Overseeing the immense task of building the Olympic-class ships was one of the yard’s Managing Directors, Thomas Andrews. Born in Comber, County Down, Northern Ireland in February 1873, he was the second son in his family; from the earliest he showed a marked fascination for ships, along with a remarkable gift for all things mechanical. Consequently it came as no surprise–least of all to him–when at the age of sixteen he became a premium apprentice entered at the shipyard of Harland and Wolff. (That Andrews was taken on as a “premium” apprentice, meaning that he earned eight shillings a week rather than an ordinary apprentice’s six, was quite possibly in no small part because he was Lord Pirrie’s nephew–his father had married Pirrie’s younger sister, Eliza. By the time William Pirrie became Chairman of Harland and Wolff in 1895, he was well on his way to making the shipyard more-or-less a family concern, having begun the process of employing relatives when he signed on his brother-in-law, Alexander Carlisle, as an apprentice in 1870.)
Andrews’ experience as an apprentice was typical of those of young men who were destined for supervisory and management positions at Harland and Wolff. The apprenticeship for five years, beginning with three months in the Joiner’s shop, followed by a month in the Cabinet Maker’s shop, then two months actually working on ships. After that came two months in the Main Store (warehouse), then five months spent with the Shipwrights, two in the Moulding loft, two with the Painters, eight months with the Iron Shipwrights, six months with the Fitters, three with the Pattern Makers, and eight with the Smiths. Andrews completed his term by spending a year and a half in the Drawing Office.
As in any apprenticeship there was a certain “gofer” element in Andrews’ five years, but he was also expected to learn the tasks performed in the various shops, for a bright future had been projected for Andrews. An especially sharp aptitude for mechanical engineering and construction had marked him as a potential senior manager, a direction that was reinforced by the long stint in the Drawing Office. He learned not only the tasks required to build a ship, but came to know the men who performed them.
As his apprenticeship passed, he grew into early manhood, a six-foot, broad shouldered, handsome young man. But also his character grew, as he developed that indefinable something called “leadership,” and he earned the admiration of the workmen and board members alike, in turn treating each with the dignity they deserved. The reputation for integrity that Andrews carried, were it not so well documented, would be hard to believe. In Thomas Andrews, Shipbuilder, author Shan Bullock paints a moving, detailed, if somewhat breathless portrait of the man in the Harland and Wolff yard:
“One sees him, big and strong, a paint smeared bowler hat on his crown, grease on his boots and the pockets of his blue jacket stuffed with plans, making his daily round of the Yards, now consulting with his Chief, now conferring with a foreman, now interviewing an owner, now poring over intricate calculations in the Drawing Office, now in company with his warm friend, old school-fellow and co-director Mr. George Cumming of the Engineering department, superintending the hoisting of a boiler by the two hundred ton crane into some newly launched ship by a wharf. Or he runs amok through a gang–to their admiration be it said–found heating their tea-cans before hornblow; or comes upon a party enjoying a stolen smoke below a tunnel shaft and, having spoken his mind forcibly, accepts with a smile the dismayed sentinel’s excuse that “’twasn’t fair to catch him by coming like that into the tunnel instead of by the way he was expected.” Or he kicks a red-hot rivet, which has fallen fifty feet from an upper deck, missing his head by inches, and strides on, laughing at his escape. Or he calls some laggard to stern account, promising him the gate double quick next time without any talk. Or he lends a ready hand to one in difficulty; or just in time he saves another from falling down a hold; or saying that married men’s lives are precious, orders a third back from some dangerous place and himself takes the risk. Or he runs into the Drawing Office with a hospital note and a gift of flowers and fruit for the sick wife of a draughtsman. Or at hornblow he stands by a gangway down which four thousand hungry men, with a ninety foot drop below them, are rushing for home and supper and with voice and eye controls them…a guard rope breaks… another instant and there may be grim panic on the gangway…but his great voice rings out, ‘Stand back, men!’, and he holds them as on a leash until the rope is made good again.”
Andrews clearly loved his work, his men, and most of all his ships. Sometime in the spring of 1910, Andrews brought his wife Helen to the shipyard at night. They had been married in June of 1908, and Helen, knowing full well the extent of her husband’s responsibilities and ambitions, described their life in terms Jane Eyre could have understood: “I am my husband’s life as fully as he is mine.” That night, as they stood together on the half-finished decks of the Titanic, she was pregnant their first, and only, child, a daughter to be born in 1910, named Elizabeth. The earth at that time was deep within the tail of Halley’s Comet, and the nighttime sky that spring seemed alive with fire, creating an awesome backdrop as Andrews, nearly bursting with pride, showed his wife his newest creation–the Titanic.