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The key to the Asturias

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We are very lucky at the Ulster Transport Museum to have members of the public offer us donations of objects they have in their possession. Some of them are instantly recognisable as significant and some take a little bit of digging to find their story…

A Donation Unlocked

Last year we acquired a group of objects as a donation to the Transport collection. They were a set of ordinary looking keys attached to chunky wooden labels with hand written notes describing where they came from.

Image:

As you may be able to read from the image, they were originally used on the RMS Asturias to open up her cabins while she was being fitted out at Harland & Wolff. Not immediately striking but from conversations with the donor, I found out a little bit of their back story and with it, an insight into the daily working life of the Belfast shipyard.

Shipyard work

The donor’s father had worked at the yard from the 1920’s to the 1960’s and, as one of the joiners, was responsible for looking after the keys to the finished cabins. If anyone wanted access to the cabins, they had to approach the joiners for the correct key. He was only 21 when the Asturias was being built but these keys were from a later period.

Image: The Asturias. HOYFM.HW.1988 © National Museums Northern Ireland
The Asturias. HOYFM.HW.1988 © National Museums Northern Ireland

Built in 1925, the Asturias made her maiden voyage from Southampton to La Plata (River Plate), Argentina, on 26 February 1926 registered to Royal Mail Meat Transports, Ltd. (a Royal Mail Steam Packet Company subsidiary).

Image: Launching party on platform 7th July 1925. HOYFM.HW.1996 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Launching party on platform 7th July 1925. HOYFM.HW.1996 © National Museums Northern Ireland

A Ship at War

Like so many other ships of the period, she was taken over by the British government at the outbreak of the Second World War and was utilised as an armed merchant cruiser. In 1943, after being torpedoed by an Italian submarine in the South Atlantic, she was considered a total loss and was towed to Freetown, a port in Sierra Leone where she was subsequently abandoned.

But that is not where the story ends. In 1945 the British government took her over towing her to Gibraltar first and then eventually to Belfast to carry out the necessary repairs and fit her out for service as a troop carrier. This was when the donor’s father worked on her. This work was completed in 1948 when she returned to service as a civilian ship utilised in particular for the transport of over 25,000 migrants to Australia. 

Image: Port profile of the Asturias in Belfast Lough. HOYFM.HW.2095 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Port profile of the Asturias in Belfast Lough. HOYFM.HW.2095 © National Museums Northern Ireland

The Final Curtain

She was due to be broken up in 1957, but while the ship was being dismantled, she provided the perfect location for the filming of the lowering of the lifeboat scenes for the 1958 film A Night to Remember. The Rank film company used the port side for the scenes while the breakers continued to work on the starboard side. Once filming was finished, they were able to complete the final break-up of the ship.

Image: The boat deck. HOYFM.HW.2078 © National Museums Northern Ireland
The boat deck. HOYFM.HW.2078 © National Museums Northern Ireland

So these little keys may not look very exciting but through them we have a tangible link to the story of the Asturias and the men that worked on her.

Harland & Wolff images are available to purchase from our website.