Friday, 13 April 2012

Titanic: An Emerging Urban Quarter

Queen’s Island is a fascinating man made peninsula with a titanic history stretching back to the mid nineteenth century. The land, formed by spoil from excavating the River Lagan later became the site of one of the greatest shipyards in the world, and now in the 21st century possibly a new urban quarter for Belfast.

Queen's Island, 1964. Credit: Belfast Harbour Commissioners.

This blog post opens the story in 1613 and travels through an absorbing near 400-year voyage to 2001 and the beginnings of the modern Titanic Quarter.

From modest beginnings to Titanic success...

Article by Gary Potter.

The story of Queen's Island begins long before its creation in 1613. James I granted a Castle and surrounding land to Sir Arthur Chichester and issued a Royal Charter that saw the official recognition of Belfast as a town. Trade in Belfast grew steadily from this point and in 1636 Belfast built its first ship. The 150 ton ‘Eagle’s Wing’ was commissioned by Presbyterian clergymen to take some 540 persons to America. The attempt to emigrate failed and there is also doubt surrounding the claim that the ‘Eagle’s Wing’ was built in Belfast as no direct documented evidence exists.

Belfast, 1690.

If the ‘Eagle’s Wing’ was built in Belfast, it certainly didn’t signal the immediate beginnings of a world-leading shipbuilding industry. In 1640 the settlement of Belfast consisted of just 600 people and apart from the Castle and immediate surroundings there was nothing of note. The Belfast historian George Benn described Belfast’s port as a “poor little harbor at the bottom of high street”. The River Lagan was so shallow that ships had to lighten their load to progress upstream and the Lagan was so insignificant that it was described as merely a boundary to the town. The main artery was the River Farset which was later covered over in 1770 to create a widened High Street.

River Farset, 17th Century.
Despite the limitations of Belfast’s harbour a Scotsman named William Ritchie established a shipbuilding facility on the north shore in July 1791. His first ship, the Hibernia, was twice the tonnage of the ‘Eagle’s Wing’ at 300 ton. In 1820 Ritchie’s brother Hugh and Alexander McLaine had launched a second shipyard - the first in Ireland to launch a steamboat which they named ‘The Belfast’. Surprisingly, in 1838 a third yard had opened called Kirwan & McCune and the pressure was now mounting to address the poor state of Belfast Harbour.

The shallow mud plains at the entrance to the
River Lagan mapped in the late 17th Century.

The predecessor to the Belfast Harbour Commissioners - The Ballast Board - lacked funding to develop quays and commercial premises but they did focus on keeping the channel clear to facilitate the development of the port. The methods implemented were primitive by today's standards as labourers would dig with spades during low tide. Perhaps rather disheartening for the men involved in this backbreaking work, the minimum depth of the channel had only increased by 0.6 metres after 10 years of digging.

With customs duties rising during the early 19th century and business establishing along the shore the Ballast Board were aware of the potential, and together with the Commissioners of Customs they decided to seek engineering advice on the future of the port. A ship canal through the bend of the Lagan was suggested but with a price tag of nearly £250,000 and no sign of support from the Donegall family or the Government, the Board were unable to proceed. Further reports suggested costs of up to £400,000 but there was an acceptance that something had to be done to address the poor access up Belfast in order to capitalize on the potential of the port.

Walker & Burges's plan to make two 'cuts' through the River Lagan.

A £200,000 proposal in the 1830’s by the London firm Walker and Burges suggested two ‘cuts’ across the bends of the Lagan to create one straight deep channel to the town’s quays. The plan was widely accepted by the merchants and business community - even the local press favoured the plan. But one surprising opposition came from the Marquis of Donegall who felt that the proposed Bill going through Parliament to allow the Ballast Board to progress with the plans was giving the Board too much power. The Marquis received a huge negative backlash from all quarters of Belfast, particularly the Northern Whig newspaper. The Ballast Board, comprising Belfast’s wealthiest men, was becoming increasingly influential - setting the scene for the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, which was soon to be established. In 1833 the Board was granted 358 hectares of tidal flats by the Government for just £26 5s 0d.

Dargan's Island was created from the spoils of the first 'cut' of the Lagan.

In 1839 the Ballast Board appointed the engineer William Dargan to carry out the first ‘cut’ of the Lagan. Dargan completed the task in less than 2 years at a cost of just £42,000. Impressed by the speed and budget, Dargan was later appointed by the Board to carry out the second ‘cut’ in 1846.

With the first 'cut' completed Dargan's Island was created. Map from 1850.

The first ‘cut’ inadvertently allowed the establishment of Harland & Wolff and eventually the Titanic Quarter today. The spoil from the excavation of the first ‘cut’ was dumped by Dargan’s workers on the east side to form the 17-acre Dargan’s Island. The cutting of the Lagan formed the basis for the huge growth of the late 19th and early 20th century. The tenacity, vision and ambition of the Ballast Board, later the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, ensured that Belfast could become a global economic force.

The People's Park on Dargan's Island can be seen bottom right.

During the mid-19th Century tonnage doubled in the Port but amongst this industry and commerce the port was also a place for leisure. The Ballast Board had now become the Belfast Harbour Commissioners who established a policy of providing recreational facilities for the public on part of the newly-created Dargan’s Island. In anticipation of Queen Victoria’s visit to Belfast in August 1849, the Island was renamed Queen’s Island and William Pirrie was tasked with transforming the vast, unsightly expanse of slob land. He created public promenades, planted trees and planned numerous visitor attractions.

Belfast Crystal Palace was the main attraction on Queen's Island.
The central attraction on Queen’s Island was to be the short-lived Belfast Crystal Palace, constructed in 1851 on an area of Queen’s Island known as the People's Park. Unfortunately, in January 1864 the Palace was destroyed by fire. In a mirror of the past, the Titanic Belfast visitor experience is located almost exactly on the location of the Crystal Palace, and the People’s Park is now the site of the Slipways Park.

Plan of Queen's Island, 1850's
During the remainder of the late 19th Century, the industrial growth in Belfast began to push out the leisure element on Queen’s Island and the shipbuilding industry continued to grow. Constructing ships from iron was a huge innovation on Queen’s Island and enabled significant growth on both sides of the Lagan at the ‘wee yard’ or Workman, Clark & Co. and the ‘big yard’ of Harland & Wolff. Despite having no large natural source of coal or iron Belfast defied the traditional forces of location. The ambition on Queen’s Island provided Belfast with perhaps its greatest period in history during the boomtown years. 

Ship building on Queen's Island expanded rapidly during
the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

The Queen’s Island yard, Harland & Wolff, was formed in 1861 by Edward Harland and Gustav Wolff after Harland bought the small Hickson Yard for £5000 which had set up in 1853. The first shipyard on Queen’s Island was actually the small Thompson and Kirwan yard in 1851. After Harland's death William Pirrie took over and oversaw the construction of the famous Olympic Class ships - Titanic, Britannic and Olympic between 1909 and 1914. The ships themselves were hugely ambitious and visionary and required innovative engineering advances. The infrastructure to complete the ships was equally as impressive and the massive twin gantrys, slipways and dry docks displayed that same tenacity that the Harbour Commissioners had shown in the previous century to improve Belfast Harbour.

For some 70 years of the 20th Century, Queen’s Island was the center of innovative engineering until the ship building industry moved East to regions such as Asia. During the 1960’s and 1970’s the workforce on Queen’s Island fell drastically from 16,000 to 6,000. The last ship to be built on Queen’s Island set sail on Saturday 22nd March 2003. The 22,000-ton Anvil Point marked the end of some 150 years of ship building on Queen’s Island. The Island has since reinvented itself, and Harland & Wolff now focus on heavy engineering, renewable energy and ship repair.

Queen's Island, 1964. Credit: Belfast Harbour Commissioners.

In 1999, as shipbuilding was being wound down, the majority owner of Harland & Wolff Fred Olsen began looking to dispose of non-core assets. Fred Olsen sold surplus land on Queen’s Island to Pat Doherty and Dermot Desmond who established Titanic Quarter Ltd and launched a masterplan for Titanic Quarter in 2001. It is from this master plan that the modern day Titanic Quarter has evolved. For more information on Titanic Quarter visit or

Titanic Quarter Masterplan. Credit: Eric Kuhne, Civic Arts.

Share and discuss this blog post on Twitter with the hashtag #titanicquarter and let me know what you think: @belfastgary

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