1 The Dream Is Born

RMS Titanic was the second of three Olympic-class ocean liners owned by the International Mercantile Marine Company, and operated by the White Star Line on the Trans-Atlantic passenger route, between Southampton and New York City. At her time of launch, on 31 May 1911, she was the largest ship afloat and was unparalleled for comfort and luxury. Titanic was slightly larger than her sister, RMS Olympic, which was launched the previous year and entered service with her maiden voyage on 14 June 1911. Titanic dwarfed Olympic in volume and weight. Her total weight was 46,328 gross registered tons, compared to Olympic’s 45,324 gross registered tons. Making Titanic, the heaviest and finest ship afloat.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, intense competition existed between shipping lines, in particular the White Star Line and Cunard Line. Cunard were a formidable competitor with two standout ships belonging to their fleet, the RMS Lusitania and RMS Mauretania, which were ranked as the top in sophistication and luxury on the lucrative Trans-Atlantic route between Liverpool and New York. Cunard’s RMS Mauretania entered service in 1907, at 790 feet long, weighing 30,000 tons. Cunard’s two new ships were the talk of the shipping industry and immediately set the standard of travel that White Star dreamed of replicating. Mauretania immediately set a speed record for the fastest Trans-Atlantic crossing, with speeds in excess of 26 knots. RMS Mauretania held the record for 22 years. RMS Lusitania entered service the same year and was heralded for its opulence and spectacular interior.

In the summer of the same year, J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman and Chief executive of White Star Line, met with Lord William James Pirrie, chairman and chief executive of Belfast based Harland and Wolff ship builders, at Downshire House – Pirrie’s London home, to discuss the construction of three new vessels. The three new White Star vessels would permanently alter the history of human travel and outclass the two new Cunard Line vessels in standard of travel and comfort. The ships would be 50% larger than Lusitania and Mauritania, although not as fast.

The new Olympic-class vessels would surpass all other ships ever built in sheer size and luxury. The first liner, Olympic would set the standard in ocean travel and her sisters Titanic and Britannic, would indeed surpass that standard. The trio were to be the largest moving objects ever built by man and would put White Star at the forefront of the race to dominate the shipping routes of the North Atlantic.

Ismay and Pirrie very quickly put into motion the events that would lead to the creation of the three super liners, that summer evening in London. Pirrie’s nephew, Thomas Andrews, a brilliant young engineer and dedicated Naval Architect, would be placed in charge of the overall design of the three vessels.

Thomas Andrews was barely 40 years old when he was appointed chief designer for the Olympic-Class liners at Harland and Wolff. He was responsible for producing every drawing of every part of the ships and he would later travel on Titanic’s maiden voyage. Continually writing down notes in a book he always carried around, Andrews used the notes to provide alterations, suggestions on improvements for Titanic and the construction of the third Olympic-Class vessel, Britannic, thus ensuring they would become the most magnificent vessels and super-liners of ocean-going luxury of their time.

In addition to Andrew’s keen supervision of the design process. Ismay also played an active role – insisting on being consulted on any changes to the design. Andrews was the managing director of the design department. But, Ismay had the final say on all decisions regarding the development of the Olympic-class liners.

Ismay noted that the Cunard vessels had four funnels on their ships and envisioned the new White Star liners would have three funnels and four masts. Pirrie altered the design to add an extra funnel, which would simply serve as ventilation for the engine room. Pirrie reasoned that four funnels would provide a more commanding presence for the White Star Line ships and raking the funnels backwards would provide the impression of speed, even when the ships were stationary. Pirrie also altered the number of masts from Ismay’s four to two, one forward and the other aft of the four funnels. Reasoning, any more would make the new ships appear to be sailing ships.

Harland and Wolff drew up a contract with the White Star Line, providing the three new ships on a “Cost Plus” agreement basis. This meant that, no matter how much the cost of building the ships increased during the construction period, the shipbuilder was guaranteed to make a profit on the agreement. The average profit margin in contracts such as this was 5%, often being paid for in share stock in the contracting company.

The new Olympic-Class vessels would be 882 feet long and 92.5 feet wide at their widest point, making them the largest vessels afloat at that time. Construction of RMS Titanic was funded by the American, J. P. Morgan, and the International Mercantile Marine Co.

In early 1908, the designs were finished and by the end of March an order for the three new ships was officially placed with Harland and Wolff. As soon as the construction on the new gantries was completed, White Star Line’s Olympic- class super liners could become reality. A dream would be born.

The Construction

This was definitely a new age, a new Era. The world had never seen anything like Olympic and, especially the newer, Titanic. No moving objects, the size of these mammoths, had ever been constructed by man. From the start of construction, it was with pride from the lowest worker to the highest management of Harland and Wolff that such a vision could be conceived from its embryonic stages. Then, grow to dominate the world of ocean travel.

At the time of their construction, 15,000 people worked at Harland and Wolff. To accommodate the new ships’ construction, Harland and Wolff were faced with a major engineering problem. No shipbuilding yard had faced the challenges associated with attempting to build ships the size of the Olympic-Class vessels. The ships were constructed on Queens Island in Belfast Harbour, now known as, “Titanic Quarter.” The slipways had to be re-engineered for their enormous weight and size. To accommodate them, three previous slipways had to be demolished. The vessels’ enormous size posed some extra problems, a gantry was constructed over slipways 2 and 3 that could accommodate both ships. The giant gantry measured 840 feet long by 240 feet wide and 228 feet high to the top of the upper crane. It was equipped with four large electric lifts and a system of cranes. A separate crane, capable of lifting 200 tons had to be brought in from Germany.

The layout of the slipways and gantry enabled the construction of both Olympic and Titanic to take place virtually side by side. Both ships were built following similar construction methods. Construction consisted of a Keel backbone with 300 ribs consisting of the frame, 24 inches and 36 inches apart and 66 feet high, measured from the Keel to the ships Bridge deck. It was decided that the ships would not utilise the double skin hull that had been used in previous vessels, but would, instead, utilise the double bottom design, extending all the way up the side of the hull. The double bottom, the outer hull and the inner hull was about 5 feet 3 inches apart and utilised 2,000 steel plates to form the outer skin of the hull. The sheets were exceptionally heavy, but as speed was not a consideration or a factor in the design, this did not matter. The exceptional weight of the steel plates, were deemed necessary for the strength required for such mammoth vessels.

Titanic gantry

The 2,000 plates were single sheets of rolled steel, up to 6 feet or 1.8 m wide and 30 feet or 9.1m long, weighing roughly 2.5 to 3 tons each, varying in thickness 1.5 inches or 3.8 cm to 1 inch or 2.5 cm thick. The plates were laid in a layered or clinkered fashion from Keel to bilge. Above the ships’ bilge, the plates were laid out in the in and out or strake plating fashion, where the plates are overlapped, then riveted together. Using over three million iron and steel rivets, which, them selves weighed 1,200 tons. The rivets were mostly fitted by hydraulic machines and by hammering by hand in areas the hydraulic machines could not reach. The hull of Titanic had over 2000 portholes for the wealthier passengers to view the sea rolling past the ship.

Worker Trapped in Titanic Hull

Was a shipyard worker at Harland and Wolff trapped inside the Titanic’s double bottom hull? Rumour during the ships construction certainly claims there was. Work was progressing on her construction so well that the rumour grew.

Titanic is not the only occasion in human history where a worker is supposed to have been trapped during construction. Such myths grew over time as construction methods and speed increased. The Egyptian pyramids certainly have their share of workers suddenly finding themselves trapped inside as the buildings rapidly grew around them, especially as these structures became more important than the men creating them. The 20th century also has such tales. The Hoover Dam for instance where, one or more workers did find themselves entombed forever – with all the activity going on around them, no one noticed they were missing.

Titanic is not unique with such stories around shipbuilding. In 1859, The Great Eastern was constructed. The Great Eastern was a true giant of a ship, six times larger than any other ship at that time. Rumours were rife of a worker trapped in her double hull throughout her life. Eventually, when she was scrapped 30 years later, reports surfaced, claiming the skeleton of a worker was discovered in her hull. However, no documented evidence has ever surfaced to support the claim.

In reality, injuries and deaths, resulting from accidents were surprisingly rare during Titanic’s construction. The standard notion at the time was, shipbuilding yards should expect a ratio of one worker death per £100.000 spent. On that basis, Titanic should have had dozens of deaths during her construction. In fact, only eight deaths were verified between her Keel laying, until her launch. Her ‘construction to death’ ratio was regarded as an incredible achievement. In fact, every worker involved in the construction of Titanic was accounted for at the end of every day.

The origins of the ‘entombed worker’ myth are quite understandable and certainly not surprising. At the end of the working day at Harland and Wolff, inspectors would check the quality of the rivets by tapping on them with a hammer, to calculate the pay for the riveters. It’s not surprising that the sound made by the inspectors would have led some older workers to explain to gullible, younger workers, the tapping sound was from a trapped worker who was hoping to be freed from the hull. The same myth also mentions, some passengers onboard Titanic heard the tapping from the ghost of the trapped worker. These stories have never been verified

~~ ~~ ~~ ~~

Lord Pirrie watched with great pride as the first of the three super liners, Olympic arose from the ground up. The first ship with the gigantic gantry that would, propel Harland and Wolff to the forefront of shipbuilding, using the innovative technology and building method the rest of the world would strive to equal

Work on the new Olympic-Class liners began with the keel of RMS Olympic being laid on 16 December 1908, on slipway 2, followed by her sister ship, Titanic on 31 March 1909, on slipway 3. Olympic was launched on 20 October 1911,watched by a massive crowd of 18.000 people. A tradition with White Star Line and Harland and Wolff was that the first ship built in a class would be painted all white, with a black line between Deck D and C, separating the hull from the superstructure.

Titanic was not alone in the massive gantry for long – the Keel of Britannic was laid soon after Olympic’s launch. Work continued non-stop on Titanic at a frantic pace until her launch on 31 May 1911

390904 = No Pope

After Titanic sank, claims were made of a curse, known as the Titanic Curse, linked to the White Star Lines practice of never christening their ships when launched. Another was suggested with the ships hull number, being 390904 spelled out NOPOPE when reflected on a mirror. This ‘NOPOPE’ slogan was believed to be a direct attack on the Roman Catholic faith. Harland and Wolff are situated in East Belfast, Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland region has a large sectarian, Protestant population. Thus, Titanic’s sinking was believed by some to have been as a result of anti-Catholic sentiment held by the ships builders.

Harland and Wolff were known for hiring few Catholics, though it is unclear whether this was a result of anti-catholic sentiment, or the area of East Belfast being mainly a protestant area to which few Catholics would travel, so few Catholics would work.

The ‘No Pope’ Myth of the Titanic tragedy implies that Catholic workers at Harland and Wolff noticed the blasphemous message, possibly by the numbers being reflected into a puddle of water or by looking into a mirror and seeing the supposed anti-catholic slogan. As is the case with mythology, it is not clear how the slogan was first noticed. However, what is known is that the Catholic workforce refused to work, until management explained that the ‘NOPOPE’ message was purely coincidental. As the story of the hull number spread throughout Ireland, many people took the view that Harland and Wolff was a hotbed of anti-Catholic sentiment. Other stories also soon spread of how Catholics were treated at Harland and Wolff. The stories also served to illustrate the attitudes of many Catholics towards the Protestant population!

In fact, the CEO of Harland and Wolff, Lord Pirrie, was sympathetic toward Catholics and refused to allow such nonsense of antagonism between Protestants and Catholic to exist at Harland and Wolff. There never existed any employment policy that barred Catholics from working at their yards, or unfair treatment towards Roman Catholics.

For the ‘No Pope’ myth to be true, The Hull number of 390904 would have to be true. Actually, the number of 390904 was never assigned to Titanic, as a hull number or another number. Titanic’s actual Hull number was 131428 – her Build Number or official Board of Trade designation. The shipyard number assigned to Titanic was 401. As, Titanic was the four hundred and first ship built at Harland and Wolff. Her slipway number was No 3.

As stated earlier, it is not exactly clear where the myth of the number 390904 originated. Certainly not long after the ship sank, many people were asking just how a ship built from iron and steel, a triumph of modern technology and pride, could sink after a collision with an iceberg, which is only frozen water. Surely the disaster could not be the result of an accident. Some came to believe the sinking was obviously an act of divine retribution. This view was particularly strong among the Southern Irish Roman Catholics.

Northern Ireland, in particular, Belfast, where Harland and Wolff is located, has a mainly Ulster Protestant population. Antagonism has cursed the relationship between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland for over four hundred years. At the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century, the division between Ulster and the rest of Ireland began to take on political overtones. Politics and Religion can create a volatile mix.

As a result of this mix of politics and religion, expressions of defiance grew and the story of the number 390904 gained traction.

That the story of RMS Titanic sinking was an Act of divine retribution, because her existence defied the existence of God and denied the existence of the Pope and the Holy church also spread to the Irish communities in the United States. The proof? Well, that was the anti-Catholic message hidden in the ships hull.

~ ~ ~ ~

Many employment and working regulations, concerning safety of workers that are taken for granted in the 21st Century did not exist at the start of the 20th Century. For the 15,000 people who worked on Titanic, the work was difficult, and dangerous, safety was rudimentary at best. Most of the work was carried out without safety equipment, such as hard hats or safety guards on machinery. As a result, death or injury, resulting from accidents were expected. 246 injuries were reported during her construction, 28 of those were recorded as severe, for example: Legs crushed by falling sheets of iron and arms severed. Six people were killed on the ship during her construction and fitting out. Two others were killed in the shipyards sheds and workshops. One more was killed after a plank of wood fell on him during the ship’s launch.

The two new Cunard ships were dominating the North Atlantic. White Star Line needed to get their new super-liners into service as soon as possible. Since her launch, Olympic had undergone seven months outfitting. After two days of sea trials, she was handed over to White Star Line on May 31, 1911. The same day Titanic’s completed hull was launched


TITANIC: The Legend, myths and folklore Copyright © 2013 by Bruce Alpine. All Rights Reserved.

Share This Book


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.