One of the things I’ve been most surprised by, visiting Belfast, is the sheer volume of output of the shipyards here, in their heyday. Employing some 35,000 people at its peak, the Harland and Wolff shipyard was a behemoth of industry, established in 1860 and soon becoming a huge part of the city’s industrial landscape.
It wasn’t just the Titanic. The White Star line had other ships too – the Olympic, launched in the same year, and the Brittanic, which was launched in 1914, and immediately put to use as a hospital ship during WWI. The Olympic saw good service as a cruise liner – being nicknamed Old Reliable – but was retired in 1935 and demolished in 1937; the Brittanic was mined in the Aegean in 1915, just a year after being launched.
There is one White Star ship that does still exist, though: the SS Nomadic. This ship was built in Belfast as the tender to Titanic, and used to ferry passengers from Cherbourg, which at the time did not have a deep-water harbour, out to waiting liners. Nomadic was used, therefore, to take passengers out to the Titanic for her ill-fated maiden voyage.
The White Star line’s biggest rival, in 1911, was Cunard, whose newest ships the Lusitania and Mauretania were built for speed. White Star decided to compete not on speed, but on luxury, and so the fitting out of the Titanic – which took a full year after its launch – was to the very highest of specifications. It was only logical that the tender, which would be the passengers’ first taste of being at sea, should be just as extravagantly beautiful.
The Nomadic that I just visited is just a skeleton of what it once was, standing in a drydock in the old shipyard under a tangle of scaffolding, mid-restoration. I could see why boots and hard hats were required. But once you’d descended the rusty steps you could still see, in the first-class passenger area, the wreath-shaped plaster mouldings on the walls, elegant detailing on the ceiling, and the old-fashioned port-holes.
The head of the restoration project threw out a few names of passengers who had travelled on Nomadic – Benjamin Guggenheim, Marie Curie, Charlie Chaplin… Over the next few years the ship will be restored to the state it was in when it was first built alongside the Titanic, in a mere four months, in 1911. You should be able to visit, too, getting a glimpse of the glamour of ocean travelling 100 years ago.
Click here for the third part of my Titanic blog.