Master Shipbuilder: The Legacy of Thomas Andrews

The gale rocks the scaffolding beneath you. The sweat on your hands causes you to lose your grip on the iron rail. You came up to straighten the boards. Your heart pounds. One foot forward at a time. You can do this. TITANIC needs you. Her iron hull rises beside you. The next brutal gust rocks the narrow platform so much, you cannot take another step. Stranded eighty feet above the ground, you panic.

“Hold on,” someone shouts beneath you. “I’m coming up.”

You focus on breathing. The boards have shifted. You’re too terrified to try climbing down. You sit and wait until a cheerful face appears over the edge. “Hello, Archie,” your pal Thomas Andrews says with his usual grin. “Got yourself in a bind?”

You manage a nervous chuckle. Andrews helps you climb down before he secures the boards himself.

thomasandrews002I admire many historical figures, but none warms my heart like Thomas Andrews. As a teenager, I spent six years obsessed with the Titanic. (Before James Cameron immortalized it.) I can’t imagine spending years of your life designing something as beautiful as Titanic, attending to her hundreds of thousands of details, watching her progress from a keel to the magnificent ship that left Belfast, only to realize within days she has less than four hours before she’ll be at the bottom of the Atlantic. Like many other brave souls that night, Andrews did his best to help those he could. He died with honor, last seen in the Smoking Room. Maybe he wanted to spend his last moments on earth alone in the heart of his masterpiece, surrounded by exquisite stained glass.

Titanic was one of three sister ships developed by the White Star Line for the transatlantic crossing. The others were Olympic and Britannic. The ships carried millionaires in First Class. The middle class could afford Second. And the third was Steerage—often foreigners who wanted to build a new life in America.

Titanic had more passengers on her maiden voyage because of a massive coal strike. White Star bought up all the coal, not wanting to delay her maiden voyage. As a result, all the smaller transatlantic ocean liners transferred their passengers to Titanic.

Thomas Andrews boarded her as a part of Harland & Wolff’s Guarantee Group, men chosen to help the crew adapt to the larger vessel and notice any flaws in her design. The ship went full steam ahead and diverted its course because of ice warnings. Late Sunday night on April 14, the lookouts spotted an iceberg in their path. First Officer Murdoch ordered them to steer around it, but reversing an engine of Titanic’s size in time to avoid a collision proved difficult. The iceberg tore a five hundred foot gash in her side.


Andrews and his co-designer, Alexander Carlisle, had designed all three ships to stay afloat with any four compartments breached. Only a short time earlier, the Olympic had proven this effective in a collision with the admiralty vessel, the HMS Hawke. The former ship suffered minor damage, but the latter had expensive damage to her bow (designed to sink ships!).

With five compartments breached, water filled the ship, pulling her down by the prow. Andrews did all he could to help load the lifeboats and get the women and children to safety, knowing half the passengers would die. They did not have enough lifeboats to save them all. Trade regulations at the time stipulated a certain number. They had set these regulations decades earlier for much smaller vessels and did not update it as ocean liners grew in size. Andrews had designed the davits to take another row of boats inside them, enough to accommodate all the passengers, but White Star refused. No one else carried an extensive number of lifeboats; why should they?

The maritime disaster killed 1500 people, including Andrews and his Guarantee Group, the larger portion of the crew, one of the most respected captains in the industry (on his retirement voyage), many prominent businessmen, and hundreds of steerage passengers. But Titanic was a monumental advancement in ship-building. She had no true flaws in her design. She sank evenly, allowing the crew time to launch all the lifeboats and one collapsible. Had they had enough lifeboats for all passengers, this would have seen them all away from the ship before she plunged beneath the sea. The poorer design of modern cruise ships now means many of them tilt onto their side—rendering half their lifeboats inaccessible.

Olympic (on your left) and Titanic (on the right) in March 1912.

Some have questioned the quality of the steel, but as the Olympic proved in her collision, there was no fault in it. After being refitted and updated to reflect what they had learned from Titanic, she survived another collision. While transporting U.S. troops on their way to France in 1918, she rammed a German submarine. She returned to Southampton for repairs with two hull plates dented and her prow twisted to one side, but not breached. (Later, they learned the submarine had been planning to torpedo her.) For her war efforts, she earned the name “Old Reliable.” Many celebrities traveled on her in the 1920s, including Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, and Prince Edward, the Prince of Wales.

The third ship, Britannic, struck a mine and sank in 1916. Olympic remained in service until 1935. By the time of her retirement, she had completed 257 round trips across the Atlantic, transporting 430,000 passengers on her commercial voyages, and traveled 1.8 million miles. You can still find pieces of her paneling, furniture, fireplaces, and even her clock in hotels in England.

Andrews went down with the ship that night as an honorable man. His finest creation was not Titanic, but the legacy of proud service her sister ship left behind.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop devotes her free time to eating chocolate, debating theology with her friends, researching the Tudors, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life.

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