Belfast Telegraph

A famous yard that launched 1,000 quips

With Harland & Wolff set to shut its gates for the last time, Ivan Little recalls the heyday of the famous Belfast shipyard and the characters who worked there

Sad goodbye: workers bid farewell as Harland & Wolff
closes down its river yards in 1971
Sad goodbye: workers bid farewell as Harland & Wolff closes down its river yards in 1971
Workers protest at Harland & Wolff in Belfast this week as the yard is threatened with closure
Playwright and actor Sam Thompson looking across to the shipyard, the inspiration for his play Under the Bridge
Harland & Wolff twin cranes

No one knows what the White Rhino, Nail in the Boot or the Wooden Welder would have made of this week's announcement of the possible end of an era in Belfast that many people thought had ended years ago. The trio with the outlandish nicknames were among thousands of workers who toiled in what was once Northern Ireland's most famous and industrious of industries, the Harland & Wolff shipyard.

Back in its heyday, H&W had 35,000 people on the payroll, but the current tiny workforce of just 123 employees have this week been told that the shipyard, or what's left of it, could close for good.

The announcement undoubtedly came as a shock to the workers, but it was also a surprise to many Ulster people who were under the impression that the yard's last ship had sailed a long time ago.

But quietly and without fuss H&W have in recent years been specialising in marine engineering and energy projects, though their Norwegian owners, Dolphin Drilling put the firm up for sale last year amid growing financial problems. Discussions with potential new owners have come to nought.

To stop the administrators moving in this week, angry workers locked the gates and later took their protest - and a letter - to Stormont where the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson was visiting and where there was what would once have been an unheard of meeting with Sinn Fein.

The workers who are calling for H&W to be re-nationalised say they're determined to save the yard which dates back to 1861 and where the ill-fated Titanic was built.

Even though many people in east Belfast are pessimistic about the future of H&W there's a sense of near disbelief that the yard could shut down.

"The yard isn't a massive employer anymore," said the Rev Mervyn Gibson from the 'shipyard church' - Westbourne Presbyterian - on the Newtownards Road. "But it would still be a huge loss to the community. I have been involved with politicians and community leaders in talks with the shipyard and for a time there was a hope that a defence contract might save H&W later this year."

He's still hoping for the best, but Mr Gibson is determined that even if the 'unthinkable' closure does happen the legacy of H&W should be preserved by more than just the statue on the Newtownards Road of three duncher-clad yardmen making their way home from their work.

And what would happen if the yard did disappear? One suggestion has been that a theme park could be constructed on Queen's Island with the towering Samson and Goliath cranes that dominate Belfast's skyline retained as centrepieces.

"It may sound a wee bit fanciful," said one source. "But don't forget that cynics predicted Titanic Belfast would never work and it's now one of the top tourist attractions in the world. And parts of the old shipyard site have been utilised as film studios, office blocks, apartments and restaurants and there's now talk of an aquarium too."

Westbourne Presbyterian is called the shipyard church because when H&W was at its busiest most of the congregation worked at Queen's Island.

Mr Gibson said there's only one surviving member of his flock who worked in the yard though others are the children of now deceased employees.

The cleric grew up in east Belfast and recalls seeing swarms of workers on their way to and from the yard and he still has vivid memories of watching ships like the Canberra being launched.

He said: "A lot of my family worked there. Everybody knew someone in the yard and every house in the area had a poker from H&W!"

Mr Gibson, a leading official in the Orange Order, remembers 'big men from the yard' building Twelfth of July arches in Dee Street using mobile cranes from H&W "with permission of course".

The minister said the Newtownards Road was a thriving hub back in the day with shops and pubs getting the majority of their trade from the thousands of shipyard families.

"It hasn't been like that for years, obviously," he said ruefully.

So many people worked in the shipyard that it was virtually impossible for anyone raised in parts of Belfast NOT to have a relation among the staff.

A recent book, Auld Hands (Blackstaff Press) by former H&W employee Tom Thompson focuses not only on the rich history of Queen's Island but also on prominent Belfast people who had family ties to the yard.

Van Morrison's father George was a an electrician in the Fifties and James Galway's dad Jimbo was a riveter who would sometimes burst into song on his way home and invite passers-by to throw money into a hat, donating his 'takings' to charity.

Thompson says that Bob Bishop who discovered George Best for Manchester United was a riveter who suffered hearing loss because of the noise from the machinery in the yard.

Even Manchester United's most successful manager Sir Alex Ferguson had a shipyard link. His father Alexander moved for a time from Glasgow to work for H&W and played for Glentoran.

The shipyard also had its fair share of literary figures. Thomas Carnduff was known as the shipyard poet.

Playwright Sam Thompson was a painter and he confronted the toxic issue of sectarianism in the yard in his play Over the Bridge which caused a furious storm in Belfast.

Officials from the Group Theatre refused to stage the play and actor/director Jimmy Ellis put it on at the Empire instead. Ellis, whose father was a sheet metal worker at H&W, later used Queen’s Island as the location for filming him reading a Crawford Howard poem called the Diagonal Steam Trap about a useless invention in the shipyard that became a worldwide sensation.

In 2010 Dan Gordon, who was brought up near the shipyard, premiered a new play about H&W in Westbourne Presbyterian Church.

He said he was inspired to write The Boat Factory by his family links to H&W.

His grandfather Geordie, who came to Belfast from Scotland, had six sons who all followed him into the yard.

Dan said he wrote the play to document and celebrate the herculean effort of people like his father to make Ulster great and to remember the people who died in the shipyard.

Dan said what they did “should never be forgotten”.

The humour of the yard will probably live on for ever. Hundreds of workers were given nicknames because of their foibles and eccentricities or sometimes cruelly because of their disabilities.

Nail in the Boot was the moniker given to a man who walked with a limp.

Another worker who had a hole in his boot was called Dread the Winter because he always said that he, er, dreaded the winter coming.

An employee who had difficulties with other limbs was called Tired Hands because his colleagues said that whenever he was asked to do any work he complained that his hands were tired.

Sammy One Arm was a man who was injured in a terrorist bombing while Sammy No More was given his appellation after he was promoted and told colleagues who shouted his name that they would call him Sammy no more. And that’s exactly what they dubbed him, Sammy No More.

Then there was Washing Soda, the man in charge of the first aid facilities and who had a reputation for treating every injury with — you guessed it — washing soda. His predecessor was Iodine Willie.

The Barking Dog was an idiosyncratic character who would let workers know that he didn’t like them by refusing to talk to them and barked instead.

The Barking Pup was, unsurprisingly, the Barking Dog’s son while the White Rhino was so called because he had spent a few years in Kenya.

Forty Watts was a man who wasn’t too bright and Bungalow was a man with plenty downstairs but nothing upstairs.

A worker who insisted on feeding seagulls, rats and wild cats in the yard was known as Fowl Pest.

And the Wooden Welder was the hapless employee who tried to weld a piece of wood on to steel on a ship.

Buckets McGaughey was something of a legend in H&W, apparently because he was a street fighter from north Belfast who could only be beaten by someone hitting him over the head with the bucket at the side of the ring.

Some of the other nicknames that have become the stuff of legend aren’t quite so easily explained like the Galloping Major, Busted Drum, Rab-Rotten-Root, Rubber Gub, and Bully Beef.

Much-loved and much-missed Ulster comedian James Young found inspiration for some of his most hilarious characters in the yard.

Wee Ernie was popular but probably the best known was a parody of a loyalist leader Billy Hull who was prominent in the Ulster Workers Council strike in 1974. Young created chain-smoking Billy Hulk and the loyalist never lived it down.

At the other end of the glamour scale was President Kennedy’s widow Jacqueline Onassis who visited the shipyard in the Seventies and totally upstaged her second husband Aristotle Onassis who was there as a major H&W shareholder.

After Queen’s Island the couple went to Queen Street to a lunch at the old Harland & Wolff social club which later became an amusement arcade called…Onassis.

The shipyard still features heavily in websites which reminisce about Belfast’s past and contributors swap stories about technical issues and about managers in H&W who were called “hats” because of their hard hats   and harbour police who were dubbed “bulkies” though the derivation of the name isn’t clear.

Among the photographs are pictures of Orange marches in the yard, parades which would not be permitted today but which weren’t seen as out of the ordinary among the mainly Protestant workforce back then.

On other sites there are reflections on serious clashes against the backdrop of partition in the Twenties when violence spread through Belfast after Catholic workers were driven out of the shipyard following the murder of an RIC officer.

There are also websites devoted to happier times in the yard where at one time there were three choirs in existence, including the Harlandic Male Voice Choir who this year celebrate their 75th anniversary.

On a less harmonious note, pilfering was a constant problem in the yard. However, what was unusual was the time in the Twenties when workers started to return misappropriated items like paint and ship’s fittings. It later transpired the repenting came after a gospel crusade by an evangelist.

Prayer meetings and Bible classes became regular activities but so too did card schools.

Somewhat bizarrely, however, there were also ballroom dancing classes under the expert tuition of a man who went on to compete in the BBC TV programme Come Dancing.

In Auld Hands Tom Thompson remembers characters like ‘The Diver’ who would regularly jump off an aircraft carrier’s high deck into the deep water at Thompson wharf and the shipwright who would practice playing the piano every day even though he didn’t have a piano, using a painted replica of a keyboard instead.

But one character gets a whole chapter to himself. The man who’s referred to only as Cecil wandered freely in the yard though no one ever knew what his job was. But his linguistic mix-ups made him popular. He once said his cat was as sick as a dog; he bemoaned rising prices which he blamed on infatuation and he queried how Catholics could think the Pope was inflammable.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph