Character of Thomas Andrews, designer of the Titanic

Shan Bullock


ALL this is important, vital a great deal of it; but after all what concerns us chiefly, in this brief record, is the kind of man Thomas Andrews was—that and the fine end he made. Everything, one supposes, in this workaday world, must eventually be expressed in terms of character. Though a man build the Atlantic fleet, himself with superhuman vigour of hand and brain, and have not character, what profiteth it him, and how much the less profiteth it the fleets maybe, at last?

Perhaps of all the manual professions that of shipbuilding is the one demanding from those engaged in it, masters and men, the sternest rectitude. Good enough in the shipyard is never enough. Think what scamped work, a flawed shaft, a badly laid plate, an error in calculation, may mean some wild night out in the Atlantic; and when next you are in Belfast go to Queen’s Island and see there, in the shops, on the slips, how everyone is striving, or being made to strive, on your behalf and that of all who voyage, for the absolute best—everything to a hair’s breadth, all as strong and sound as hands can achieve, each rivet of all the millions in a liner (perhaps the most impressive thing one saw) tested separately and certified with its own chalk mark.

Well, Andrews, to the extent of his powers and position, was responsible for that absolute best, and the fact that he was proves his character—but does not of itself establish his claim to a place high and apart. Many others assuredly have succeeded as speedily and notably as he, taking success at its material valuation, and their names are written, or one day will be written in the sand; but irrespective of the great work he did and the great success he achieved, Andrews was a man, in the opinion of all who knew him, whose name deserves to be graven in enduring characters: and why that is so has yet, to some extent at least, to be shown.

In appearance he made a fine figure, standing nearly six feet high, weighing some two hundred pounds, well-built, straight, with broad shoulders and great physical development. He had dark brown hair, sharp clean-shaven features; you would call him handsome; his brown eyes met yours with a look of the frankest kindliness, and when he gripped your hand he took you, as it were, to himself. Even as you see him in a portrait you feel constrained to exclaim, as many did at first sight of him, “Well, that’s a man!” He had a wonderful ringing laugh, an easy way with him, an Irishman’s appreciation of humour. He was sunny, big-hearted, full of gaiety. He loved to hear a good story, and could tell you one as well as another. He had the luck to be simple in his habits and pleasures, his food, his dress, his tastes. Give him health, plenty of friends, plenty of work, and occasionally some spare hours in which to enjoy a good book (Maeterlinck’s, Life of the Bee for preference) and some good music, to go yachting on Strangford Lough, or picnicking at the family bungalow on Braddock Island, or for a long jolly ride with Mrs. Andrews in their little Renault round the Ards Peninsula, and he was thoroughly content.

When of a Saturday evening he opened the door, so the servants at Ardara used to say, they like all the rest waiting expectantly for his coming, it was as though a wind from the sea swept into the house. All was astir. His presence filled the place. Soon you would hear his father’s greeting, “Well, my big son, how are you?” and thereafter, for one more week’s end, it was in Ardara as though the schoolboy was home for a holiday. You would hear Tom’s voice and laugh through the house and his step on the stairs; you would see him, gloved and veiled, out working among his bees, scampering on the lawn with the children, or playing with the dog, or telling many a good story to the family circle. Everyone loved him—everyone.

A distinguished writer, Mr. Erskine Childers, in an estimate of Andrews, judges that the charm of the man lay in a combination of power and simplicity. Others tell how unassertive he was, and modest in the finest sense; “one of nature’s gentlemen,” says a foreman who owed him much, no pride at all, ready always to take a suggestion from anyone, always expressing his views quietly and considerately; “having of himself,” writes Mrs. Andrews, “the humblest opinion of anyone I ever knew.” And then she quotes some lines he liked and wrote in her album:

“Do what you can, being what you are,

Shine like a glow-worm, if you cannot as a star,

Work like a pulley, if you cannot as a crane,

Be a wheel-greaser, if you cannot drive a train”;

and goes on to say how much Judge Payne’s familiar lines express the spirit and motive of his actions throughout life, and how always he had such a love for humanity that everyone with whom he came in contact felt the tremendous influence of his unselfish nature. He was never so happy as when giving and helping. Many a faltering youth on the threshold of the world he took by the arm and led forward. A shipwright testifies “to his frequent acknowledgment of what others, not so high as himself, tried to do.” Another calls him “a kind and considerate chief and a good friend always.” A third, in a letter full of heartbreak at his loss, pays him fine tribute:

“In the twenty years I have known him I never saw in him a single crooked turn. He was always the same, one of the most even-tempered men I ever worked with.”

Such spontaneous testimony to character is perhaps sufficient; but one may crown it by repeating a story told, with full appreciation of its value, by his mother. When King Edward and Queen Alexandra made their memorable visit to Belfast in July, 1903, the line of route passed through the street in which Andrews lived; and to witness the procession he invited to his rooms, all decorated for the occasion and plentifully supplied with dainties, a large party of children. “Well, my dear,” one was asked afterwards, “and what did you think of the King?” “The King,” answered the child—“oh, cousin Tommy was our King.”

Regarding his remarkable powers of application and industry, enough too has perhaps already been written; but what must be made clear, even at the cost of repetition, for therein lay the man’s strength, was the spirit in which he approached the great business of work.

It has been said, and doubtless will be said again, that for one to labour as Andrews did, whatever the incentive or object, is an inhuman process making for narrowness of manhood and a condition of drudgery. Perhaps so. Herbert Spencer once expressed some such opinion. It is largely a question of one’s point of view, to a lesser extent perhaps a matter of aptitude or circumstance. At all events, in this respect, it seems wise to distinguish as between man and man, and work and work; for with the example of Andrews before them even cavillers must admit that what they call drudgery can be well justified.

How he would have laughed had someone, even a Herbert Spencer, called him a drudge! Anyone less the creature, however you regarded him, you could not easily find. Work was his nature, his life; he throve upon it, lived for it, loved it. And think what a work it was! The noblest, one repeats, done by men.

In his dressing-room was hung a framed copy of Henry Van Dyke’s well-known sonnet. It is worth quoting:

“Let me but do my work from day to day

In field or forest, at the desk or loom,

In roaring market-place, or tranquil room;

Let me but find it in my heart to say,

When vagrant wishes beckon me astray,

This is my work, my blessing, not my doom;

Of all who live, I am the one by whom

This work can best be done in my own way.

Then shall I see it not too great nor small,

To suit my spirit and to prove my powers;

Then shall I cheerfully greet the labouring hours,

And cheerful turn, when the long shadows fall

At eventide, to play, and love, and rest,

Because I know for me my work is best.”

“This is my work, my blessing, not my doom … because I know for me my work is best ”: can it be said that the man who worked in the spirit of those words, having them before him like a prayer each morning and each night, was not fulfilling destiny in a noble way? No mean thought of self, no small striving after worldly success, but always the endeavour to work in his own way to suit his spirit and to prove his powers. If that way be narrow—well, so is the way narrow that leads to eternal life.

But, it might be said, Andrews had such opportunity and the rare good fortune also to have his spirit suited with work that proved his powers. It was so. Yet one knows certainly that had his opportunity been different he would still have seized it; have been the best engine driver in Ulster or have greased wheels contentedly and with all diligence. One remembers the sentence from Ruskin which he had printed or his Christmas card for 1910:

“What we think, or what we know, or what we believe, is in the end of little consequence. The only thing of consequence is what we do.”

The best doing, always and every way, one knows how that aspiration would appeal to Andrews, good Unitarian that he was; just as one knows how Ruskin, he who made roads and had such burning sympathy always with honest workers, would have appreciated Andrews and agreed that the name of such a man should not perish as have the names of most other of the world’s great Architects and Builders. “Today I commence my twenty-first year at the works, all interesting and happy days. I would go right back over them again if I could”: one feels that the spirit of those words, written by Andrews to his wife on May 1st, 1909, would have appealed to Ruskin; and had he known the man would he not have noted, as did another observer—Professor W. G. S. Adams,* of Oxford—“how it was to the human question the man’s mind always turned,” and been eager to judge, “that here was one who had in him the true stuff of the best kind of captain of industry”?

A captain of industry: the phrase is happy, and convincing too is the passage wherein Mr. Erskine Childers gives his impression of Andrews as, towards the close of 1911, he saw him one day working in the Island Yard.

“It was bracing to be near him,” writes Mr. Childers, and then goes on:

“His mind seemed to revel in its mastery, both of the details and of the ensemble, both of the technical and the human side, of a great science, while restlessly seeking to enlarge its outlook, conquer new problems, and achieve an ever fresh perfection. Whether it was about the pitch of a propeller or the higher problems of design, speed, and mercantile competition, one felt the same grip and enthusiasm and, above all perhaps, the same delight in frank self-revelation.”

* It is interesting to note the circumstances which brought these two men together. Mr. Adams, who is now Professor of Political Theory and Institutions at Oxford, was then Superintendent of Statistics and Intelligence in the Irish Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction. He went to Andrews as the man most likely to give him reliable information and sound opinions upon certain industrial questions of interest to the Department. A peculiar value attaches to the high regard in which Thomas Andrews was held by this distinguished political and economic thinker.