The origins of the Harland and Wolff shipyard dated back to the 1840′s, when dredging of a deep-water passage in the section of the River Lagan known as the Victoria Channel created Queen’s Island in the middle of the channel. Robert Hickson built a shipyard on the new island and began the construction of iron ships there in 1853.
Edward J. Harland came to the yard, which was known as Hickson and Company, as a manager in 1854 and bought it outright from Hickson in 1859. Gustav Wolff was a silent partner when he first joined Harland in 1861, but by 1862 the yard was known as Harland and Wolff.
Gustav Wolff was the nephew of Gustavus Schwabe, a Hamburg financier who had relocated to Liverpool some years before. It was Schwabe who had loaned Harland the £5,000 he needed to buy Hickson’s shipyard, and because Schwabe also owned a substantial interest in the Bibby Line, a small North Atlantic steamship company, he was in a position to assure himself that his investment in Harland paid off. It is a matter of record that of the more than 1,500 construction orders on Harland and Wolff’s books in the yard’s 158-year history, the first three were for ships for the Bibby Line.
While it was true that being the nephew of Gustavus Schwabe had much to do with Harland’s decision to take Wolff on as a partner, the yard itself bore the unmistakable stamp of one man only–Edward Harland. His talent for engineering, which bordered on genius, led Harland to make three lasting contributions to shipbuilding. One was purely aesthetic, but the other two were revolutionary. First he eliminated the unnecessary clutter of sailing ships from steamship design: bowsprits, jib booms, figureheads, and their associated rigging. This made the ships cleaner and more distinctive in appearance. Next he squared off the bilges on the ships’ hulls, at once making them more efficient cutting through the water so that engine size would not have to be increased to increase speed, and also enlarged the carrying capacity of any given hull size. Finally he replaced wooden upper decks with decks of iron. This turned the hull into a giant box girder of immense strength, allowing far larger hulls than ever before to be built.
Harland and Wolff were shipbuilders in the most complete sense. Not only did the yard construct the hull and superstructure of the ships they designed, but the yard also produced the heavy machinery, engines, turbines, boilers, and most of the associated equipment as well. This not only made for a more efficient construction but also eliminated the costs of subcontracting, which saved the owners money. More importantly, it allowed Harland and Wolff to set and maintain the unusually high standards of quality that came to characterize their ships.
All but a handful of the White Star Line’s ships would be built by Harland and Wolff. The firm operated under an unusual “cost plus” basis with its client, building the finest ships possible, then billing White Star for the cost of construction plus a fixed percentage of the cost for a profit. By all accounts this was an eminently satisfactory arrangement all around, for it guaranteed the shipyard a reasonable return for its investment in time, labor, and material, while assuring White Star ships built by a yard whose reputation for quality and probity were already becoming legendary. It is a matter of record that each and every bill submitted to the White Star Line by Harland and Wolff was paid on time, without question.
By the turn of the century, Harland and Wolff had become the largest shipyard in the world, at its peak employed more than 15,000 men, from marine architects and draughtsmen, interior designers and decorators, to electricians and plumbers, carpenters and woodworkers, to a bewildering assortment of caulkers, moulders, cloot men, heater boys, holder-ups, and shell platers. In order to guarantee a steady supply of workmen trained to Harland and Wolff’s exacting standards, the yard supported an extensive apprenticeship program.