Thomas Andrews

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.

Andrews boarded the Titanic in Belfast, along with the Harland and Wolff seven-man “Guarantee Group,” just before she left for Southampton and her maiden voyage.  While the crew — and later the passengers — were settling in, Thomas Andrews and his assistants were moving about the ship, beginning the slow process of locating the inevitable problems, faults, and breakdowns that always plague new ships.  In the case of the Titanic it appeared that these would be far fewer than usual–the experience gained with the Olympic and incorporated into the Titanic had been invaluable.  There were a few niggling details that most men wouldn’t have noticed or bothered with, but Andrews was a perfectionist.  Before long he decided that the color of the pebble dashing on the private promenade decks was too dark; he thought the coathooks in the staterooms used too many screws; and he discovered trouble with the hot press in the First Class galley.  Aside from such details, the Titanic promised to be, as Bruce Ismay had said about the Olympic, “a marvel.”

On the night of April 14, 1912,  Andrews had returned to his cabin, A-36, after dinner go to over his notes for the day. He was poring over blueprints and diagrams of the Promenade Deck when the ship struck the iceberg, so absorbed in his work that he never even noticed the collision, figuring out the details of converting the ship’s writing room into more staterooms.  Moments after Andrews arrived on the bridge in response to Captain Smith’s request, he and the captain were making an inspection of the damage. Working their way deep into the ship, using mostly accesses and corridors used only by the crew to attract less attention, they found flooding in the forward cargo holds, the mailroom awash, the squash court floor covered with water. As they made their way back to the bridge they passed through the A Deck foyer, their faces set in expressions of inscrutability. Once on the bridge, Andrews reviewed the situation: the forepeak and both forward holds were flooded, the mailroom was awash, Boiler Room No. 6 was flooded to a depth of fourteen feet, and water was entering Boiler Room No. 5. For nearly three hundred feet, as the iceberg and bumped and ground along the Titanic’s side, seams had been split, plating bent and rivets popped: the first six of the Titanic’s sixteen watertight compartments had been opened to the sea, all in the ten seconds’ time it took the berg to brush by.

Andrews quickly to Captain Smith what this meant. All of the ship’s six forward watertight compartments were open to the sea. The Titanic could float with any two of her sixteen watertight compartments flooded–in an extreme case she could actually float with four of her forward compartments flooded. But at this point a design flaw emerged: the first two watertight bulkheads extended only as high as D Deck, as did the last five, while the middle eight only carried up to E Deck. With the first five–or in this case six–compartments breached, the weight of the incoming water would pull the ship’s head down until the water level in the flooded compartments rose above the top of the bulkheads; the water in the fifth compartment spilling over into the sixth, pulling the ship down farther until the water in the sixth compartment spilled over into the seventh, and so on until the ship inevitably sank.

When the order came from the bridge for the passengers to muster on the Boat Deck wearing their lifebelts, Andrews’ natural leadership began to assert itself.  When he noticed stewardess Annie Robinson standing to one side on A Deck, he greeted her with a small scolding: “I thought I told you to put your lifebelt on,” he said.

“Yes, but I thought it rather mean to wear it.”

“Never mind that! Put it on–walk about–let the passengers see you.”

“It looks rather mean….”

“No, put it on! If you value your life, put it on. Now, I want you to open up all the spare rooms. Take out all the lifebelts and spare blankets and distribute them.”

A moment later, Andrews literally bumped into another stewardess, Mary Sloane, whom Andrews was fond of in a brotherly way. Miss Sloane had just been told by Dr. O’Loughlin, “Child, things are very bad,” and now she asked Andrews if the ship really was in any danger. Andrews replied, “It is very serious, but keep the bad news quiet for fear of panic.” That was his overriding concern now: the last thing the Titanic could afford was a panic.

He seemed to be everywhere, still filled with the boundless, driving energy that had characterized the man for so long, trying to imbue everyone with an appropriate sense of urgency. But unlike Ismay’s frantic dashing to and fro, he instinctively tailored his counsel to match the nature of the individuals he encountered. That was why he had told Mr. and Mrs. Albert Dick, who had been his dinner companions that evening, “She is torn to bits below, but she will not sink if her after bulkheads hold,” even though he knew the ship was doomed. To Mr. and Mrs. John B. Thayer, whom he knew wouldn’t panic and could keep a confidence, he was completely candid: in his estimation, he said, he didn’t give the ship “much over an hour to live.”  Up on the Boat Deck, he did his best to impart a sense of urgency to the passengers: moving from boat to boat, always with a sense of quiet urgency he continued to tell the women to hurry, repeating to them, “Ladies, you must get in at once!  There is not a moment to lose!  You cannot pick and choose your boat! Don’t hesitate, get in!”

The last anyone saw of Thomas Andrews was at around 2:10 a.m., when Steward John Stewart glanced inside the First Class Smoking Room and was astonished to see Andrews standing in the center of the room, with his arms folded across his chest. The tremendous drive and energy were gone, as if the last two hours and drained him beyond recovery, and he stood motionless before the fireplace, his face devoid of expression. Puzzled, Stewart called out, “Aren’t you even going to try for it, Mr. Andrews?”

Andrews never replied–he simply continued to gaze at a painting before him, “The Approach to Plymouth Harbour,” as if he never heard the question. As if in mute testimony of his intentions, his lifebelt lay beside him, carelessly tossed across a green-topped card table, apparently forgotten.

Thomas Andrews’ body was never found.

He is well remembered in his native Northern Ireland, both in Comber, the town of his birth, and in Belfast. In Comber, the Thomas Andrews Jr. Memorial Hall was opened in January 1914; it is now part of The Andrews Memorial Primary School.  Andrews’ home in Belfast, 20 Windsor Avenue, just off the Lisburn Road, is commemorated with a Royal Society of Arts Blue Plaque, which designates buildings that have specific, close associations with people famous in British history.

Additionally, Andrews is listed in the Belfast Jury’s Inn Hotel’s Unsung Heroes of Belfast.

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