There are a lot of things my ancestry did, but one of the accomplishments I’m proud of is they actually built the RMS Titanic I admit they didn’t do it all by themselves, but my great-great grandfather and his son (my grandfather) were both riveters in the Harland and Wolff Shipyard in Belfast, N. Ireland. In fact, my paternal grandfather’s first ship when he started as a 14-year-old apprentice was that very ship that was struck by an iceberg and went down in 1912.
However…as a family we accept no responsibility for the sinking of that infamous ship.
You can blame my family ancestry for my fascination with the building of ships, even though having a male ancestor who worked on the Titanic is not a rare thing for immigrants from N. Ireland, especially the city of Belfast. The majority of men in my grandparents’ era were employed by the world famous Harland and Wolff.
To understand why one of Britain’s largest shipbuilders, both of passenger liners and naval vessels, was located in Belfast, you have to remember that the 6 counties in the north of Ireland have been a part of Great Britain for centuries and still are to this day. The remaining 26 counties in the island make up the independent country of Ireland.
The number of ships built in Belfast today are much less than they were in the golden years of shipbuilding, from about 1861 until the decline, around the mid-fifties when my father followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and joined the ranks of shipbuilders. In the late 1800’s there were up to 10,000 workmen, and around the time of the Titanic around 4000.
I remember as a little child (I’m 58 now) being taken to the yard and staring up at the bow of an ocean liner sitting in dry dock. To this day the sight of the huge steel bows of ships arcing upward gives me the shivers, the scary shivers.
My father’s first job at the yard was messenger boy. He was only about 16 at the time. With the yard being 300 square acres, he rode a bicycle with an attached leather saddle in which he delivered messages, blueprints, technical drawings, etc. from one point in to yard to another. Later he became a boiler maker and eventually immigrated to Canada, in the search of shipyard work as that trade began to die. An interesting note, is that might be the last great wave of Irish immigrants to the new world.
But back in the day, Belfast was where hundreds of world-known leviathans were built for countries around the globe. They built 70 ships alone for the White Star line, aside from the Titanic and her sister ships Olympia and the Britannic.
I always knew that one day I would write about the Belfast riveters who built these liners. Always a dangerous trade, 5 to 8 casualties a year in the shipyard was considered acceptable back at when Titanic was launched. Thank God things have changed. But no doubt my grandfather and great grandfather stood on the shores of the River Lagan as the Titanic sailed out for her sea trials.
Based on my research I wrote the following piece for a novel that shows the dangerous ballet of a riveter whether it be in shipbuilding or that of bridges, the two trades featured in my next release Sofi’s Bridge.
“Watching the riveter’s ballet of throwing white-hot steel always made Neil’s stomach harden to a lump.
Neil picked out his brother, Jimmy, from among the men on the bridge deck, and expelled a long sigh. Working on those meager platforms hanging over the side, one slip, one fumble from that height...and a man could die.
On the deck, Jimmy rapped his elongated tongs against the cone-shaped catcher can, waiting for the man known as the heater. The heater sent Jimmy a nod and thrust the peg of steel into the portable cast iron forge. When the peg of metal glowed to a molten white, he pitched it forward. Jimmy caught it in the catcher can and inserted the glowing rivet into a hole in the girder. With the same concentration Neil would use with a scalpel, Jimmy waited for the bucker to place his buckling tool against the head of the rivet, and for the riveter to hammer it home.”
Like most people, I’m proud of my ancestry on both my mother and my father’s side. My mother’s family military history inspired my multi-award-winning historical trilogy, Shadowed in Silk, Captured by Moonlight, and Veiled at Midnight. But it was my paternal family history in the building of ships that inspired Sofi’s Bridge which will be released May 1, 2016.
Find out more about Christine Lindsay
and her books on her website www.ChristineLindsay.org