Belfast Telegraph

Paying homage to a jewel in our shipbuilding crown

Alf McCreary charts the history of Belfast's Thompson Dock, where a plaque will be unveiled for its centenary today

The unveiling of a plaque today to mark the centenary of the Thompson Dock in Belfast Harbour Estate confirms that, on completion in 1911, it was one of the engineering wonders of the world.

The dock was 128ft wide and 44ft deep and was capable of holding some 21 million gallons of water. It was 850ft long - 20ft longer than the existing Alexandra Dock nearby. As such, it was a remarkable addition to Belfast harbour at the beginning of the 20th century.

However, it had an extra dimension to help it accommodate the world's largest vessels. There was a special outer caisson gate, which could extend the length by another 37.5ft. It fitted the massive new Olympic Class liners - including the RMS Titanic - like a glove.

The Thompson Dock was opened on April 1, 1911 with the entrance of the RMS Olympic for its fitting-out procedures and, later on, by Titanic itself, as well as many other huge vessels in the following decades.

Without the Thompson Dock, it is questionable whether the Titanic would have been completed in Belfast. Sir John Parker, a former chairman of Harland and Wolff who began his apprenticeship as a naval architect in the shipyard, said: "The dry docks were essential at that time and I doubt if there were any others in the United Kingdom where the Titanic could have gone for dry-docking on that scale.

"If there were such facilities elsewhere, they would have added greatly to the cost."

The adjacent Pump House and the Thompson Dock were essential for the fitting out of the great liners.

The powerful pumps could empty the dock in record time and the men who operated them took great pride in reducing the water level so skilfully that the massive vessels could be placed on the bottom as if they were being lowered onto an eggshell.

Conall Doherty, a Queen's University engineering graduate who made a special study of the Thompson Dock, said: "It was a world leader in its day and also a considerable feat of engineering on reclaimed land.

"Many people do not realise how revolutionary it was, because it was entirely different to anything that had gone before."

The creation of the dock was also a huge act of faith by the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, who were responsible for the port. Lord Pirrie, the chairman of Harland and Wolff and also a prime mover in creating the Titanic and her sister ships, was also a harbour commissioner.

Pirrie persuaded his colleagues of the need for a massive new dry-dock and he was part of a delegation from the harbour which met the Admiralty in London in 1899 to ask permission and subsidies to build large warships. It was left to the Harbour Board, however, to press ahead with the construction and work was begun on the Thompson Dock in October 1903.

It took longer than expected to complete - partly because of subsidence, which caused a collapse in the walls of Alexandra Dock.

Almost eight years later the new Thompson dock was completed at an enormous cost.

It was opened by the RMS Olympic and for nearly 100 years it remained one of the jewels in Belfast's shipbuilding crown.

Today's unveiling the centenary plaque is a reminder that 100 years ago Belfast was the Silicon Valley of the developed world.

Bill Gowdy, chairman of the Institution of Civil Engineers, said: "The plaque will be a reminder of this tremendous engineering feat in Belfast, which allowed our maritime heritage to flourish."

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