Belfast Telegraph

Harland & Wolff: Shipbuilder an enduring chapter of Belfast story for more than 150 years

Shipyard workers finish for the day in 1966
Shipyard workers finish for the day in 1966
HMS Belfast being launched on St Patrick’s Day, 1938
SS Nomadic being built
Hydraulic riveters at work during construction of SS Oceanic in the early 1890s
Margaret Canning

By Margaret Canning

The Harland & Wolff shipyard was founded in Belfast in 1862 by Edward James Harland and Gustav Wilhelm Wolff.

At its peak in the early 20th century - its workforce hit around 35,000 in the 1930s - Harland & Wolff and its Belfast yard was one of the biggest shipbuilders in the world and a beacon of manufacturing prowess.

Harland & Wolff built more than 70 ships for the White Star Line, most famously Titanic, which was designed by Thomas Andrews.

Now the famous Drawing Offices where the plans for the liner were refined is the home of the Titanic Hotel within the Titanic Quarter.

The Harland & Wolff cranes Samson and Goliath are among the most enduring symbols of the city.

Yet when you consider the scale of the history of the company, they are relatively recent additions.

Goliath was built in 1969 and Samson in 1974.

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The last ship to sail out of Harland & Wolff was the MV Anvil Point, which left in 2003. It was owned by a consortium including the Bibby Line company, which owned the Venetian, the first vessel built by the firm in 1860.

With the decline in shipbuilding, in 2005 the company began a diversification strategy, using all the knowledge and skills it had learned from the historic trade to target new types of business.

Harland & Wolff has now repositioned itself in the manufacture and refurbishment of renewable energy and offshore facilities, including the biggest dry dock in western Europe. It's made the firm an ideal base for the construction of mammoth installations.

But its contract this year for the dry docking of cruise liner the Azamara Pursuit during its refit by MJM Marine proved that it still has the potential to carry out shipping projects.

One of its first renewable projects was for an off-shore wind farm of 30 large turbines, installed in the Irish Sea, off the Cumbria coast.

Other schemes have included a 60-turbine offshore wind farm off the south west coast of Scotland, a 3,000-tonne under-sea structure off the north German coast, a prototype tidal energy generator, a marine turbine unit now being used in Strangford Lough, and a tidal turbine in the Orkneys.

In 2012, 1,000 workers helped complete a one-month project on the SeaRose floating production, storage and offloading vessel for the Canadian oil firm Husky Energy. That work helped secure the multi-million pound Blackford Dolphin contract, when a colossal oil rig was with Harland & Wolff for six months in 2014.

More recently, Samson and Goliath have been surrounded by giant yellow structures known as 'jackets', which will sit on the sea bed and support 100m high wind turbines.

They are now almost ready to be delivered to a wind farm site in the North Sea,off the coast of Norfolk, in the new year.

The company is now led by Jonathan Guest, who succeeded Robert J Cooper as chief executive in May this year. Mr Cooper had been chief executive for 15 years.

Mr Cooper began his career at Harland & Wolff as an accountant in 1974 and rose during a period when the company was privatised and bought by Fred Olsen Energy.

Mr Cooper is acknowledged as the leader who returned Harland & Wolff to profit through a successful strategy of diversification, leading the firm into the renewable energy sector, design engineering and the growth of the ship repair and conversion business.

Speaking earlier this year, Mr Cooper said that Mr Guest would make an excellent chief executive. "Jonathan is a major asset and the company is in very good hands. I know he will provide excellent leadership for the team at Harland & Wolff."

A change of ownership during 2019 will make year two of Mr Guest's tenure an interesting time.

Belfast Telegraph