Thomas Andrews - His Apprenticeship at Harland and Wolff

Shan Bullock


WHEN he was sixteen, on the 1st May, 1889, Tom left school, and as a premium apprentice entered the shipyard of Messrs. Harland & Wolff. In one important respect the date of his entry may be accounted fortunate, for about that time, chiefly through the enterprise of the White Star Company in the matter of constructing a fleet of giant ships for the Atlantic service, great developments were imminent, if not already begun, in the shipping world. To a boy of sixteen, however, the change from the comforts of home and the comparative freedom of school-life to the stern discipline of the yards must have been exacting. It was work now, and plenty of it, summer and winter, day in day out, the hardest he could do at the hardest could be given him. He was to be tested to the full. With characteristic wisdom, Mr. Pirrie had decided that no favour whatever was to be shown the boy on the score of relationship. By his own efforts and abilities he must make his way, profiting by no more than the inspiration of his uncle’s example; and if he failed, well, that too was a way many another had gone before him.

But Tom was not of the breed that fails. He took to his work instantly and with enthusiasm. Distance from home necessitated his living through the workaday week in Belfast. Every morning he rose at ten minutes to five and was at work in the Yard punctually by six o’clock. His first three months were spent in the Joiner’s shop, the next month with the Cabinet makers, the two following months working in ships. There followed two months in the Main store; then five with the Shipwrights, two in the Moulding loft, two with the Painters, eight with the iron Shipwrights, six with the Fitters, three with the Pattern-makers, eight with the Smiths. A long spell of eighteen months in the Drawing office completed his term of five years as an apprentice.

Throughout that long ordeal Tom inspired everyone who saw him, workmen, foremen, managers, and those in higher authority, as much by the force of his personal character as by his qualities of industry. Without doubt here was one destined to success. He was thorough to the smallest detail. He mastered everything with the ease of one in love with his task. We have a picture of him drawn by a comrade, in his moleskin trousers and linen jacket, and instinctively regarded by his fellow-apprentices as their leader, friend and adviser in all matters of shipyard lore and tradition. “He was some steps ahead of me in his progress through the Yard,” the account goes on, “so I saw him only at the breakfast and luncheon hours, but I can remember how encouraging his cheery optimism and unfailing friendship were to one who found the path at times far from easy and the demands on one’s patience almost more than could be endured.” Many a workman, too, with whom he wrought at that time will tell you to-day, and with a regret at his untimely loss as pathetic as it is sincere, how faithful he was, how upstanding, generous. He would work at full pressure in order to gain time to assist an old workman “in pulling up his job.” He would share his lunch with a mate, toil half the night in relief of a fellow-apprentice who had been overcome by sickness, or would plunge gallantly into a flooded hold to stop a leakage. “It seemed his delight,” writes a foreman, “to make those around him happy. His was ever the friendly greeting and the warm handshake and kind disposition.” Such testimony is worth pages of outside eulogy, and testimony of its kind, from all sorts and conditions, exists in abundance.

The long day’s work over at the Island, many a young man would have preferred, and naturally perhaps, to spend his evenings pleasurably: not so Tom Andrews. Knowing the necessity, if real success were to be attained, of perfecting himself on the technical as much as on the practical side of his profession, and perhaps having a desire also to make good what he considered wasted opportunities at school, he pursued, during the five years of his apprenticeship, and afterwards too, a rigid course of night studies: in this way gaining an excellent knowledge of Machine and Freehand drawing, of Applied mechanics, and the theory of Naval architecture. So assiduously did he study that seldom was he in bed before eleven o’clock; he read no novels, wasted no time over newspapers; and hardly could be persuaded by his friends to give them his company for an occasional evening. His weekly game of cricket or hockey, with a day’s hunting now and then or an afternoon’s yachting on the Lough, gave him all the relaxation he could permit himself; and by 1894, when his term of apprenticeship ended, the thrill of hitting a ball over the boundary (and Tom was a mighty hitter who felt the thrill often) was experienced with less and still less frequency, whilst sometimes now, and more frequently as time went on, the joy of spending Sunday with his dear folk at Comber had to be foregone. Even when the Presidency of the Northern Cricket Union was pressed upon him,, such were the stern claims of duty that the pleasure of accepting it had ruthlessly to be sacrificed.

What grit, what zest and sense of duty, the boy—for he was no more—must have had, so to labour and yet to thrive gloriously! Perfect health, his sound physique, his sunny nature, and strict adherence to the principles of temperance encouraged by his mother, helped him to attain fine manhood. During the period of his apprenticeship he was up to time on every morning of the five years except one—and of his doings on that fateful morning a story is told which, better perhaps than any other, throws light upon his character.

It was a good custom of the firm to award a gold watch to every pupil who ended his term without being late once. That morning Tom’s clock had failed to ring its alarm at the usual time, so despite every endeavour the boy could not reach the gates before ten minutes past six. He might, by losing the whole day and making some excuse, have escaped penalty: instead, he waited outside the gates until eight o’clock and went in to work at the breakfast hour.

One other story relating to this period is told by his mother. It too reveals distinctive points of character.

On an occasion Tom, with several fellow-pupils, went on a walking tour during the Easter holidays over the Ards peninsula. Crossing Strangford Lough at Portaferry, they visited St. John’s Point, the most easterly part of Ireland; then, finding the tide favourable, crossed the sands from Ballykinler to Dundrum—Tom carrying the youngest of the party on his back through a deep intervening stretch of water—and thence, by way of Newcastle, proceeded across the mountains to Rostrevor.

In their hotel at Rostrevor the boys, during an excess of high spirits, broke the rail of a bedstead; whereupon Tom, assuming responsibility, told the landlady that he would bear the expense of repairing the break. She answered that in her hotel they did not keep patched beds, consequently would be troubling him for the cost of a new one.

“If so, the old one belongs to me,” said Tom.

“Provided you’ll be taking it away,” countered the dame.

The boy argued no further, but finding presently, through a friendly chambermaid, an old charwoman who said her sick husband would rejoice in the luxury of the bedstead, he offered to mend it and give it to her.

“Ah, but wouldn’t it be more than my place is worth, child dear,” she answered, “for the like of me to be taking it from the hotel.”

“Never mind that,” said Tom. “Give me your address, borrow a screw driver, and I’ll see to it.”

So he and his companions, having roughly repaired the rail, took the bedstead to pieces, and, applauded by the visitors, carried it to the street. A good-natured tram conductor allowed them to load their burden on an end of his car. Soon they reached the woman’s home, bore in the bedstead, set it up in the humble room, raised the old man and his straw mattress upon it from the floor, made him comfortable, and dowered with all the blessings the old couple could invoke upon them, went away happy.