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A Titanic connection, the ship is launched

As 15th April 2012 approaches and with it the tragic centenary of the sinking of the Titanic, I thought it appropriate to commemorate a happier event in the ship’s history and that of Belfast, where the ship had been constructed.

It was a ship that my own Great Great Grandfather would have been very proud of, because in his capacity as Head Foreman Shipwright, it was his responsibility to ensure its successful launch from the dry dock where it had been built, into the river Lagan.

His name was Robert Faulkner Keith and he'd moved from Newcastle upon Tyne where he had completed an apprenticeship at Armstrong Mitchell and Co to Belfast where he had been offered a job at Harland and Wolff in 1894.

A Titanic connection, the ship is launched, Robert F Keith Head Foreman Shipwright
Robert F Keith,
Head Foreman Shipwright,
Harland and Wolff

And so it was that my Great Great Grandfather came to launch the big 401, the Titanic, on Queen’s Island, Wednesday, 31 May 1911, under auspicious skies and watched by an estimated 100,000 spectators.

During the build up to the launch, the Belfast Newsletter carried advertisements about purchasing tickets for the event, nine pence for adults and six pence for children.

Distinguished guests including Bruce Ismay, the Chairman of White Star Line were greeted by the Chairman of the Shipyard, William Pirrie.

Wearing his top hat and tails as he usually did for launching ships, Head Foreman Shipwright Robert F Keith supervised the final stages of preparation. It was time to knock out the props of wood that had been holding the ship in place and allow the hull weighing around 20,000 tons to slip into the Lagan.

At noon a rocket was fired to signal that the main gates of the shipyard were to be closed and no one else would be allowed in. Five minutes later another rocket was fired to warn all small craft in the river Lagan that the launch was imminent. At ten past twelve a final rocket was fired to signal the launch was about to proceed.

No bottle of champagne was broken over the bows of the ship and the words “God Bless Titanic and all who sail in her”, were never said. The White Star Line didn't believe in a christening ceremony for their ships. From his seat in the stand Pirrie was heard to shout “NOW” and Robert Keith released the hydraulic ram, at exactly thirteen minutes past twelve. The Titanic started down the slipway and entered the waters of the Lagan. Once the hull had come to rest, slowed down by massive drag chains and anchors, the hull was then towed to the out fitting wharf where all the internal fixtures and fittings would be put in place before the ship was bound for Southampton, before beginning her maiden voyage across the Atlantic.

The launch had been a success and to celebrate a special luncheon hosted by William Pirrie was provided for distinguished VIPs at Queen’s Island while the Press and other guests dined at the Grand Central Hotel in Royal Avenue.

However, almost a year later tragedy struck on 15 April 1912 and Belfast fell under a cloud of shame and grief for the ship that they had once been so proud of. Generations remained silent, stories were lost while the top hat and tails that had launched the Titanic were folded up and placed on the top of a wardrobe, eventually finding its new role, when Great Uncle Willie dressed his scarecrow in them.

One hundred years later and the cloud has lifted enabling Belfast to celebrate the workmanship that went into the construction of the ship and its various connections with the Titanic.

To find out more about the launch of the Titanic, visit TitanicBelfast.

Share your own stories of the Titanic in the comments section below.

Best wishes

Sarah xx

Sarah Agnew
Blogger, Modern Bric a Brac

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