Thomas Andrews and the Belfast Shipyard Workers

Shan Bullock


WE come back, then, to Andrews as Mr. Childers saw him on that day in the Yard—big, strong, inspiriting, full of enthusiasm and mastery—a genuine captain of industry there on the scene of his triumphs, yet revealing himself as modestly, we know, as any of the great army of workers under his direction.

Before attempting to give some further and completer account of the relations which existed between him and the Islanders, it may be well to give a letter written by Andrews in 1905 to a young relative then beginning work as an engineer:—

“I am sorry I did not get a shake of your fist, old chap, before leaving, just to wish you good luck at your business and a good time at—

“Please accept from me the enclosed small gift to go towards a little pocket-money.

“You are such a sensible boy I know that you require no advice from me, but as an old hand who has come through the mill myself I would just like to say how important it is for you to endeavour to give your employers full confidence in you from the start. This can best be gained:

“(1) By punctuality and close attention to your work at all times—but don’t allow your health to suffer through overwork.

“(2) Always carry out instructions given by those above you, whether you agree with them or not—and try to get instructions in writing if you are not sure of your man.

“(3) Always treat those above you with respect, no matter whether they are fools or know less than yourself.

“(4) Never give information unless you are perfectly sure, better to say you are not sure, but will look the matter up.

“(5) Never be anxious to show how quick you are by being the first out of the shop when the horn blows. It is better on these occasions to be a bit slow.

“Now this is a sermon by Thomas, but not one of your father’s—only that of an old cousin who has high expectations of you and is interested in your welfare.

“Goodbye and good luck.”

That little sermon by Thomas, with its admixture of shrewdness, wisdom, and kind-heartedness, may be taken as embodying the workaday rules of duty perfected by Andrews through a varied experience of sixteen years—rules doubtless as faithfully observed by himself as they were commended for the guidance of others. What may be called its horse sense, its blunt avowal of how to play the game, helps us towards a fuller understanding of the man, puts him in the plain light through which, every day in view of everyone, he passed. It shows us why he succeeded, why in any circumstances and irrespective almost of his higher qualities, he was bound to succeed. It explains, to some extent, what a workman meant in calling him “a born leader of men.” It helps us to understand why some called him a hard man and why he made a few enemies; helps us also to understand why the Islander who threatened to drop a bag of rivets on his head was treated with laughing amenity. What Andrews demanded of others he exacted in greater measure of himself. If at times he enforced his code of conduct with sternness, in that, as all who felt the weight of his hand would eventually acknowledge, he was but doing his plain duty. Did men skulk or scamp their job, they must be shown decisively that a shipyard was no place for them. Someone discovered asleep on a nine inch plank spanning an open ventilator must be taught discretion. But no bullying, no unfairness—above all, no show of malice.

If in Andrews’ nature was no trace of maliciousness, neither did there lurk in it any meanness. Not once, but a thousand times, during the past black months, has his character been summed with characteristic terseness by the Island shipwrights:

“Just as a judge. &hellip Straight as a die. … There wasn’t a crooked turn in him”: simple phrases conveying a magnificent tribute. For what better in anyone can you have than the straightness of a die, whether you regard him as man or master? And such straightness in a shipbuilder is not that the supreme quality?

At all events this quality of absolute rectitude, so indispensable in other respects, was the main quality which, in their personal relations with him, won for Andrews the admiration and esteem of the Islanders. They could trust him. He would see fair play. “If he caught you doing wrong he wasn’t afraid to tell you so.” “If he found you breaking a rule he wouldn’t fire you straight away, but would give you the rough side of his tongue and a friendly caution.” “So long as one reported a mistake honestly he had consideration, but try to hide it away and he blazed at you.” “He had a grand eye for good work and a good man, and the man who did good work, no matter who he was, got a clap on the shoulder.” So the Islanders, this man and that; and then once more comes the crowning judgment on the tongue of so many, “He was straight as a die.”

But not that one quality alone gained for Andrews his great, one might say his unique, popularity in the Yard. His vast knowledge, his mastery of detail, his assiduity, his zest: all these merits had their due effect upon the men: and effective too was the desire he showed always to get the best possible out of every worker. It was not enough to do your job, he expected you to think about it: and if from your thinking resulted a suggestion it got his best consideration. It might be worthless—never mind, better luck next time; if it were worth a cent., he would make it shine in your eyes like a dollar.

In addition, were those more personal qualities—emanations, so to speak, of the man’s character: his generosity, kindliness, patience, geniality, humour, humility, courage, that great laugh of his, the winning smile, the fine breezy presence: of those also the men had constant and intimate experience. Anyone in trouble might be sure of his sympathy. After a spell of sickness his handshake and hearty greeting stirred new life in your blood. Once he found a great fellow ill-treating a small foreman who, for sufficient reason, had docked his wages; whereupon Andrews took off his coat and hammered the bully. During labour and party troubles, he several times, at risk of his life, saved men from the mob. One day, in a gale, he climbed an eighty foot staging, rescued the terrified man who had gone up to secure the loose boards, and himself did the work. Another day, he lent a hand to a shipwright toiling across the yard under a heavy beam, and as they went Andrews asked, “How is it, M‘Ilwaine, you always like to be beside me?” “Ah, sir,” was the reply, “it is because you carry up well.”

These incidents, chosen from so many, enable us to see why, in the words of the Island poet, “though Andrews was our master we loved him to a man.” He always carried up well, “stood four-square to all the winds that blow.” Too often, those in authority rule as tyrants, using power like some Juggernaut crushing under the beasts of burden. But Andrews, following the example of his uncle, preferred to rule beneficently as a man among his fellows.

“One evening,” writes Mrs. Andrews, “my husband and I were in the vicinity of Queen’s Island, and noticing a long file of men going home from work, he turned to me and said, ‘There go my pals, Nellie.’ I can never forget the tone in his voice as he said that, it was as though the men were as dear to him as his own brothers. Afterwards, on a similar occasion, I reminded him of the words, and he said, ‘Yes, and they are real pals too.’ ”

You see now why a colleague, Mr. Saxon Payne, secretary to Lord Pirrie, could write, “It was not a case of liking him, we all loved him”; and why during those awful days in April, when hope of good news at last had gone, the Yard was shrouded in gloom and rough men cried like women. They had lost a pal. And not they only. On both sides of the Atlantic, wherever men resort whose business is in the great waters, owners, commanders, directors, managers, architects, engineers, ships officers, stewards, sailors, the name Tom Andrews is honoured to-day as that of one whose remarkable combination of gifts claimed not only their admiration, but their affection.

“What we are to do without Andrews,” said a Belfast ship-owner, “I don’t know. He was probably the best man in the world for his job—knew everything—was ready for anything—could manage everyone—and what a friend! It’s irreparable. Surely of all men worth saving he ought to have been saved. Yes, saved by force, for only in that way could it have been done.”

Here, too, it may be mentioned that during his business career Andrews received many acknowledgements of a gratifying description from those whom in various ways he had served—amongst others from the White Star Company, the Hamburg American Company and, what I daresay he valued as much, from the stewards of the Olympic. Following the announcement of his marriage, a Committee was organised at the Yard for the purpose of showing him in a tangible way the esteem of the Islanders, but for business reasons, or perhaps feeling a delicacy in accepting a compliment without parallel in the history of the Yard, he whilst making it plain how much the kindly thought had moved him, felt constrained to ask the Committee to desist.

One may end this imperfect chapter with two more tributes, themselves without any great literary merit perhaps, yet testifying sincerely, one thinks, to the love which Andrews inspired in everyone.

Long ago, poor Doctor O’Loughlin wrote in collaboration with the Purser of the Oceanic some verses to be sung to the air Tommy Atkins. Doubtless they have been sung at ship’s mess on many a voyage, and perhaps have elsewhere been printed. One verse is given here:

“Neath a gantry high and mighty she had birth.

And she’d bulk and length and height and mighty beam.

And the world was only larger in its girth

And she seemed to be a living moving dream.

Then she rode so grandly o’er the sea

That she seemed a beauty decked in bright array.

And the whistle sounded loudly

As she sailed along so proudly,

That we all cried out ‘She must be quite O.K.’

Oh Tommy Tommy Andrews we are all so proud of you,

And to say we have the finest ship that e’er was built is true.

May your hand ne’er lose its cunning, we don’t care how winds may roar

For we know we have a frigate that can sail from shore to shore.”

The second tribute is taken from a Lament, written by the Island poet in the ballad form so popular in Ireland, and circulated widely in the Yard:

“A Queen’s Island Trojan, he worked to the last;

Very proud we all feel of him here in Belfast;

Our working-men knew him, as one of the bes—

He stuck to his duty, and God gave him rest.”