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Page Updated 27 November 2011


The World’s Greatest Shipbuilding Yard

IMPRESSIONS OF A VISIT TO MESSRS. HARLAND AND WOLFF'S SHIPBUILDING YARDS AT BELFAST

By BRAM STOKER


A Hoisting Cantilever Frame

 

IT would be difficult to imagine any better object-lesson to a country from the point of view of commercial enterprise than the magnitude, stability, and prosperity of Harland and Wolff's shipbuilding yards. The founders and developers have proved beyond all doubt that success is not necessarily dependent on natural local conditions. In Belfast the shipbuilding industry has to depend solely on labour—labour based on thought and enterprise. In the process of turning out fleets of the finest vessels afloat, there is, in a word, no aid from local natural products.

Less than fifty years ago the firm of Harland and Wolff was a small, unambitious concern. It was only when the manager, Mr.—afterwards Sir—Edward Harland acquired possession, that expansive power began to manifest itself. It was not, however, till Lord Pirrie took command that full development was reached. For close on forty years he has been connected with the firm, first as partner, latterly as head.

 


A View of the Works from Abercorn Quay

 

In this shipyard it is possible to follow the whole process of construction, from the reception of the raw material, in itself a big work, to the departure of the registered ship. All day the sound of clattering metal is heard on the stone pavement of the Queen's Road; great waggons are carrying lengths of flat or angle steel. Brass, copper, lead, iron, tin, and even costlier metals pass along. There comes also an endless procession of tree-trunks —English oak and Irish ash; paint; rubber; cement; canvas; goods for upholstery in every form; and in addition to raw material, anchors and chains, cables and hawsers of steel or hemp or coir, ventilators, lamps, and electric and other fittings.

The works may be divided broadly into two sections: first, the shipyard proper, where the "ship" is put together; and secondly, the different series of stores for raw and completed material, power-houses, workshops, and administration buildings. In the latter section the timber is dealt with in its various stages. There are acres devoted to the preparation of this material alone: ponds for steeping (for certain woods require to be "seasoned" in various ways), and sheds for drying both in bulk and in cut form.

Here may be seen fine-grained yellow pine from Canadian slow-growing forests, great teak balks from Rangoon; enormous trunks, roughly squared by the axe, of giant mahogany from Honduras; hardwoods of beautiful texture and pattern, suitable for panelling and veneering, from Californian mountain woods, from Pacific Islands, from tropical rivers. The odour of the dry dust of yellow pine and the damp dust of teak blend and give a strange and unique aroma to the place.

The other great building in this section is that devoted to the boiler shops. The main building is no less than six hundred feet long. The boilers for the great ships are of huge size and thickness of steel, fortified by enveloping bands of inch and-a-half steel.

In this area of the yard are also the pattern-shop, stores, fitting-shop, spar and riggers shed, sail-loft, and boat-shed. The newest building in the section is the electric generating station—in itself an example of up-to-date perfection.

    The shipyard proper is surrounded on three sides by water; to the south the Abercorn Basin, to the north and west the River Lagan. On the south end are five slips—always occupied—and on the north four, and no sooner is a vessel launched than preparations begin for laying the keel of another.

Perhaps the most remarkable of many remarkable things is the perfection of the establishment's organisation—no slight matter in an industry where the type of work is constantly changing, and where weights and measurements grow by leaps and bounds. At the north end of the yard the space has had to be increased by adding the low-water shore and making it available by shutting out the tide with coffer-dams.

     There are in the yard three enormous travelling gantries, viz., vast bridges supported by tressels, which move on rollers working on firmly laid rails. On these the cranes lift and shift material for the ship beneath. These gantries cost something like £25,000 each, so that the widening is an elaborate and costly undertaking. Yet at the south end of the yard has lately been erected a still larger gantry costing perhaps as much as four of the older pattern. The bridge is stationary, 600 ft. long, and supported by mammoth uprights. Along this works the travelling double or "bridge" crane, whose top is 185 ft. above ground. It is wide enough to cover two great ships, one on each side. By electric power it lifts any weight and deposits it where required. It travels the whole length of the bridge in one minute. It is so arranged that if only one side of the crane is working, or if one is carrying a heavier weight than the other, a supplementary weight travels automatically on the other side so as to keep even balance. In addition to the traveller, this bridge has supplementary cranes, also movable, from which are suspended the hydraulic riveters, which now play so important a part in iron structures. For some purposes the ordinary riveter's hammer is not sufficient, and the hydraulic riveter is used. It is an immense double mass of steel, shaped like a lobster's claw. When the points are adjusted, pressure is applied, and in an instant the great fiery bolt is squeezed into a solid mass inextricably one with the plates it holds.

 

 


                        The “Oceanic” on the Stocks


        Hamilton Graving Dock and Works from Queen’s Road

 

The first operation in building is, of course, the laying of the keel, already drilled with holes for riveting, to which are bolted the various ribs already prepared. Then along its centre is fixed a single sheet of steel plating, some four feet high, making one of the divisions between the double bottoms of the ship. From the keel bottom other plating is curved, and this spreading upward and outward fixes the base-lines of bow and stern. Amidships the plating is carried out laterally as the ship's bottom is here quite flat.

Close in front of the slip lying alongside the sea-wall is one of the latest ships launched from the yard, and as yet the largest. She is being "finished," and three thousand men are at work on the job. She is the new White Star boat Adriatic; 708 ft. long, beam 75 ft., gross tonnage 24,000. Her engines alone weigh 3000 tons, and when her captain stands on the bridge he will be a hundred feet above the keel.

There are at present nine great ships on the stocks in this yard ranging in length from 400 to 650 ft. with corresponding tonnage of 6000 to 23,000. For many reasons a ship is not nearly complete when she leaves the slip. For the output of a yard is limited by the number of available slips. And even in an incomplete state the weight of a great ship is such as to create an exceeding difficulty of movement. When the Great Eastern was launched there were many unsuccessful attempts before she could be moved; the snapping of a hawser under the terrific strain put on it resulted in a large death-roll. Since that time, however, much has been learned. Now the actual keel does not slide at all; it is the casing under it which slides, and this in a trough of tallow. The mere appearance of these vessels towering over one makes one exclaim, "Here we undoubtedly find Efficiency."

The very yard itself is an instance, and no mean one, of human endeavour. Originally a slab formed by the embouchment of a river on a tidal shore, it had in itself but little stability, and was not used for any work of magnitude. It was known as Queen's Island. Then it became a pleasure garden with small zoological annexe. As in its existing capacity it had to be prepared for the reception and sustaining of vast weights, it had to be banked and built up on every side. Embedded in its depths are thousands and thousands of piles, representing an enormous sum of money and an incredible bulk of material. The labour and expense of pile-driving on such a gigantic scale must have been immense. It is such investment of capital—investment made with forethought and boldness— to which is due the success of great enterprises. Shipbuilding as a venture at the outset must always be expensive.

All through this great shipyard, the biggest and finest and best established in the world, there is omnipresent evidence of genius and forethought; of experience and skill; of organisation complete and triumphant. In the doing of this great work—so various, so interdependent—all seems simple, whether it be in perfected details or vast combination. The building of a ship appears to be mere child's play.

Some twelve thousand men are employed here all the year round. At halfpast five o'clock on Friday afternoon a horn blows, and section by section the men line up outside the score of pay-offices. At twenty minutes to six the last man passes out with his salary. As there are twelve thousand people employed at an average weekly wage-bill of £20,000, the payment of these varying accounts within ten minutes instances the perfection of business organisation, which can hardly be exemplified in a better or more fitting manner.