Launch Day

No, not April 10, 1912.

May 31, 1911, when liner-in-progress SS401 took its first bath.

It seemed that all of Belfast came to witness Titanic's so-called baptism in the River Lagan; some estimate up to 100,000 in the crowd, elbowing for space wherever it could be found. Recall from last year's post about the Harland & Wolff shipyard that the building of any ship, but especially the White Star liners, required the masterwork of thousands of citizens over a period of years. It forged a deeply personal connection, and was an accomplishment for the entire community. It bound them in elation and, less than a year later, in unbridled grief.

It's a challenge to underestimate just much the Titanic meant to Belfast.

As the design and dimensions of the Titanic and the Olympic are practically identical it is not now necessary to say much on this point, seeing that a detailed description of the latter - which would apply equally to her sister ship - has already been published in our columns. The vessels mark a new epoch in naval architecture. In size, construction, and equipment they represent the last word in this science...

Every detail had to be judged with mathematical accuracy if accidents had to be averted, and the preparations had therefore to be made with great care and caution. Over the bows of the vessel the White Star Company's flag floated, and there was displayed a code signal which spelled the word "success". If the circumstances under which the launch took place can be accepted as an augury of the future, the Titanic should be a huge success.

The ceremony was lost on at least one unnamed shipyard worker, though, who was reported to have said of the launch, "We just builds 'em, then shove 'em in."

Admission was sold with a ticket--the proceeds were reportedly donated to two local children's local hospitals, so: right on, Harland & Wolff. Select tickets to the launch survive today. As evidenced by the creases, the tickets all spent some time in their owners' pockets.

Titanic was not complete by any means--just its hull. It had none of its iconic four funnels, and the opulence that we associate with the ship was not yet installed. This was the day that Belfast would see if its newest baby could float.

An inch-thick coat of soft soap, tallow (id est, animal fat), and train engine oil slicked the tracks to allow the Titanic to slide down Slipway 3 into the waters at Belfast Lough, amounting to 23 tons of what must have been truly putrid grease. A daunting 80 tons of cable and multiple anchors were used to moderate the speed.

White Star was not the break-a-champagne bottle-on-the-hull sort of company. But it still knew how to get its pomp on. At least 90 members of the press were in attendance. Shipyard workers were given holiday without pay--unless they were assisting the launch.

Lord Pirrie (left) and J. Bruce Ismay on May 31, 1911, prior to Titanic's launch. Taken by Robert John Welch for Harland & Wolff.


By all accounts, the launch of Titanic could not have been scheduled for a more perfect day, though it was a bit hot for those who couldn't find shade.

Ladies formed a considerable proportion of the aggregate attendance, and even if their picturesque frocks appeared a trifle incongruous when contrasted with the surroundings of the shipyard itself they were unmistakably in harmony with the glow of the soft turquoise sky, from which the piercing rays of the sun descended, making the heat exceedingly trying for those who witnessed the launch.

Company dignitaries and those shipyard workers with ticketed admission took to stands that were built above the crowd. Lord William Pirrie, the Harland & Wolff chairman who was also celebrating a shared birthday with his wife that day, returned from inspecting the hydraulic rams shortly after noontime. At approximately 12:05 p.m., a pair of rockets were fired to warn other crafts in the vicinity. After ascending the stands with White Star chairman J. Bruce Ismay and financier J.P. Morgan, Lord Pirrie finally gave the signal at 12:13 p.m.

Another red rocket was set off.

And as little white flags bearing "Good Luck" shuddered en masse, an exclamation of "There she goes!" echoed in the crowd.

It took a total of 62 seconds for the bow to take the water as the crowd chased its descent, after which the empty hull floated serenely to the other side of the Lagan. From there, five tugboats dragged what would become Titanic to the deep water berth where it would be fitted for its maiden voyage next year.

Titanic launching from the dry dock. By Robert John Welch for Harland & Wolff.


And in the chaos of all this, yes, someone did die.

James Dobbin was what was called an 'old hand'--an established and well-known shipwright about the Yard. On Launch Day, he was assigned to knocking out the wooden support beams as the ship groaned forward. He was cross-sawing one of these shoring timbers when it collapsed and crushed him.

Dobbin was extricated by his colleagues and sent to the Royal Victoria Hospital--and in the company car, no less--where after surgery, he died from his injuries on June 2, 1911, two days following the launch of Titanic. His cause of death was listed by the coroner as "Accidentally crushed under a piece of timber... Shock and haemorrhage following fracture of pelvis."

Jimmy Dobbin was 43, and married. It's reasonably speculated that his wife Rachel and their only child, 17-year-old James, were most likely there that day, witnessing the launch alongside all the rest of Belfast... with no concept of what was happening to Jimmy as Titanic slid away.

And hardly did anyone else. Not Lord Pirrie, who hosted Ismay and Morgan at a private lunch afterward. Not any of the jollymakers celebrating through the day and into the evening. And all the while Titanic bobbed and whispered in its berth, awaiting its engines, its fittings, its crew and its passengers.

From the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.


In 2014, a family photo album containing over 100 before-unknown photos of Titanic and Olympic were auctioned by the family of John Kempster, who was a director and senior engineer at Harland & Wolff; thirteen of those photographs were taken May 31, 1911. On that day, Kempster was acting as the master of ceremonies at one of the celebratory luncheons hosted by Harland & Wolff at Belfast's Grand Central Hotel.

A haunting handwritten caption of the newly discovered photos reads 'Going, going, gone.'

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