A brief History of Titanic

The sinking of RMS Titanic is without doubt history’s most famous maritime disaster, costing the lives of over 1,500 people in the early hours of the 15th April 1912. While she may have departed from Southampton for her fateful maiden voyage, it was Belfast where Titanic’s journey began…

In 1912 Belfast was home to the world’s biggest shipyard, Harland and Wolff, and since its origin in 1862, it had been at the forefront of modern shipbuilding. Developing a special relationship with the White Star Line, Harland and Wolff built all of their ships, and both companies were keen that their vessels were world class, particularly in regards to sheer size and luxury. This was the foundation for Titanic’s conception, but while she is seen in the modern day as a stand-alone ship due to her fame, in fact she was not unique. Titanic was one of the ‘Olympic-Class’ liners – a trio of leviathans. Her elder sister Olympic was launched in 1910 and her younger sister Britannic was launched in 1914. Both are fascinating ships in their own right.

Titanic’s construction in Belfast began in 1909 with the keel of the ship being laid in March under the newly constructed Arrol gantry – the largest gantry in the world built for the largest ships in the world. Just over 2 years later on 31th May 1911, Titanic was launched from her slipway into the River Lagan. Completely empty at this stage she spent the next 9 months having all of her insides fitted out in the deep water wharf, from the boilers and engines at the very bottom of the ship, to the luxurious cabins in the middle and the funnels at the very top. She was then ready to go to her final stage of construction and on 3rd February 1912 Titanic was manoeuvred into the Thompson graving dock, also the largest in the world, where she was to be completed. On 2nd April Titanic left Belfast for what would prove to be the one and only time, first completing a day of sea trials in Belfast Lough and being certified as “good for one year from today” by Board of Trade Inspector Francis Carruthers. She then made her way down to Southampton in preparation for her maiden voyage, under the command of the White Star Line’s Commodore Edward J. Smith.

At noon on 10th April 1912 Titanic departed from Southampton, fully crewed and with her larders stocked with enough food to feed a town; 40,000 eggs; 75, 000 pounds of fresh meat; 40 tons of potatoes…. the lists go on and on. In a sense Titanic was like a small town, sporting a swimming pool, gymnasium, restaurants, libraries and even a post office. She was designed to be the height of luxury, a floating hotel, and her first port of call was Cherbourg in the north of France, where she dropped anchor in the evening of the 10th. From the tender ships Traffic and Nomadic embarked cargo and passengers, including some of the most famous names in the Titanic story including Margaret Brown (history would remember her as the ‘Unsinkable’ Molly Brown) and Benjamin Guggenheim. Titanic then journeyed to Queenstown (now Cobh) in Ireland, arriving in the morning of 11th April, before she finally set sail into the Atlantic.

Titanic was scheduled to arrive in New York on 17th, but at 11:40pm on 14th April, lookout Frederick Fleet in the crow’s nest spotted an iceberg directly ahead. He called down to the Bridge and 1st Officer Murdoch gave the order “Hard-a-Starboard” but the berg was too close and Titanic struck it. With damage stretching 300ft beneath the waterline, too may compartments were flooded and sinking was a certainty. After an inspection of the ship to assess the damage, Captain Smith ordered the lowering of the lifeboats stating “women and children first”, but while there were over 2,200 people on board, Titanic’s 20 boats had a capacity for only 1,178. Tragically, the filling and lowering of the boats was disorganised, with many boats being lowered half empty – lifeboat 1 rowed away with only 12 people despite its capacity of 40. Going down by the bow, Titanic finally sank at 2:20am on Sunday 15th April, 2 hours and 40 minutes after collision.

At 4:00am the SS Carpathia, which had steamed at full-speed to Titanic’s location upon hearing her CQD and SOS calls, arrived on the scene under the command of Captain Arthur Rostron. By 9:00am all of the 705 survivors had been taken aboard and Carpathia soon made course for New York. She arrived on the evening of Thursday 18th April.
The question of where Titanic’s final resting place was remained unanswered for many years. Expedition after expedition failed, but on 1st September 1985, Titanic was discovered by Dr Robert Ballard two and a half miles down. The discovery provided quite a surprise when it showed that the ship had not sank intact, as had been the generally accepted view, but in fact had split into two pieces during sinking.

100 years and countless books, films and documentaries later, the story of Titanic continues to fascinate the world with its tales of luxury, courage, what-if moments, and tragedy.


(*Due to the re-development of the Titanic Quarter, certain accesses may be restricted from time to time. This is unavoidable and part of the ongoing re-generation of the Titanic Quarter, Titanic’s Dock & Pump-House)