The National Museums NI stand-alone Titanic website is now offline.
Read about Titanic and her sister ships below and visit our TITANICa gallery at the Ulster Transport Museum to learn more about the fascinating history of these remarkable ships in a exhibition showcasing much of the material we hold in our internationally significant collection.
By 1900, Belfast had become one of the world’s most prosperous industrial cities. It had the design skills and top quality workmanship to produce world-class steamships, despite having to import almost all the raw materials for shipbuilding. Eleven years into the new century, Titanic was launched and in 1912 was lost on her maiden voyage - becoming the most famous ship in the world.
The story of Titanic is essentially the story of a close and fruitful relationship between two companies: Harland & Wolff and the White Star Line.
The White Star Line commissioned three nearly identical ships from Harland & Wolff and, between 1908 and 1915, the three Olympic Class vessels were built. The plan was for Olympic, Titanic and Britannic to work the lucrative North Atlantic route. The three ships were very large and built to the highest standards, with well designed accommodation for all classes of passengers. The White Star Line had vast experience in transporting passengers across the Atlantic and knew that their new ships would be a worthy challenge to the huge new liners, Lusitania and Mauretania, of the rival Cunard Line.
Yet, although all three ships were built, the plan was never fulfilled. The second ship, Titanic, was to become world famous through sinking with huge loss of life on her maiden voyage. Her two sisters, Olympic and Britannic, are less well known and had very different careers. Olympic made her maiden voyage in 1911 and remained in service for a further twenty-four years. Britannic, like Titanic, was destined for a short life. Less than a year after her maiden voyage in 1915, Britannic sank after striking a mine during the First World War.
Of the three ships, it is Olympic that best provides a window into life on board for passengers and crew. Olympic survived until 1935 when she was broken up and her fittings sold at auction. She was the most photographed of the three vessels, both because she was the first built and because she survived the longest. By understanding Olympic, we also understand Titanic because the two ships were almost identical and were built and fitted out with a year of each other.
Around 15,000 people were employed by Harland & Wolff when Titanic and her sister ships were under construction. There were close community links with the shipyard which often employed several members of a family, spread across two or more generations.
The Drawing Office at Harland & Wolff was where the design of Olympic Class ships was worked out in intricate detail. Building on years of expertise in ship design, every aspect of the ships’ construction was carefully considered and set out in the drawings. A ship was only drawn once, so the plans for Olympic were also used for Titanic and any changes and improvements were duly noted.
Ships’ plans were often very long and highly detailed so large, well-lit, drawing desks were required for ease of working. The design of the Olympic Class ships owed much to Alexander Carlisle who retired as chief draughtsman in 1910, the Chairman William Pirrie and Thomas Andrews who was head of the Naval Architects’ Department at Harland & Wolff.
The loss of Titanic
Titanic left Queenstown, Co. Cork on 11 April 1912 and headed west across the Atlantic.
The new ship made good progress and passengers enjoyed the excellent facilities. Her voyage was routine for her crew apart from a small fire in one of her coal bunkers that was brought under control after a couple of days. During the voyage, several wireless reports warned of ice on her route. On 14 April at 11.40pm, about 400 miles (640km) south-east of Newfoundland, Titanic struck an iceberg.
The damage caused by the collision was considerable. Six of her watertight compartments were opened to the sea. Titanic was designed to stay afloat with any two compartments flooded, but as the weight of water drew her down by the bow, water rapidly began to fill each compartment in turn. The pumps on board could only delay the inevitable. The ship was doomed.
The Marconi operators sent urgent distress calls and the Cunard liner Carpathia altered course and raced towards Titanic’s last reported position. Captain Smith ordered the lifeboats to be swung out and filled with women and children. There were not enough lifeboats for everyone and many were not filled to capacity. When Titanic sank at 2.20am on 15 April, over 1,500 lives were lost.
About two hours after the sinking, Carpathia arrived and rescued 705 survivors from Titanic’s lifeboats.
Titanic Exhibition Book
‘Titanic: Behind the Legend’ draws on the rich collections in National Museums NI to reveal the remarkable story of Titanic, the most famous ship in history.
The fateful tale of the maiden voyage of Titanic in April 1912 is one of the best-known stories in the world.
Less well known is the dramatic story of how, what was then, the world’s largest vessel came to be conceived and built in Belfast at the Harland & Wolff shipyard.
It is this story, and the story of the people who built Titanic and her sister ships Olympic and Britannic, which provides much of the focus of this book. Its text and wealth of images weave a remarkable narrative exploring the context of the ambitious design and build of these ships, the appeal of the transatlantic journey and the subsequent place of Titanic in myth and memory.
It is a narrative which combines the best of human endeavour and the worst of human tragedy.
‘Titanic: Behind the Legend’ costs £9.99 and can be purchased in the Ulster Museum gift shop and both the Ulster Transport Museum shop and the Ulster Folk Museum shop.
Visit TITANICa: The Exhibition to learn more.