THERE was a photograph in this page recently of Samson and Goliath - Harland and Wolff’s two iconic yellow cranes.
The enormous, panoramic aerial shot of the shipyard is on display in the Maritime Emporium, on the ground floor of the towering Obel sky-scraper beside the River Lagan. Clearly discernable, just right of centre in the photo, is a curious conundrum - one of the cranes is white!
“As someone who worked under them for 30 years,” Belfast reader A.R. Kane wrote in his very informative letter, “I can state with certainty that the H and W cranes were never white.”
Several other former shipyard men are of the same opinion. I showed the photo to George McAllister, a retired senior rigger foreman in the yard who worked in the shadow of the cranes long before and after the first of them was built. George is of the opinion that the white one has always been yellow, and that the paint must just have faded a little. A.R. Kane agrees with George. “I would date the photo around 1980-81,” Mr Kane surmised, “as the East Yard cranes are still standing, but the platers’ shed has gone. Samson by this stage was nearly 10 years old, and the yellow paint has simply faded.” He reckons that at the time Goliath had been recently repainted, which made Samson’s original yellow paint look quite pale in contrast. “The ‘boats’ in the dock look like Blue Star refrigerated cargo ships,” he explained. Please note his inverted commas around ‘boats’ - referring to an enigmatic tradition in Harland and Wolff where, according to Mr Kane “a ship was always a ‘boat’ and never a ship.” Shipyard names, terminologies and designations were steeped in tradition. “Except for people who frequented certain golf clubs,” Mr Kane recalled, “It was never ‘Harlands’ or ‘Harland and Wolff’ - just the ‘shipyard’ or the ‘yard’. Other shipyard terms were as follows.” The rest of his letter is a delightful dictionary of Lagan shipbuilding language – a sort of ‘shipyarn’! I can only include some of it today - there’s enough to fill the whole News Letter! Some of the words will be well-known, particularly in and around east Belfast, other references will be distinctly novel for many of us. So the rest of this column is courtesy of A.J. Kane. It is a wonderful record of shipyard life and language.
“A manager was sometimes called a ‘hat’. They wore white helmets but in bygone days they wore bowlers. A foreman was a ‘gaffer’. The sun was often referred to as McCormick. I’m not sure why. Imagine the confused apprentice who was told ‘here’s McCormick!’ A shed was never a shed, but a ‘shade’. Yardmen always made tea in tin cans with a wire handle - though never called a ‘can’ - but a ‘ken’. A strike, walkout or protest was always preceded by calls of ‘up the road’. A place to take tea breaks, usually built out of wood, was known as a dugout, a terminology probably brought back from the trenches. Toilets were ‘the minutes’. In days of yore seven minutes was the allotted time, and was diligently timed by clerks who were given a rather uncouth nickname that almost rhymed with ‘ship-house’! At least one minutes clerk was still working in the yard as recently as the early 1970s. Although time was no longer monitored in the 70s, the clerk watched very closely to see how much of the hard, shiny, H&W-stamped toilet paper you took off the single roll which hung at the turnstile in front of his office. Labourers working with the ‘heaving-squad’ who lifted sections of the hull by crane were called ‘bull runties’ - I’ve never figured that one out either. Overalls were called ‘linens’ by older workers, who were always referred to as ‘oul lads’. Anyone who stuck anything in their ears to protect them from the painful noise was often laughed at. An apprentice was always ‘a boy’, which didn’t sit well with some! We used a basic sign language in the yard - usually for ‘what time is it?’ or ‘here comes a hat!’ A diligent worker was ‘a snick’, a tiny measurement was ‘a nyim’ or ‘a bee’s wing’, and a botched job was greeted with ‘Quick! Throw your hat over that!’ (To hide it.) A ‘knee-beg’ was a term that was applied to various kinds of people, from someone considered to be not very bright to those regarded as ‘riff-raff’, usually outside the yard. A ‘knee-bag’ was in fact a sack stuffed with rags to kneel on, often used by a caulker, who was called ‘a machine man’. An ‘empty head’ was another derogatory term. Swear words, as can be imagined, were liberally used, though there were two exceptions; the word that questioned the marital status of a workers’ parents, or taking the Lord’s name in vain, which was just not done. When a workman died he went to ‘the other yard’. Length of service in the yard was often counted in winters, not years, due to the relentless hardship of working outdoors. There was no compulsory retirement in the 1970s, and many men worked on into their 70s and 80s. I can remember a caulker, reputedly 86 years old, still working the night shift - iron men, steel ships! Strangely, Titanic was rarely mentioned, even by these ‘oul lads.’”
Mr A. R. Kane’s interesting letter, packed with words and phrases from the ‘shades’ and slipways of Belfast’s unmatched maritime past, also deflated two popular ‘myths’! The time-keeping board stamped with the worker’s number was always pronounced as it’s spelt - board, not ‘boord’; and the shipyard men’s caps were rarely called ‘dunchers’. I’ll take him at his word - though I still think one of the cranes was white!
“I could fill a book with yarns and nicknames,” his letter ends, “I met the best people in the world down in that yard.”