This article (by Ian Miller) uses original oral history interviews by Rhianne Morgan, of the Epidemic Belfast team, and oral histories published in David Hammond’s 1986 book, Steelchest, Nail in the Boot and the Barking Dog, to bring to life harrowing experiences of injury and health in the shipyards involving exposure to life-changing injuries, asbestos and poor health prospects.
Listen to an oral history with former shipyard worker Sam White:
From the 18th century, Belfast transformed into one of Ireland’s major ports. Between the 1830s and 1850s, significant improvements were made to the city’s harbour, including the straightening of River Lagan, establishment of the Belfast Harbour Commission, land reclamation, and the opening of the Victoria Channel and Clarendon Dock.
In the century that followed, Belfast transformed into one of the world’s most important trading and shipbuilding hubs. After Edward James Harland bought a shipyard in 1859, he decided to take on Gustav Wilhelm Wolff as his partner. The Harland and Wolff company rapidly expanded to become one of Belfast’s major employers. At its peak, the company produced over ten per cent of the world’s shipping output. Notoriously, Titanic was built at the Harland and Wolff shipyard. Never reaching its destination, the ship sank in 1912.
Sailortown Aerial Picture 1960. Courtesy of Sailortown Regeneration.
Sailortown is a small working-class neighbourhood adjoining Belfast harbour first established in the nineteenth century. Although the area is relatively sparse today, it once hosted homes, linen mills, factories, a fire station, hotel, railway station, boarding house, shops, businesses and many pubs. Home to an exuberant mix of Protestants, Catholics and Italian immigrants, Sailortown was once renowned for its pubs, shops, visiting sailors and local shipyard and dock workers. At its peak, over 2,000 men worked in the docks. Sailortown’s women worked in the mills and cigarette factories. A constant flow of horses and carts transported goods to the railway station or the markets. In 1907, the Belfast Dockers’ Strike, led by James Larkin, started in Sailortown.
Disease on the Ships
Ships regularly entered Belfast carrying infected people, a major problem for all port cities. When epidemics broke out on long voyages, passengers could not easily avoid the infected, particularly on smaller-sized ships. The route between Ireland and America was immensely popular, but had no stop-off points for escorting sick passengers off-board. When travelling from America, Belfast was often a first port of call, but this left the city vulnerable to disease outbreaks.
James Wilson was one of Belfast’s most famous arrivals from overseas. Born in Virginia in 1779, James’ parents were British emigrants, his father being a solider who ended up fighting in the War of Independence (1775-83). When Britain lost, the family fled back home. Shortly after the ship set sail, the father fell severely ill and died. James’ mother, heavily pregnant, lapsed into shock, fell ill and also died. The two bodies were tossed together into the sea. Four-year-old James was now orphaned. As if this turn of events was not tragic enough, James contracted smallpox, causing him to lose his sight. After weeks of being caught up in harsh winds raging across the Atlantic Ocean, the vessel pulled into Belfast harbour for repairs. The captain procured a nurse, and left James in the care of a churchwarden.
James lived in Belfast until his death in 1845. He grew up into a self-educated man deeply interested in documenting the lives of blind people. His most famous work, Biography of the Blind, was published in four separate editions from 1821 to 1838. Unlike most harsh contemporary literature written about disabled communities, Biography of the Blind emphasised successes and achievements, not personal weaknesses and shortcomings, deliberately calling readers to imagine the capabilities of blind people.
James Wilson, Autobiography of the Blind
The problem of disease-ridden arrivals persisted throughout the century. In the 1890s, the Harbour Commissioners made concerted efforts to prevent incoming disease. In 1891, the Belfast Newsletter outlined the misadventures of a young sailor travelling who had stopped off at Genoa, Marseilles, and now Belfast. The sailor, known as R.M., arrived in Belfast on 13 January visibly suffering from smallpox. He secured lodgings on Whitla Street, Sailortown, but weeks later, the three sisters who had kindly rented him their room were admitted to the workhouse hospital, having contracted smallpox themselves. In the meantime, R.M. visited Ballymena where six smallpox cases subsequently broke out. R.M. also spent a night in Castledawson where nine cases then broke out.
The reliability of this account is questionable, as public health officials were prone to scaremongering, hoping to persuade readers to adopt more hygienic, sanitary ways. However, in the following year, cholera threatened to return. By 1892, Belfast Port had its own medical officer, Dr Stanley B. Coates, who was called upon to help safeguard the city. Coates requested powers to isolate vessels carrying ‘filthy’ or ‘unwholesome’ passengers, regardless of whether an infection had actually broke out on board.
Coates converted spaces at the Customs boarding station and Rotterdam Shed into disinfecting and fumigation stations, equipped for any emergencies that might arise. The entire crew of ships arriving from suspected ports were disinfected before being allowed to enter Belfast. An intercepting hospital took care of any infected passengers found. In one week alone, in October 1892, Coates inspected vessels arriving from Braila, Rotterdam, Bombay, Kronstadt, St. Malo and Hamburg. Despite finding no evidence of death and illness on the S.S. Tremayne which had arrived from Braila (now in Romania), he disinfected the entire crew, officers, quarters and clothing. The water tanks used were emptied, disinfected and cleansed afterwards.
Health and Injury in the Shipyards
Our shipyards offer up a daily sacrifice of life and limb on the altar of capitalism. The clang of the ambulance bell is one of the most familiar daily sounds on the streets between our shipyards and our hospitals…The public reads and passes on, but fails to comprehend the totality of suffering involved. But it means all lives ruined, fair prospects blighted, homes devastated, crippled wrecks of manhood upon the streets, or widows and orphans to eat the bread of poverty and pauperism.
When Irish republican, socialist and trade unionist James Connolly wrote down these ominous words in The Re-Conquest of Ireland, published in 1915, he was not exaggerating. During the construction of Titanic between 1909 and 1912, at least seven workers died, 28 sustained severe injuries and 218 suffered less serious injuries. Erecting and assembling ships was hazardous. Accidentally falling from great heights was a particularly common cause of death. Workers risked being struck by falling or moving objects: tools, working surfaces, ship parts. Men working in the evening time or during bad weather were especially vulnerable to serious injury.
Harland and Wolff Cranes
Injuries to the head, eyes, fingers and lower extremities regularly occurred, often proving fatal or permanently disabling. Hearing loss was a problem too. Riveters suffered elbow and shoulder injury due to the continuous vibration and repeated impacts of their tools. Welders received flash burns to eyes and inhaled toxic gases. Awkward postures produced a range of musculoskeletal conditions. Welding fumes, solvents, asbestos and lead could cause asthma and cancer.
First aid provision was basic, and injured people would have an ambulance called for. Charlie Witherspoon’s oral history testimony from the 1980s provides shocking insight into the inadequacy of first aid provision:
We had a sort of First Aid depot in the main yard and it would have been about 12 ft square. It was all tiled and the man who ran it was called ‘Washing Soda’. He’d sell you packets of cigarettes and bars of chocolate just to make a few bob. But he was daft on washing soda. If you went in with a slight injury, he would have washed it down with washing soda and say ‘now when you get home tonight, wash it down with washing soda’. And the story was, that if a lead plate fell on you and amputated your leg, he would have said ‘Bathe it in washing soda’. I never knew his name and I never heard him getting other than Washing Soda.
Given the potential severity of workplace wounds, this inadequate first aid seems all the more astonishing. In 1906, a sixteen-year-old boy fell 40 feet from a ship vessel, fracturing his skull and breaking both legs and a collarbone. He died instantly, and his body was removed to Royal Victoria Hospital mortuary.
While most people who fell from heights did not survive, John Gibb was fortunate, as his oral history testimony attests. He recalled:
I was working on this skylight and I was putting bolts in. I was working on one plank, which wouldn’t happen in the shipyard now. You would have about four planks. Anyway, I fell and my boss Bob Lewis was just coming in at the top edge of the room and lucky enough he caught me by the leg. I was hanging upside down and if I’d fallen, I would never have spoken again.
They carried me off over to the First Aid and they cut the trousers right off my leg with the swelling. I finished up in Dundonald Hospital getting about 109 stitches in my leg, but it was never right after it…I took varicose veins in the leg very severe and when summer came in, I just couldn’t walk with it nor nothing.
Ship Arriving at Belfast Shipyard
Compensation for injuries was stringent and rarely took into account that severe injury could mean a future of being unable to work, plunging families into poverty. John also mentioned, regretfully, that ‘there was no legal aid or anything then. People was getting hands off and legs off and everything. I got a finger off in 1956, my whole wee finger, and all I got was £250 for it’.
In 1951, a tragic event at the Belfast shipyards attracted international attention. Eighteen men were killed, and 40 injured, when a gangway leading from the Juan Peron, a whale factory ship, collapsed. The men had crowded onto the platform after finishing work, causing the wooden gangway to crack. They were hurled 40 feet downwards. Some were thrown into the water, others onto the dock. Some escaped serious injury by falling on the bodies of others. Seventeen victims were buried on the same day. The funeral procession stretched for two miles; hundreds of people lined the streets.
Even despite this tragedy, health and safety provision remained lax. Terry Ward was born in 1953 to a dock working family and was employed from the late-1960s. When he started work in the 1960s, there were no health and safety provision. New workers learnt from the experiences of their elders. As Terry recalled, ‘it was hard work and dangerous work. You learn by your own knowledge and wit, and older men, you got the knowledge of them-ens. There was a lot of information passed down’. The docks had no specially trained first aid or medical staff and ambulances would be called if serious injury occurred.
John McGuigan, also from a dock-working family, started work at the docks in 1956. When asked about health and safety regulations, he stated that ‘there was none of that…everything you worked with was dirty and dusty…there was no masks’. Similar to Terry, John recalls learning his basic health and safety knowledge from elders. His own approach was very matter-of-fact: ‘if you get your hand cut, just put something round it, for god’s sake’. If hands became blistered, John would recommend urinating on them.
Likewise, James Austin started work on the docks in the 1940s and also mentions that there was ‘never any teaching or training about health and safety. You had to use your natural instincts to keep safe’. Instincts were not always enough to keep men safe. James remembered one man, with a reputation for being meticulously cautious about safety, being found dead in the hold of a ship. Some people speculated that he had suffered a heart attack, but James believed that the hatch covers had been accidentally left open.
Witnessing, or hearing about, accidental death was a common thread across all the oral history interviews. James described an injury to one worker, Jimmy McDonald, as follows:
Jimmy was struck with a heave that was coming across the deck. He was driven against a very sharp edge that came up to his eyes. We heard the yells and the shouts so we climbed out of the hold. And when I got up to deck, Jimmy was lying out, and all the skin had been pushed back into the middle of his head. And I always remember I could see the small bone fragments.
Someone rang for an ambulance. Someone found a coat and put him over it. He was conscious the whole time and the blood was running down. We were trying to stop the blood ourselves. He was on the deck for about twenty minutes, then the ambulance took him away. Of course, docks being the docks, as soon as he left we resumed work again.
Fortunately, Jimmy, then in his late thirties, recovered. Royal Victoria Hospital surgeons pulled the skin back down again. When James visited after work, Jimmy’s only complaint was ‘a bit of a headache’.
A final sad recollection was told by Liam Hamill, a dock worker from the 1960s:
One gentlemen who died, I’ll never forget it…we were working at – you know the big reams of paper that come in for printing the Belfast Telegraph, Irish News etc… Really heavy print paper. It was locked with two things on the side tight. Jimmy Quinn was directing the winch man. He was giving signals. Go this way. Go that way. Take it up. The thing came out too quick. It swung up. It hit him and it knocked him down into the hold. He died on 11 July. I’ll never forget that date. God bless him, he was a real lovely man too.
Health and Specific Jobs
Sam White was born in 1956 and lived in Sailortown as a young boy. Sam’s oral history testimony illuminates the health conditions once endured by shipyard workers. Between 1969 and 2001, Sam worked at Harland and Wolff. His main role was to ensure that ships did not rust. This required ‘red leading’ metal plates to prevent them corroding and ‘shot blasting’ (going into corroded tanks to blast off the rust).
Poor health was common. Workers engaged in both of these jobs were prone to cancer, breathing problems and skin rashes. Despite this, no masks were provided. Sam mentions wearing a hood connected to a tank, but remembered that the air was not fresh and the pipe often blocked, forcing workers were forced to remove the apparatus mid-way through their work. The taste of diesel was often discernible while wearing the hoods and Sam is convinced that he inhaled toxic materials as a matter of course.
As Sam recalled:
I know people – friends – who got cancer. I know people who had real lung diseases because of the work which we done in the ship yard. Sometimes we used the disking machine instead of blasting, and the disking machine – we were using this for years and years and years – your hands were vibrating all the time, so your thumbs and your fingers, you couldn’t move them after time, they became like that, and you had a swelling around your knuckles and the fluid building in your fingers because of this continuous vibration going through your hands all the time. And then you had your diseases of the lungs.
John Harvey was a welder who commented with much remorse that ‘they always say that there is no old welders, that no welders retire. They usually die. The welding is not a very healthy job and whenever you’re welding, you’ve got to have proper ventilation…I’ve lots of mates who have got, what you call, Welder’s Lung. They’ve taken up Welder’s Lung and they’re finished up for the rest of their lives’.
Even worse was the temporary loss of sight which welding could cause, described by John as ‘the blinks’:
They were the most terrible thing ever you had. Sometimes they lasted around twenty-four hours. You got no pay. If you got the blinks, you didn’t go into work, you sat in the house, your mother put cold tea on your eyes. You just had to wait until it went away. Water just kept running out of your eyes all the time…It was like someone throwing sand into your eyes. You got the blinks through watching the arc of the weld with the naked eye.
Titanic at Belfast Shipyards
Explosions occurred infrequently. After the Second World War ended in 1945, the shipyard workers were asked to re-convert the Reina de Pacifico into a passenger liner, now that it was no longer needed for wartime service. One worker, Billy Morrison, was trapped unconscious in the engine room after the explosion. Fortunately, he survived and provided his oral history testimony in the 1980s:
I could have been there anything from half an hour to an hour after the accident. I’d been sitting there burning or smouldering. That’s why I got burned so much from the neck up. You see all these eyelids burned, eyebrows burnt out, and my arms were all third degree burns. A strange thing is, many doctors, my own included, have often said to me, ‘you know, but, you shouldn’t be alive according to your burns’. They just can’t explain it.
The explosion caused five deaths and countless injuries. Billy was among those who required skin grafting. He suffered from facial disfigurement for the rest of his life.
Internationally, the twentieth century was a time of increasing concern over occupational health, and a perceived need to reduce workplace injuries. This contrasted sharply with Sam White’s early days at work:
Nobody talked about the dangers [in 1969]…People were killed in the shipyards. Stagers putting the scaffolding up. It wasn’t very health conscious whatsoever. There were red leaders killed too. Falling off planks, falling off tanks, falling into machines. It was wild like…When I was a young lad first starting the shipyard, nobody cared about health. It was the last thing on their mind.
Sam did not consider his employer to be negligent, as he accepted poor health prospects as part of the job. As he mentioned: ‘That’s the sort of conditions which we worked under. I’m not saying that H&W made us do it. There was health and safety equipment there, but it probably wasn’t fit for purpose, and it was more hassle putting it on and off’.
Later in the century, there was greater recognition that workplace injuries could be avoided by wearing googles and hard hats, using tools and equipment properly, and warning workers if heavy objects were being moved. Until then, workers relied at best upon a brief health and safety talk upon starting employment. Harland and Wolff became more health and safety conscious. Staff were tested regularly and Sam remembered experiencing these changes in the 1990s:
A medical centre was actually built in the shipyard, and we were given regular tests…sounding our chest, our ears for deafness and all sorts of stuff. And the medical inspectors would recommend to our foremen [that] we need to be careful with this individual because he has a chesty cough, his ears are being infected. Or sometimes your eyes get full of shot, and we were brought in for regular eye tests and when they done these tests you realise that your eyes are very heavily scarred.
It was now considered unacceptable for men to work without health and safety equipment. The shipyards became populated with medical staff and trained first aiders who would refuse to let men work unless they kitted up. Sam was quite sanguine about these developments, recollecting that ‘I would say around the middle of the 1990s, things happened to change…they showed more concern about people’s health. But at the end of the day, you were still working with these toxic materials…Red lead is still being used in the shipyard and red lead is one of the worst things you could possibly be near’. The changes were welcome but, as Sam knew full well, for older workers the damage had already been done.
Asbestos and Lung Problems
Dock workers resigned themselves to workplace injury, and even death, but some health problems were more preventable than others. The docks were dusty places and workers were susceptible to chronic lung problems. Exposure to asbestos featured angrily in our oral history interviews. Asbestos is remarkably fire and heat resistant substance which makes it useful for insulating and fire-protecting buildings, pipes and ships. From around 1900, people in asbestos mining towns began dying at a young age from lung problems. Asbestosis was recognised as an illness in 1924.
Amosite, chrysotile and crocidolite asbestos was used to insulate ships from around 1880. Although some precautions were brought into dockyards in the 1930s, they proved inadequate. Until 1963, insulation was applied by spraying asbestos onto deckheads and bulkheads. During refits, insulation and sprayed parts of ships were ripped out, spreading asbestos through the air. Asbestos debris was left scattered indefinitely around the shipyards. Large numbers of men were exposed. In 1955, asbestos inhalation was linked to lung cancer, which finally encouraged a dawning appreciation of the true extent of asbestos dust hazards. Improved preventative measures, including the discontinuation of spraying, were introduced in the dockyards from the 1960s.
Investigations made into the health and mortality of Belfast’s workers produced ominous results. One investigated 170 insulation workers employed since 1940. Statistically speaking, only around 37 should have died prematurely by 1971 when the study took place. Alarmingly, 98 men had passed away, an irregular figure well above average. Fibrosis and cancer of the lung were the main culprits, and smoking appears not to have contributed significantly to the mortality increase.
Harland and Wolff Smiths’ iron store interior. Courtesy of National Museums Northern Ireland.
The oral history interviewees all believed that inadequate protection persisted even after the dangers of asbestos were better recognised. John McGuigan recalled that ‘[With the asbestos] you got a scarf around your neck, or a handkerchief…Health and safety? Unbelievable’. John remembered feeling puzzled by the amount of deaths among older work colleagues. His own father had depended later in life ‘on a machine, for breathing an’ all’. John recalled:
See, our dockers were dying of lung diseases and they didn’t know what it was. It was only diagnosed later on as asbestosis, they kept it quiet you see. Well we were dying of lung disease. You only found out years later. Most of our dockers had it. We had dozens of dockers dying of asbestosis. And they told us we all had it as we’d all breathed it in. But it could lie dormant for years, they told us.
John added that:
It was unbelievable like, y’know…it was a fine asbestos, and it was in big porous bags. You might have put twelve of them in a van, you used to let them down and all the dust would fall off. It was unbelievable. You’d put a scarf around your neck or something like that…I’d no mask or nothing…That was going on for years and years but they didn’t tell you anythin’ about it.
The trade unions regarded asbestos as a nuisance, not as something to be much concerned about. James Austin was offered no protective clothing or proper training. Liam Hamill was even reassured by foremen that blue asbestos was safe. ‘When we finished’, stated Liam, ‘and there was some lying around the floor in the boat, they used to take some of it and make snowballs out of it and throw it at each other’.
Between 2011 and 2021, the Department for the Economy paid out over £35m in asbestos diseases, with many of these being former Harland and Wolff employees. However, families were also affected. Women, for instance, were exposed while washing their husband’s clothes, although getting compensation for these scenarios has proven legally trickier. This was a particular bone of contention for John McGuigan was the lack of information provided on how asbestos dust travelled home with the workers, falling onto bus passengers and contaminating family members.
 D.J. Owen, A Short History of the Port of Belfast (Belfast: Mayne, Boyd and Son, 1917).
 John P. Lynch, An Unlikely Success Story: The Belfast Shipbuilding Industry, 1880-1935 (Belfast: Belfast Society and Ulster Historical Foundation, 2001).
 James Wilson, The Life of James Wilson who has been Blind from his Infancy (Birmingham: J.W. Showell, 1842). See also Rebecca Brown. ‘The Experience of Blindness in Belfast, c.1801-1920’. MA thesis. Ulster University, 2022.
 ‘A Travelling Smallpox Centre’, Belfast Newsletter (7 August 1891).
 ‘Precautionary Measures at Belfast’, Belfast Newsletter (7 September 1892).
 ‘Belfast Board of Guardians’, Belfast Newsletter (26 October 1892). For a broader overview, see John Booker, Maritime Quarantine: The British Experience, 1650-1900 (London: Routledge, 2016).
 James Connolly, The Reconquest of Ireland (New Books Publication, 1968 ), chapter five.
 Division of Industrial Accident Statistics, Shipyard Injuries and their Causes 1941 (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1943); Ken Addley and Paul McKeagney, ‘The RMS Titanic’, in John Hobson (ed.), Why I Became an Occupational Physician (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), pp. 67-70.
 David Hammond, Steelchest, Nail in the Boot and the Barking Dog (Belfast: Flying Fox Films, 1986), p. 65.
 Irish Times (29 September 1906), p. 9.
 David Hammond, Steelchest, Nail in the Boot and the Barking Dog (Belfast: Flying Fox Films, 1986), p. 79.
 David Hammond, Steelchest, Nail in the Boot and the Barking Dog (Belfast: Flying Fox Films, 1986), p. 79.
 ‘Dock Disaster Fund at £5000’, The Bulletin (5 February 1951), p. 10.
 Epidemic Belfast interview with James Austin, 2023.
 Epidemic Belfast interview with Liam Hamill, 2023.
 Epidemic Belfast interview with Sam White, 2023.
 David Hammond, Steelchest, Nail in the Boot and the Barking Dog (Belfast: Flying Fox Films, 1986), p. 71.
 David Hammond, Steelchest, Nail in the Boot and the Barking Dog (Belfast: Flying Fox Films, 1986), p. 75.
 David Hammond, Steelchest, Nail in the Boot and the Barking Dog (Belfast: Flying Fox Films, 1986), p. 100.
 Epidemic Belfast Interview with Sam White, 2023.
 James Pritchard, A Bridge of Ships: Canadian Shipbuilding during the Second World War (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011), pp. 154-55.
 Epidemic Belfast interview with Sam White, 2023.
 Jock McCulloch and Geoffrey Tweedale, Defending the Indefensible: The Global Asbestos Industry and its Fight for Survival (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
 P.G. Harries, ‘Asbestos Dust Concentrations in Ship Repairing: A Practical Approach to Improving Asbestos Hygiene in Naval Dockyards’, Annals of Occupational Hygiene, 14 (September 1971), pp. 241-54; Peter W.J. Bartrip, ‘‘Enveloped in Fog’: The Asbestos Problem in Britain’s Royal Naval Dockyards, 1949-1999’, International Journal of Maritime History, 26:4 (November 2014), pp. 685-701.
 P.C. Elmes and Marion J.C. Simpson, ‘Insulation Workers in Belfast. 3. Mortality, 1940-66’, British Journal of Industrial Medicine, 28:3 (July 1971), pp. 226-36.
 Epidemic Belfast interview with John McGuigan, 2023.
 Epidemic Belfast interview with James Austin, 2023.
 Epidemic Belfast interview with Liam Hamill, 2023.
 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-24054555; https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/courts/man-loses-damages-battle-with-harland-and-wolff-shipyard-over-asbestos-related-condition/42276679.html.