Belfast’s oft forgotten ‘Wee Yard’ gets big commemorative website

Whilst Harland & Wolff has become synonymous with shipbuilding in Belfast, amongst some half a dozen other Lagan-based shipbuilders down the years there was another large and very significant shipyard in the city - the often forgotten Workman, Clark & Company Limited.

Wednesday, 23rd June 2021, 6:00 am
1909 map of Belfast Port showing Workman Clark’s yards on both sides of the Lagan
1909 map of Belfast Port showing Workman Clark’s yards on both sides of the Lagan

A new website will be launched on July 1 to commemorate the role played by this shipyard in The First World War.

It’s hoped that the new website will become a platform for a wider acknowledgement of this rarely recounted shipyard.

In 1873, Frank Workman became a premium apprentice at Harland & Wolff at the age of 17 and he established his own shipyard on the northern bank of the River Lagan when he was 23.

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The Workman Clark War Memorial, 1919

In 1880, George Clark, another Harland & Wolff premium apprentice, joined him as a partner.

Although Workman Clark was known as the “Wee Yard” (in jocular reference to the gigantic H&W!) the firm’s paperwork declared it to be ‘The Belfast Ship Yard’.

In 1894, Workman Clark purchased the McIlwaine & MacColl shipyard and engine works on Queen’s Island, increasing the firm’s total area to 40 acres.

The original premises became known as the North Yard and the Queen’s Island works as the South Yard.

Workman Clark’s WWI survivor, HMS M33

The new Workman Clark website is the result of several years of research by Nigel Henderson (History Hub Ulster), Maureen McKinney (Belfast Titanic Society) and Brian Mooney (County Antrim Yacht Club).

Whilst many publications deal with the terrible tally of fatalities during WWI, this website focuses on the broader involvement of the Workman Clark shipyard.

It provides details of ships built at the yard that played a role in the war and includes an extensive biography of Lieutenant Edward (Ted) Workman who died of wounds in January 1916.

Whilst there are detailed biographies of some of the fatalities named on a sombre, Lagan-side memorial, there is also a section about the men who survived - some of whom were left with serious disabilities.

Edward Workman profile on the War Memorial

Nigel Henderson explains more about the war fatalities: “The firm’s memorial is dedicated to the ‘officers and men of the Belfast Shipyard’ who lost their lives and records the names of 136 fatalities.”

The new website includes basic details of all but three of the fatalities - Robert Dowey (Royal Irish Rifles), William Patrick (Royal Engineers), and Joseph Reeves (Royal Warwickshire Regiment) - and the website organisers would welcome any further information about these men.

On 1st July 1916, 28 men from Workman Clark lost their lives and one of them was Lance-Corporal Edward Sutherland, 1st Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, who was 30 years old.

Sutherland was living in Ballymacarrett when he was posted to France in August 1914.

He died six weeks after marrying Mary Thompson, who erected a memorial in Dundonald Cemetery commemorating her husband.

Brian Mooney’s fascination with the Workman Clark shipyard began when he was researching the men named on the memorial tablet for the County Antrim Yacht Club.

“I was intrigued why Edward Workman from East Belfast was commemorated on the tablet,” said Brian, adding, “In researching his story, I came into contact with David Lindsay, a descendent of Frank Workman, who gave me access to the Edward Workman Archive.

“This phenomenal collection of photos and documents relating to Ted Workman includes all the letters that he wrote home during his time on the Western Front. Ted’s poignant story is told in a dedicated page on the website, accompanied by photographs of documents and letters from the archive”.

Maureen McKinney has a personal interest in the Workman Clark shipyard as her paternal grandfather, John Gilpin, was employed there as a joiner before moving to Harland & Wolff.

Maureen, who has been researching the ships built at Workman Clark that served the Great War, said: “The only surviving Workman Clark ship from the war era is an M29-Class Monitor, HMS M33, which was built in March 1915 and saw active service in the Dardanelles Campaign and in the White Sea during the Russian Civil War.”

Maureen added: “HMS M33 has been overhauled and restored and, complete with 1918-era dazzle paint, is now on public display at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. I have visited the ship on numerous occasions and have seen her transformed from a sorry state into a splendid-looking vessel.”

The Workman Clark website has received financial support from History Hub Ulster and the Belfast Titanic Society. Gavin Bamford, chair of History Hub Ulster, said, “Our group is pleased to be associated with this project and we look forward to the future development of the website.”

Dr Aidan McMichael, co-chair of Belfast Titanic Society, added, “Our society is delighted to have contributed a donation towards the Workman Clark website, the culmination of months of research into this long-forgotten but important Belfast shipyard. This is yet another milestone in the maritime heritage of Belfast and I wish the group every success”.

The final word goes to Frank Workman’s great grandson, David Lindsay:“Our collective hope is that through this website, the men named on the memorial will return to the public domain and that descendants of these men will be able to find out more about their relatives and the important part they, and the ‘Wee Yard’, played in winning that far-off World War. Please take the opportunity to visit the website. (www.thebelfastshipyard.org).”

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