Wednesday, 05 March 2014

The Hot and the Dead – Thomas Andrews

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Meetings, eh? They never start on time, they never stick to an agenda and they never have the good biscuits. You spend most of your time trying to stay awake and if you do actually think of something good to say, it gets talked over or voted down.

Thomas Andrews, the naval architect of the RMS Titanic, knew all about bad meetings.

“What… um… what if we…” he said to a roomful of senior management types with stuffy suits and intimidating facial hair in 1909, “What if we doubled the number of lifeboats, made the bulkheads bigger and more watertight and… I don’t know… made the hull a bit stronger? Would that be ok?”

But Andrews, being a Very Nice Man and not nearly assertive enough, was overruled. A shame, really. Because if Andrews was good at one thing, it was designing ships. He was also quite competent at sitting in a chair and looking handsome, but it’s important to have something to fall back on.

Born in Ireland in 1873 into a reasonably posh family, Andrews left school at sixteen to learn about boats at Harland and Wolff, a successful shipbuilding firm in Belfast that was partly owned by his uncle, William Pirrie. By 1907, only eighteen long, arduous years after he began his apprenticeship, he was head of the drafting department and quite popular due to his Niceness.

Naval architecture suited Thomas. It provided a steady income, it indulged his love of big things made of metal, and it provided plenty of opportunities for being handsome in chairs. No doubt the income and handsomeness played a part in his marriage to Helen Reilly Barbour in 1908, and the birth of a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1910.

When Harland and Wolff started construction on two whopping great boats, the Olympic and the Titanic in 1909, Andrews was all over it, designing and drafting and drawing and being ignored in meetings, until at last the Titanicwas ready for her maiden voyage*.

Harland and Wolff’s usual practice when launching a ship was to send a ‘guarantee group’ – a small contingent of staff – on a maiden voyage to address any operational or structural shortcomings. Thomas was part of the Titanic’s guarantee group, which would have been a very exciting and prestigious prospect at the time, though in hindsight it might have been a bit shit.

All in all, Andrews considered the Titanic  to be an absolute cracker of a ship during its 4-day voyage. But we all know what happened next. At about 11:40pm on 14 April 1912, an iceberg sliced through the ship’s hull, and three hours later the Titanicwas completely submerged in the Atlantic Ocean (except for a few deckchairs and other pieces of floating wood that would have fit Leonardo DiCaprio on them). From all reports, this was worse than even the most terrible of meetings with no biscuits at all.

But what of Thomas Andrews? Did he straddle the nearest funnel, laughing maniacally and grabbing panicky passers-by to gloat, “The BULKHEADS. I was RIGHT” as the decks descended into the icy waters? Did he panic and run around shouting “OUTTA MY WAY, YOU BASTARDS!”, stepping on children and poor people in a desperate attempt to fling himself onto the nearest lifeboat?

No. Thomas Andrews did what any Very Nice Man would do in such a scenario. He gave the captain his expert opinion of the ship’s fate, then searched through cabin after cabin, alerting passengers to the disaster and assisting them with lifejackets. He was last seen in the first-class smoking room, standing (though sitting might have been handsomer) and looking calmly at a painting.

“Bugger,” he said.**


*Or, for those wishing to break free from the shackled mire of patriarchal poppycock inherent in the highly offensive vernacular of the sea, “its first voyage”.



Shelley Stocken

Shelley Stocken is a freelance writer when she’s not feeding, clothing and wiping family members.

Follow her on twitter @shellity