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Launch of the Titanic

These are the astonishing pictures of RMS Titanic as she touched the waters of Belfast Lough for the first time – from a never-before-seen collection.

The series of amazing sepia images were captured by a Harland and Wolff employee as the ‘unsinkable’ ship moved slowly down the slipway and into the sea on May 31, 1911.

Although snapped more than 103 years ago, the photographs have a remarkable quality and have never been seen in public, until now.

Eerily, the words ‘Going’, ‘going’, ‘gone’ were written as captions beneath the sequence of pictures which ended up in a family photograph album.

The album contains 116 black and white images taken by John W Kempster when he was a director and senior engineer at Harland and Wolff at the time of the construction of Titanic and her sister ship the Olympic. They include the unpublished pictures of Titanic and the Olympic during their launch and departure from Belfast and have now gone on display at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.

The album contains 13 photographs from Titanic’s launch on May 31, 1911 when her prow kissed sea water for the first time.

They include Lord Pirrie, the Harland and Wolff chairman, returning from inspecting the hydraulic rams and the doomed liner descending the slipway into the water, pursued by thousands of excited spectators. The sequence captures the unique high spirits of the occasion.

Mr Kempster was master of ceremonies on the day of Titanic’s launch, hosting a lunch at Belfast’s Grand Central Hotel for yard officials and dignitaries.

The departure of Olympic and Titanic from Belfast Lough in 1912 was also photographed by Mr Kempster. Indeed, the Kempster family was on-board the Olympic, then the world’s largest liner, for its maiden voyage to the United States in June 1911. Many of the photographs he took give a glimpse of how passengers wiled away the days.

Launch of the Titanic

Launch of the Titanic

William Blair, head of human history, National Museums Northern Ireland, said: “Part of our fascination with the Titanic is the era – it’s like Downton Abbey at sea.

“These photographs are very evocative in that regard because they extend that social context around Titanic to take in the lifestyle of a shipyard director at the time.”


This is the most complete album of the Titanic in Belfast in existence, according to Andrew Aldridge of Aldridge Auction House

The album, owned by private collector Steve Raffield, is on loan to the museum until next summer.

Thousands of ticket-holding spectators gathered along the shores of Belfast Lough for the launch of Titanic on May 31, 1911. The public jostled for a view wherever they could find one, while dignitaries and Harland & Wolff employees watched from stands in the shipyard.

Launch of the Titanic

Launch of the Titanic

Lord Pirrie made an inspection before giving the signal to launch, shortly after noon. In 62 seconds, Titanic was released down the greased slipway and into the water. Over the next 10 months she received her engines and fittings, transforming her into the ship that would depart Belfast on its maiden voyage.

Titanic was initially the over-shadowed “middle sister” of the three Olympic-class ships commissioned by the White Star Line from Harland & Wolff, according to William Blair, head of human history at National Museums Northern Ireland.

Ironically, it was the Olympic that originally had its own commemorative brochure and captured public interest, being eight months ahead of its sibling. When Titanic entered service, she over took the Olympic as the world’s largest liner at that time. Of the three ships – including the Britannic – only the Olympic managed to avoid tragedy and was retired after long service. The Britannic was sunk by a underwater mine off a Greek island in November 1916, killing 30 people.

1912 press report – The sinking of the Titanic

IN THE chaos surrounding the sinking of the Titanic there was initially great relief back home.

The first snippets of information suggested that all passengers had been plucked from life boats, without any loss of life, in the early hours of 15 April 1912.

But over the next 24 hours the full scale of the disaster was dawning on a shocked world.

The liner, which was on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York and considered unsinkable, had struck an iceberg and gone down with the loss of more than 1,500 lives.

Some 700 passengers survived but before they had even been delivered to land, by the rescue ship Carpathia, questions were already being asked about the adequacy of lifeboats.

In the first edition of the Daily Express to fully cover the tragedy it was also reported that the captain of the Titanic had been warned about icebergs by sailors on another vessel.

Both the lack of boats and the failure to reduce speed in the face of the icebergs risk would feature prominently in the subsequent enquiry into Britain’s worst maritime disaster.

The Titanic had just 20 lifeboats, which was barely enough for half the people on board. A full-scale evacuation of the 52,000-ton ship had never been envisaged.

It later emerged that the collision had caused compartments beneath the waterline to buckle and flood. The enormity of the damage was not immediately realised, with some on board later reporting feeling only a slight shudder. Others played football with chunks of ice which were found on deck.

The stricken ship drifted in the Labrador Current for two-and-a-half hours before sliding under the water, with a rumbling roar.

The band really did continue to play as, despite the fatal shortage, many lifeboats rowed away half full. People who ended up in the water died from hypothermia.

The Titanic

The Titanic

With eyewitness reports not yet available, the Daily Express focused on the scenes at the offices of the White Star Line in New York. Relatives who besieged the building were “weeping and hysterical”, demanding a full list of survivors. It was also confirmed that there was no hope for anyone left un-accounted for.

“In this fashion, throughout the day, the White Star offices were turned into a tabernacle of grief,” wrote the newspaper’s correspondent.


Some of the cream of Edwardian and American high society was lost. There was a heart-rending account of how the wife of Benjamin Guggenheim offered “all her wealth” to charter a steamship to look for the missing mining tycoon.

The front page on April 17 also carried a message of sympathy from King George V and Queen Mary.

The Titanic

The Titanic

However grief soon gave way to anger as details of the unequal treatment of passengers in different classes on board began to emerge. Only a handful of people in steerage (third class) even made it on deck, because doors were deliberately locked in a misguided attempt to keep the ship afloat. Out of 79 children in steerage, 52 were drowned.

There was also criticism of the shambolic evacuation overseen by Captain Edward Smith, who went down with his ship. His last known words, on a final tour of the deck, were to crew members, telling them: “Now it’s every man for himself.”

Distress calls from the Titanic gave the wrong location, hampering the rescue operation.

In a footnote to the disaster the wreck of the Titanic, split in two, was located in water two miles deep in an expedition in 1985.