Titanic at City Hall
We know that ships were being built in Belfast nearly 400 years ago, but it was a Scotsman, William Ritchie, who claimed credit for starting the industry in the 1790s on the County Antrim side of the Lough. In the 1860s, a boom caused by the American Civil War allowed the partnership of Edward Harland and Gustav Wolff to start the firm that eventually became the biggest ship builder in the world, launching over 3000 vessels but perhaps best known for Titanic1.
Three memorials at City Hall10 mark Belfast's Titanic connection. These are grouped close together on the left side of the square when you face the building.
Older than you'd think…
Belfast was born at the meeting of three rivers: the Lagan, Farset and Blackstaff. The town's name comes from the Irish – Béal Féirste – meaning the mouth of the Farset. People have lived here since earliest times. The first settlement grew up around the crossing point of the Lagan nearest the sea. As a town developed, its potential as a port and place of trade was recognised and efforts were made to improve access for ships. The small vessels of the 17th century could moor at the foot of High Street, but as they got bigger they could not navigate the broad, shallow Lagan with its expansive mud banks. Overcoming these obstacles was an ongoing struggle until the middle of the 19th century.
The shopping mall at Victoria Square sits where the Blackstaff runs into the Lagan, creating a little inlet. Construction of the mall uncovered layers of history: in one place there was an early 18th century slipway with four barrels sunk in the ground on either side. We think these barrels were used to keep fish alive for sale. A layer down, archaeologists found an apparent medieval wharf made from wattle (woven sticks) – the first evidence of structures this early in central Belfast.
The little passages, or entries, off Anne Street are typical of Belfast. We think they aligned with foot bridges which cross the river Farset, now culverted under High Street2. Their width and length reflects the long, narrow property divisions of the 17th century.
Down to the river
Belfast originally only occupied the County Antrim side of the Lagan and was connected to the other bank in County Down, first by a ford and then by a single bridge. When the Victoria Channel was dredged to deepen and straighten the passage for ships, the upthrow created new ground, first called Dargan's Island and then Queen's Island. It is now known as Titanic Quarter, commemorating the vast shipyards which came to occupy the space.
Crossing over the bridge will bring you to Titanic Quarter where further signage and interpretation will connect you to more of Belfast's shipbuilding heritage4. You can also reach Titanic Quarter via the footbridge at the Lagan Lookout.
As you continue along to Donegall Quay, you will see the old line of the quay at the lower slip road that runs past Tedford's. Mapped as reclaimed land in 1685, it had become Hanover Quay by 1715.
Continuing along the river's edge brings you to the Lagan Lookout and a footbridge which connects to Titanic Quarter. Past the Lookout, where the Farset joins the Lagan, you will see the Big Fish, a sculpture by Belfast man, John Kindness.
At a jetty downstream from the Big Fish the Lagan Boat Company runs trips on the river6.
The large space on the other side of the road is Corporation Square, named after the Corporation for the Preservation and Improvement of the Port and Harbour of Belfast, which later became the Harbour Commissioners.
Ballast and build
One of Belfast's strengths was the ability of its merchants to band together to develop its port. An Act of 1785 set up the Corporation for the Preservation and Improvement of the Port and Harbour of Belfast, more commonly known as the Ballast Board. After an initial struggle to secure engineering expertise and financial backing, the port took off and supported rapid industrial growth. Belfast's greatest natural resource was its connection by sea to shores beyond Ireland, eventually making it a world industrial force.
This part of Belfast is called Sailortown and was once home to over 5000 people. This is where dockers, sailors and their families lived alongside transient seamen from around the world. Cargo had to be moved by brute manpower and ships needed sailors to man them across the oceans. As Belfast grew at a rate faster than any town in the British Isles, people flooded in from the country to meet these needs, hard as life in Belfast might have been.
The Belfast Dockers' Strike of 1907 has international importance in the development of industrial relations, and had a major impact on the political history of Ireland. A combination of slum clearance, road building and containerisation – which required only a few men to unload ships – devastated the area but its rich histories and traditions still live on.
Trading with the world
Belfast's maritime importance was not limited to shipbuilding. The city's success was down to its merchants, whose ships travelled the world in search of profit.
The city's connections to the sea continue to shape its physical and cultural identity. Evidence of Belfast's maritime heritage is all around, waiting to be discovered11.
Find Out More
RMS Titanic was one of series of Olympic class liners - the biggest man-made moving objects built to that time - constructed by Harland and Wolff for the White Star line. Titanic is the most famous, but her sister ship Olympic was launched first and went on to have a long and distinguished career. The memorial is by the famous sculptor Sir Thomas Brock, who also produced the statues of Sir Edward Harland and Queen Victoria at City Hall. His big break came when he was given the commission for the statue of Prince Albert on London's Albert Memorial
If you look at High Street you will see that is broad and has a distinct hump down the middle. This is because the River Farset ran open down the middle until the nineteenth century.
Lagan Legacy is a not-for-profit organisation which has been collected the history of the people who worked in and around the river, including, but not only, the shipyards. It has a large oral history archive and collections of photographs and artefacts. Check out www.laganlegacy.com
Titanic Belfast, a major interpretative experience, will open in 2012 along with a series of related events.
Belfast was famous for its 'Long Bridge' - the longest on the British Isles. The section over the river was 840 long but when the arches over the boggy margins were added, it reached nearly a mile which shows how much river has been narrowed in over centuries of reclamation. The bridge was built in the 1680s but had become very dilapidated by the 1800s. It was a favourite place for a summer stroll.
6↑Lagan Boat Company Tours
Lagan Boat Company Tours - They bill themselves as 'The world's only Titanic boat tour!'
7↑Belfast Harbour Commissioners
The Corporation for the Preservation and Improvement of the Port and Harbour of Belfast was more commonly known as the Ballast Board, set up in 1729. Ships which had unloaded cargo needed ballast (weight) for the journey back. This was taken from the bed of the river and was a way of deepening the channel and keeping it clear. Ultimately this was not enough, and a channel had to be cut across slob lands by the famous engineer William Dargan. The dredged material became what was called Queen's Island - now Titanic Quarter.
- 8↑Titanic Belfast https://www.sailortownregeneration.com/
- 9↑Rediscovering Belfast's Forgotten Maritime Past https://www.stakeholdermedia.com/news/rediscovering-belfasts-forgotten-martitime-past/
- 10↑City Hall tours www.belfastcity.gov.uk/cityhall/tours.asp
- 11↑For all the latest Tours of Belfast www.gotobelfast.com/what_to_do/tours_excursions.aspx