The Lads in the Shipyard

At its peak in the early years of the 20th Century, Harland and Woff employed more than 14,000 men, from marine architects and draughtsmen, interior designers and decorators, electricians and plumbers, carpenters and woodworkers, to a bewildering assortment of caulkers (responsible for cutting clean heads on finished rivets, as well as assuring that steel plates were sealed tight), moulders (who formed the steel plates for the hull that required special shaping, cutting, or bending), cloot men (who cut cloth for a multitude of uses), heater boys, holder-ups, and shell platers (more on them in a bit).  To guarantee a steady supply of workmen trained to Harland and Wolff’s exacting standards, an extensive apprenticeship program was introduced.

The kings of the shipyard were, of course, the riveting teams.  Ships at the turn of the century were put together almost entirely with rivets, not welded as they are today, and while the keel and framing of the ships were riveted hydraulically, almost all the riveting of the shell plating was done by hand.  Driving rivets was hard work, and the men who built the ships were equal to their task.  They were strong, tough men, usually more wiry than big, and because of the physical demands of their job they would brook neither weakness nor slack.   Their workday began at 6:00 a.m. and ended at 5:30 p.m.  Working in teams of four, they were paid by the number of rivets each team drove each day–and if it rained they didn’t work.  First the “heater boy” (who could really be of any age) would work up a fire in a coke brazier, using a foot bellows to keep the heat up.  Using long tongs he would heat a rivet until it was red hot.  (For shell plating the rivets used were squat, nail-like slugs of iron three inches long and an inch thick.)  Once a rivet was ready, the heater boy would toss it up to the “catch boy” who caught it in a wooden bowl (hence the name), then used a pair of tongs to place the rivet into the hole of two overlapping steel plates.  The third man, the “holder-up”, then placed a heavy hammer over the head of the rivet, while the fourth man, the “basher”, working from the opposite side of the plate, would beat the rivet down until it filled the hole.  In the archives of Harland and Wolff there are meticulously kept record-books tallying the number of properly driven rivets completed by each team during their shifts–the record for a single four man team was over 12,000 rivets driven in a single six-day week in the summer of 1909.

The shipyard workers were a close-knit bunch, they extended their respect only to those who could bear up under the hard work.  And it was hard work, with demands and expectations placed on the workmen that modern industrial workers would never tolerate–and probably couldn’t endure.  It was dangerous work, as well, with the always looming threat of a potentially fatal or crippling fall from a stretch of scaffolding onto a concrete apron seventy feet below, or being struck on the head or shoulder by a red-hot, one-pound iron rivet dropped by a ham-handed catch boy far above, being caught by massive pieces of machinery or steel plating as it was hoisted and moved into place.  Eight workers would lose their lives while Hull Number 401 sat on Slipway Number 3, the last of them, James Dobbins, killed during the Titanic‘s launch when falling timbers crushed his left leg; he bled to death rescuers could get him to a hospital.

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