Thomas Andrews: Master Shipbuilder and Hero


     Over a century after she slid beneath the waves, the Titanic continues to fascinate the world. The story of the legendary British ocean liner and its tragic maiden voyage ending on that cold April night has been told and re-told several times, and while the ship itself is well-known in a general sense, it is easy forget that Titanic was a human tragedy in which real people with hopes, dreams, and fears were aboard her. Of them all, the person I have been quite fond of has been Thomas Andrews, Titanic’s designer and a hero of the sinking.

     Andrews was born on February 7, 1873 in Comber, County Down, Ireland to an established and respected family with deep roots in the area and varied interests, most notably in a linen mill. His father was The Right Honourable Thomas Andrews, a member of the Privy Council of Ireland and his mother was Eliza Pirrie, a member of another prominent family which included her grandfather – one of the first Belfast harbor commissioners who oversaw the improvements needed to make the city a great port. Among his siblings were his elder brother John Miller Andrews – the future Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, and his younger brother Sir James Andrews, the future Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland.

     Known to the family as “Tommie”, he grew up at the family home of Ardara House and was observed to be “handsome, plucky, and lovable.” He liked to play sports such as cricket and had a love for the outdoors and animals, especially horses, and also enjoyed sailing.

     This love of sailing earned young Tommie the nickname “Admiral” and perhaps also fueled his interest in ships and shipbuilding. After attending the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, he decided against the following his family into the textile industry, and instead at the age of 16, began an apprenticeship at the shipbuilding firm Harland and Wolff, where his uncle William Pirrie was a partner.

     Despite his pedigree, Andrews adhered to the family motto – “serve your time with the men” – and duly worked alongside the other apprentices and workers at the yard – taking up the hard labor jobs like anyone else. In this, he became well-versed in all aspects of shipbuilding as he spent five years in several departments, including the joiners’ shop, cabinet makers’ shop, and drawing office, as well as spending time aboard ships themselves. During this time, he learned – among other things – about rigging, plating, engine building, and other specialties. Additionally, after the 12 hour days at the yard, he attended night classes at the Belfast College of Technology where he found his vocation in naval architecture and designing.

     The hard work paid off as Andrews worked his way up and at the age of 28 in 1901, he was made construction manager while also becoming a member of the Royal Institution of Naval Architects. Under the tutelage of Lord Pirrie – now the chairman of Harland and Wolff, and his brother-in-law Alexander Carlisle – the chairman of the managing directors and general manager, Andrews honed his skills as a naval architect who familiarized himself with every detail of the design and construction of the ships the yard built. He also earned the respect of the people around him in the company and became well-liked among the workers in the yard for his personal affinity with them. In 1907, he was made a managing director and head of the design department.

     That same year, the White Star Line’s chairman and managing director J. Bruce Ismay approached Lord Pirrie about upgrading its fleet in response to its competitors on the North Atlantic run. In particular that year, the Cunard Line – its arch-rival, also based in the UK – had introduced the Lusitania and Mauretania as the largest and fastest vessels in the world, and the White Star fleet looked significantly out-dated and outclassed by comparison. However, Ismay wished to compete with Cunard on the basis of size, luxury, and comfort, as opposed to speed. To do this would require nothing less than a new breed, a new class of ocean liner – the superliner – which would exceed 40,000 tons and measure almost 900 feet in length – half again as big and nearly 100 feet longer than Cunard’s ocean greyhounds.

     Harland and Wolff met the challenge with Lord Pirrie sketching out the general concept of what would become Olympic, Titanic, and Britannic (the Olympic-class ships) based on his conversations with Bruce Ismay, and Carlisle taking charge of working out the details to give reality to Ismay’s vision. As the shipyard’s chief draftsman/naval architect, his responsibilities included the decorations, equipment, lifeboat and lifeboat davit design, safety systems, and all general arraignments, which followed a pattern and style he had set with previous White Star ships. Under him, Andrews and his deputy Edward Wilding were responsible for calculating the design, stability, and trim of these liners, as well as their inner steel framework.

     So Andrews was not the sole designer of the Titanic; he was part of a team, and in fact, more credit ought to go to Alexander Carlisle. Andrews’s role with the Titanic has been greatly augmented by time, myth-making, media portrayals, and Carlisle’s own modesty, so that Andrews became known as “Titanic’s designer” as if it was he and he alone who designed her and her sister ships.

     Nevertheless, Thomas Andrews was a significant participant in the design and construction of the Olympic-class ships. As with every ship in which he had a hand in designing, he familiarized himself with every detail of Olympic and Titanic, so as to ensure that they were in working order and to spot and correct any flaws and concerns as the sister ships took shape side-by-side in Belfast.

     With regard to lifeboats, it was Carlisle who proposed fitting each vessel with up to 64 boats, which would have carried enough lifeboat space for all onboard, and he designed them to use a new type of lifeboat davit which could handle four boats in each of the sixteen lifeboat stations. However, this was four times what was needed for vessels over 10,000 tons under outdated British Board of Trade regulations, and despite Carlisle and Andrews advocating for more, White Star management opted to carry 32 boats at first, and then eventually only the minimum requirement of 16 wooden boats plus four canvas-sided collapsible boats.

     There’s been speculation that Carlisle left Harland and Wolff in protest of what he saw as White Star’s interference in ship design and safety, but there’s no proof of this. In fact, Carlisle did resign in June 1910 as the Olympic and Titanic were under construction. Like Andrews, he was popular with the workforce (nicknamed “Big Alec”), but the growing political instability over Irish Home Rule within the United Kingdom may have contributed to his resignation at the age of 55 to take up a position with the Welin Davit Company, the firm which would supply lifeboat davits to the very ships he had helped to create.

     With Carlisle’s departure, Thomas Andrews, at the age of 37, picked up where Carlisle left off in the management of the Olympic-class project. By this time, Andrews had become a husband – having married Helen Reilly Barbour, daughter of another textile family, on June 24, 1908, and on November 27, 1910, they had their only child, a daughter named Elizabeth Law Barbour Andrews (and known by her initials, “ELBA”). Just before the birth, Andrews took his wife to see Titanic as her massive hull continued to grow and become a feature of the Belfast skyline.

     Fifteen months later on April 2, 1912, Titanic was ready to sail from her birthplace to Southampton, England to prepare for her maiden voyage. Thomas Andrews, as he had done with previous vessels on their maiden voyages – including the Olympic the year before – headed a hand-picked group of Harland and Wolff workers known as the Guarantee Group who would observe the operations of the ship and spot any issues or areas in need of improvement.

     Following the conclusion of Titanic’s sea trials, Andrews bid farewell to his wife and baby daughter as he and the Guarantee Group accompanied the new liner to Southampton. Years of work and preparation had come down to this, and yet in the dwindling days – even hours – before she set sail, Andrews continued to work tirelessly to ensure that when Titanic sailed, she would represent the very best her builders could offer. The man was in a state of constant activity was he oversaw the last hectic days of the Titanic’s preparation – supervising last minute installations, solving unforeseen difficulties, conferring with the engineers, tending to contractors, arranging tours by the owners, writing colleagues, making numerous notes that he would review over every evening. On the eve of sailing day, Andrews expressed his satisfaction in the new ship when he wrote to his wife: “Titanic is now about complete and will, I think, do the old Firm credit tomorrow when we sail.”

     On April 10, 1912, Titanic departed from Southampton to make cross-channel journeys to Cherbourg, France and Queenstown, Ireland to pick up additional passengers and mail, after which on April 11th, she was on the open sea steaming toward New York.

     Throughout the voyage, Andrews and his team traversed the entire ship as they made sure the ship was in tip-top shape from the engines to the potato peelers, which in some cases included assisting the crew with minor issues as they became acquainted with the new liner. Andrews himself continued taking notes on the various – mostly cosmetic – improvements he felt should be recommended when the ship would be taken in for her winter overhaul, as well as for the third Olympic-class sister, Britannic, though he confided to a friend that Titanic was “as nearly perfect as human brains can make her.”

     This isn’t to say that Andrews was a complete work-a-holic, for he was popular with the crew as well as with passengers, and engaged with many of those aboard. However, he was a perfectionist and at the end of every evening, he would be in his cabin, A-36, which was centrally located to easily access every area of the ship, and would compile his notes and pour over blueprints.

     This was no different on the night of April 14th, and when Titanic hit the iceberg at 11:40PM, Andrews barely noticed the collision and was not aware of anything being amiss until he – who knew more about the ship than likely anyone else aboard – was summoned to the bridge by Captain Edward J. Smith. With Smith and other officers, Andrews inspected the damaged areas of the vessel to find that the first five watertight compartments were flooding. He knew that Titanic was designed to float with four compartments breached, but that with five flooding, the weight of the water would eventually pull the her down by the head and cause more water to spill over the tops of the watertight bulkheads (much like water flowing over the partitions of an ice-cube tray), thereby pulling the ship further down and sealing her fate. This, said Andrews, was a “mathematical certainty” and he gave her an hour, two at most, to live.

     At that moment, Andrews also knew of the severe shortage of lifeboats which he and Alexander Carlisle had tried to prevent, and by implication, also understood that hundreds, perhaps over a thousand of his fellow passengers and crew would perish. Nevertheless, he was concerned about their welfare to the extent that he spent the final hours of his life tirelessly searching through staterooms and public areas to urge people to get to the lifeboats so that as many as possible could be saved, and assisted in the evacuation with the knowledge that his ship had only a very limited time above water.

     He was reportedly last known to be seen in the First Class Smoking Room standing alone and staring at the painting of Plymouth Harbour, having divested himself of his lifejacket and appearing to make no attempt to save himself – perhaps wondering whether there was something he could have done to prevent this disaster, such as pushing for more lifeboats or making the ship more able to withstand sustained and severe flooding. Other accounts placed him on the Boat Deck throwing deck chairs in the water to be used as floatation devices, heading toward the bridge to find Captain Smith, and leaving the ship at the last moment as it plunged to the bottom at 2:20AM – two hours and forty minutes after the collision.

     His body was never found, so we may never know exactly how he met his fate, but there is no mistake that for his selflessness and concern for others above his own safety, many lives were saved, and he has been marked as a hero of that tragic night.

     After the disaster, the Andrews family received numerous telegrams and letters attesting to Tommie’s heroism. One telegram, which was read by Thomas Andrew, Sr. to the house staff in Comber said:


     Another one spoke of how Andrews provided reassurance and critical help in the final hours:

“After accident, Andrews ascertained damage, advised passengers put heavy clothing, prepare leave vessel. Many sceptical about seriousness damage, but impressed by Andrews’ knowledge, personality, followed his advice, saved their lives. He assisted many women, children to lifeboats. When last seen, officers say was throwing overboard deck chairs, other objects, to people in water. His chief concern safety of everyone but himself.”

     The Andrews family commissioned a biography in honor of Thomas within a year of his death, which was written by Shan F. Bullock and featured an introduction from Sir Horace Plunkett, a former UK Member of Parliament. In addition, the family also helped to raise the funds to build the Thomas Andrews, Jr. Memorial Hall in Comber, which stands as one of the most substantial monuments to a Titanic victim, as well as a tribute to the industrial legacy of the Andrews family in Belfast and throughout Northern Ireland.

     In Belfast itself, the SS Nomadic – one of the passenger-ferrying tenders which served Titanic and other liners for over fifty years at Cherbourg, France – is the last of the White Star liners and is located in the Hamilton dry dock, where she was originally fitted out over a hundred years ago, having been faithfully restored by her builders, Harland and Wolff. She is also the only surviving ship that Thomas Andrews designed, and so the remarkable legacy of this extraordinary man and his heroism lives through her as well.

By Earl Chatham