gated basin to retain the tidal waters and keep the ships afloat. Though well received by the board, the expensive estimates (ranging up to £250,000) did not impress the government, who referred the matter to the eminent engineer Mr John Rennie. From 1815 onward, both Rennie and his son (later to be Sir John Rennie) produced successive schemes such as the one above, offering various configurations of ship canal and wet dock.

c. 1830 Telford's Ship Canal

Seeking solutions from yet another renowned engineer, the board simultaneously consulted Thomas Telford, who would shortly rise to lasting fame for his graceful Menai Suspension Bridge in Anglesey. Telford proposed a very similar scheme to those of Rennie and his son, calling for various permutations of ship canals and basins, accessed by imposing locks to counteract the tidal waters. This plan, circa 1830, lays out his later proposals of a massive ship canal arcing across the Country Antrim mud flats to access a 36-acre wet dock.


RMS Titanic (left) and RMS Olympic Slipways from Titanic Belfast Museum image. Click for full size.
Photographed By William Fischer, Jr., May 13, 2019
4. RMS Titanic (left) and RMS Olympic Slipways from Titanic Belfast Museum
all their engineering acumen, this prominent trio could not produce a plan that fitted the purse of the Belfast merchants, for the government refused to contribute, and the Ballast Board's income was far too modest to fund the growing estimates of up to £400,000. Money had proved as great a barrier as mud to Belfast's growth.

1830 James Walker's Solution

Despite these setbacks, the Ballast Board was unwilling to admit defeat. In 1830 it re-examined all the previous plans in search of a less ambitious option. In the end it was a London-based engineer, James Walker of Walker & Burges, who finally offered a cost-effective solution and one that could be carried out in affordable phases. He proposed dredging a single channel composed of two cuts through the mud flats, thereby connecting the Pool of Garmoyle directly to the town's quays.

Estimated to cost £180,000 to £200,000, this was a far more realistic proposal, but it still took another nine years for the necessary authority and funding to be in place. Royal Assent for the Board's new plans swiftly followed the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837. William Dargan, then Ireland's foremost engineering contractor, won the job and he started the first cut (or 'Dargan's Cut' as it was known locally) in 1839, completing it in January 1841.

1836 An Alternative Scheme

The success of

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Walker's two-cut approach was by no means assured, for time and money were always against the commissioners. The Crown had granted the Ballast Board some 885 acres of unreclaimed tidal flats in 1833, but progress was blocked five long years by the exorbitant price demanded for a vital piece of land owned by George Dunbar. A group of frustrated landowners and merchants then backed a private alternative scheme, cutting south through the County Down bank to bypass Dunbar's land. When this plan approached the bill stage the outflanked Dunbar drastically dropped his asking price, allowing Walker's plan to proceed.

1850 The Birth of Queen's Island

William Dargan completed Walker's second cut in 1849 and the harbour's new approach was christened the 'Victoria Channel' in honour of the Queen's visit to the city that year. Excavating the first cut in 1841 had already generated vast amounts of spoil, (commonly referred to as 'slob'), which the [B]oard permitted Dargan to deposit on the south side of the new channel. In the process he gradually fashioned a 17-acre landmass that came to bear his name.

At first the Board were content to set much of Dargan's Island aside for public recreation, planting it with trees to create a 'People's Park'. Throughout the 1840s it played a prominent part in Belfast's public life, climaxing in 1850 with the highly successful Victoria Fete. This was held exactly a year after the monarch's visit, for which occasion the site had been renamed Queen's Island. The fete's financial success funded the construction of one of Belfast's great lost buildings: the Crystal Palace. Designed by John Boyd, this glass pavilion stood 112 feet long, 72 feet wide and 20 feet high, becoming the glittering heart of an oasis of green set amongst the gritty docks and shipyards.

c.1850 Shipyards Come to Rule Queen's Island

The light of the Crystal Palace was to be short lived for, like its famous London counterpart, it too was consumed by fire. The blaze of 1864 destroyed the collections of rare plants and birds that had drawn the crowds, and with repairs estimated at half the original construction costs this icon was left in ruins. The passing of the palace paved the way for others to expand across the island. A Mr Robert Hickson had already founded an iron shipyard on its western edge, in 1853. Hickson sold his yard just five years later to its energetic young manager, Edward James Harland, who in entering into full partnership with his financial backer, Gustav Wilhelm Wolff, in 1861. From its very inception, Harland & Wolff was rooted in Queen's Island and, together with its future neighbour Workman Clark & Company, would make this address famous throughout the world.

This triptych of maps charts the expansion of the Queen's Island shipyards from the single set of patent slips entering the Abercorn Basin to the west, to the familiar 'saw-toothed' form seen today. The commissioners completed both the Abercorn Basin and Hamilton Graving Dock in 1867, adding greatly to the port's capacity for construction and repairs. The map of 1872 shows what was to come, with the dotted outline indicating the proposed diagonal cuts that would create the North Yard's slipways. These would become the birthplace of the Olympic-class liners.

1885 Belfast Ballast Board's Centenary

100 years after the inception of the Ballast Board (reconstituted as the Belfast Harbour Commissioners in 1847), the map of Belfast's harbour had changed beyond recognition. The western half of Queen's Island had assumed its familiar form, with three yards arranged in series to launch ships into the Abercorn Basin or the Victoria Channel. To the south the land reclamation programme is shown advancing ever onwards, approaching the bend of the old channel that the second cut had bypassed. This year saw work begin on the important Alexandra Graving Dock and the rebuilding of the extension to Donegall Quay, expanding the harbour facilities to make Belfast an even more important port within the British Isles. Named in honour of Princess Alexandra who cut the first sod on site, the 830-foot length of the Alexandra Graving Dock made it the largest in the world, its proportions reflecting the longer, leaner ships of the late 19th century.

1906 Belfast Prepares for Titanic

Like the land on which they stood, the shipyards of Queen's Island could be remoulded to suit the changing needs of industry. When the order for the Olympic-class liners was secured in early 1907, Harland & Wolff set about reorganising their operations to accommodate the ambitions of the White Star Line. The North Yard's four slips were reduced to three with a new parallel pair, 990 feet long, lying side-by-side within the Arrol Gantry. A feat of engineering within its own right, this grid of pylons and girders caged the liners on their keep blocks, allowing powerful hydraulic riveters to be craned up and down their length with ease.

The Belfast Harbour Commissioners had shown remarkable foresight by beginning the Thompson Graving Dock in 1903, for at 850 feet long (with the option to extend by 37.5 feet using a moveable caisson) it was to prove essential for the great ships' fit out. The softness of the reclaimed slob land did not always work to the [B]oard's advantage, for the walls of the Alexandra Graving Dock dramatically subsided in 1905 due to work on the neighbouring Thompson Graving Dock and could not be stablised for another two years.

1912 Titanic Port

The Olympic slipways had already given form to the White Star Line's largest liner when this map was drawn. Launched on 31st May 1911, Titanic's 882-foot, nine-inch hull slid smoothly down into the cold waters of the Lagan, thanks to 15 tons of tallow, three tons of soft soap and a further mix of five tons of tallow and train oil. Titanic remained in Belfast till her fit-out was completed on 31st March 1912, before setting sail for her sea trials and then onward to Southampton. This map shows Queen's Island as Titanic left her, the spur of the Musgrave Channel hinting at the land yet to be reclaimed to the south. The channel itself had been excavated between 1899 and 1901, creating a 'second front' for Queen's Island's industries, all connected inland by a network of light rail tracks set into the roadways. These can still be traced upon the upper reaches of the slipways: a reminder that the North Yard was just one part of a vast enterprise that dominated the reclaimed landmass.

Topics. This historical marker is listed in these topic lists: Industry & CommerceMan-Made FeaturesWaterways & Vessels. A significant historical year for this entry is 1573.
Location. 54° 36.503′ N, 5° 54.552′ W. Marker is in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Marker is adjacent to the Titanic Belfast museum. Touch for map. Marker is at or near this postal address: 1 Olympic Way, Queen's Road, Belfast, Northern Ireland BT3 9EP, United Kingdom. Touch for directions.
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within walking distance of this marker. Olympic Slipway (a few steps from this marker); Titanic and Olympic Slipways (within shouting distance of this marker); Titanic Slipway (within shouting distance of this marker); Shipbuilding & Mapmaking [Part 2] (within shouting distance of this marker); RMS Titanic Keel Laying Centenary (about 90 meters away, measured in a direct line); Former Harland & Wolff Headquarter Building (about 180 meters away); Harland and Wolff Shipyard (about 180 meters away); Caisson (about 210 meters away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Belfast.
Regarding Shipbuilding & Mapmaking [Part 1]. The maps well show the evolution of Belfast Harbour. However, glass reflectivity makes it difficult to photograph the maps.
Related marker. Click here for another marker that is related to this marker.
Also see . . .
1. Shipbuilding in Belfast. (Submitted on June 6, 2019, by William Fischer, Jr. of Scranton, Pennsylvania.)
2. Shipbuilding - Story of Belfast. (Submitted on June 6, 2019, by William Fischer, Jr. of Scranton, Pennsylvania.)
3. Titanic Belfast. (Submitted on June 6, 2019, by William Fischer, Jr. of Scranton, Pennsylvania.)

Credits. This page was last revised on June 10, 2019. It was originally submitted on June 5, 2019, by William Fischer, Jr. of Scranton, Pennsylvania. This page has been viewed 126 times since then and 13 times this year. Photos:   1, 2, 3, 4. submitted on June 6, 2019, by William Fischer, Jr. of Scranton, Pennsylvania.

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May. 28, 2023