Who Built the Titanic?

The idea for building Titanic was born one evening in 1907 at the London home of Lord Pirrie, head of the Belfast shipbuilding company, Harland and Wolff. His dinner guest, White Star Line director J. Bruce Ismay, wanted to find a way to compete with Cunard Line’s newer, faster ships, the Mauritania and Lusitania. Knowing they couldn’t build a faster ship, Pirrie and Ismay turned to planning a series of bigger and more luxurious vessels—the most elegant ships the world had ever seen. The ships would be named the Olympic, the Titanic, and the Gigantic.


Lord Pirrie and Bruce IsmayWithin six months, construction began on Olympic and Titanic at the Harland and Wolff shipyard on the River Lagan in Belfast. Fifteen thousand workers arrived at 6:00 am every day but Sunday, and clocked out at 5:30 pm. They took a short breakfast break at 8:30 am, and a lunch break at 1:00 pm. Each man was allowed only a certain number of trips to the toilet and was timed in the process. Their pay, averaging two English pounds per week, was deducted if they were ever late for work, damaged company tools or equipment, or broke any shipyard rules. A day’s pay could be lost if a worker went to watch the launch of a ship. Everyone received one week off in summer and two days off at Christmas and at Easter.

Boys as young as 14 were often hired as apprentices. After five years of learning a specific trade, the apprentice could be qualified to join a workers’ union as a plumber, electrician, coppersmith, riveter, plater, joiner, caulker, or one of many other kinds of tradesmen.


Workers leaving Harland and Wolff at the end of a long day

Casualties were common. When Titanic was completed, 254 incidents had been recorded, with 8 fatalities. At the time, these numbers were well within the accepted rates. Two of the deaths were on the riveting squads. The squads each consisted of 4 or 5 men, and were responsible for heating, transporting, and pounding into place many thousands of rivets inside and outside the entire structure. They were paid by the rivet, so each man hurried to keep up his part of the job all day long. The fatalities occurred when two boys, aged 15 and 19, died as a result of falling while they carried red-hot rivets in their tongs to the other men on their squads.

Harland and Wolff normally chose a group of workers who were familiar with the ship to sail on its maiden voyage, called the guarantee group. No one knew the ship like they did, and who better to fix a sticking door or explain the function of some device to the crew than the ones who built it? Being selected for the guarantee group meant the worker had shown excellent skill on the job and was trusted to represent the company in a professional manner. It was a reward for a job well done, and was practically a guarantee of a good future with the company.


Titanic's Guarantee Group

Titanic’s guarantee group was led by its head designer, Thomas Andrews. At 39, Andrews was Lord Pirrie’s nephew and the man most likely to take over at Harland and Wolff one day. The eight other members of the group were:

Roderick Chisholm, chief draftsman, 43.

Anthony Frost, fitter foreman, 38.

William Parr, electrician, 29.

Robert Knight, leading hand fitter, 39.

Ennis Hastings Watson, apprentice electrician, 19.

Francis Parks, apprentice plumber, 21.

Alfred Cunningham, apprentice fitter, 21.

William Campbell, apprentice joiner, 21.

Some of the members of the guarantee group had never been far beyond Belfast, and were thrilled and honored to be taking their first transatlantic voyage on a ship they helped to build. Sadly, none of the men survived the sinking.

Photo credits: Titanicuniverse.com, Discovery Channel

Titanic's hardworking steward

When John Hardy signed on as Titanic’s Chief Second Class Steward, he brought with him fourteen years’ experience at sea. In my yet-to-be-published novel, Ruth Becker meets Hardy just after Titanic has departed Southampton, and is thrilled to learn he has a pram for her to push her little brother on deck.

john hardy

John Hardy

Hardy had worked for the White Star Line for twelve years, serving aboard four ships. In between his duties, he’d married his landlady’s daughter, Etta, in Liverpool, and had two children, Ronald in 1903 and Norah in 1905. The family moved to Southampton, and were living there at the time of Titanic’s sailing in 1912.

John, 36, was already on board as Titanic made her way from the Harland and Wollf shipyards in Belfast on April 2nd, arriving in Southampton on April 4th. The next day, Good Friday, the ship was decorated with colorful flags and pennants as a salute to Southampton. But before she could begin her maiden voyage on April 10th, most of the crew would be hired, thousands of tons of coal would be loaded, and supplies for the voyage would be brought aboard, including enough food for a small city. Also, any cargo, including crates of goods purchased abroad by American customers, was loaded into the cargo hold.

John Hardy was responsible for overseeing 162 second class cabins. On the night of the sinking, he turned off all unnecessary lights in the second class areas, went to bed around 11:30 pm, then felt a slight shock. Checking the passageway, he found nothing amiss and returned to bed. Then the Chief First Class Steward woke him with the news of what happened. John proceeded to rouse the stewardesses and assist passengers to the lifeboats. He worked on deck until the last lifeboat was launched, followed by the collapsible boats. He managed to board the last one, carrying 25 passengers, just 15 minutes before the ship sank. Later, they tied the boat up together with six other boats and took on ten more passengers.

collapsible lifeboat folded away

Example of a collapsible lifeboat with its sides folded away


Titanic crewmembers following rescue

John Hardy continued to work for the White Star Line, then aboard hospital ships and troop transports during the First World War. Twins were born to John and Etta in 1919, and the family moved to New Jersey, where John continued for twenty years as Chief Steward for various ships in the United States Line.

John Hardy died at his son’s home at the age of 82.

hardy tombstone

Photo credits: Encyclopedia Titanica and New York Times

The Owner Who Saved Himself

When the Titanic sank in 1912, most of the blame for the disaster centered on White Star Line’s chairman and managing director, J. Bruce Ismay. After all, it was his ship that caused more than 1500 deaths on its maiden voyage. And the fact that Ismay jumped in a lifeboat and survived added to the worldwide attention and controversy. ismay

Joseph Bruce Ismay was born in Liverpool in 1862, the son of Thomas Ismay, senior partner of Ismay, Imrie and company and founder of the White Star Line. Bruce was made a partner in the firm at age 29, then promoted to head the business when his father died in 1899. In 1901, Ismay agreed to a merger with American shipping companies led by J. Pierpont Morgan. The White Star Line then became part of the International Mercantile Marine Company.

In 1907, Ismay and Lord Pirrie, partner at Belfast shipbuilding company Harland and Wolff, agreed to construct a series of luxurious ocean liners that would outshine Cunard’s new Lusitania and Mauritania. The new WSL ships would carry more third class immigrants to America and offer the very best in accommodations to the wealthy.

As he did on many of the maiden voyages for White Star Line’s ships, Bruce Ismay boarded Titanic as she left Southampton on April 10, 1912. Following the collision with the iceberg, some claimed Ismay assisted with the evacuation of women and children to the lifeboats. Following rescue, Ismay testified at both the US and British inquiries that when he boarded the lifeboat known as Collapsible C, all other boats had left Titanic’s starboard side and no women and children were present.

From the lifeboat, Ismay was so overcome with emotion that he was unable to look as the Titanic sank. Onboard the Carpathia, he was given a private cabin and had to be sedated. Visitors found him in shock and mostly unresponsive for a good part of the trip to New York.

Despite his testimony at the inquiries, hostile newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic labeled Ismay a coward for not remaining on the Titanic as she sank. His reputation never recovered, and he retired from the White Star Line in 1913. Every movie about the disaster depicts Ismay as a villain, regardless of the lack of evidence against him.

headlines after sinking

In Ismay and the Titanic, author Paul Louden-Brown writes, ‘Hundreds of thousands of pounds were paid out in insurance claims to the relatives of the Titanic's victims; the misery created by the disaster and its aftermath dealt with by Ismay and his directors with great fortitude, this, despite the fact that he could easily have shirked his responsibilities and resigned from the board.'

Bruce Ismay died at the age of 74 after a long battle with diabetes. He is buried in the family grave in London.

ismay obit

Photo credits: rarenewspapers.com, ssqq.com