From the early settlement located at the point where the River Lagan met the Rivers Farset and Blackstaff, the city of Belfast has long had a maritime connection. Belfast developed around these rivers, configuring them into culverts, docks, quays and slipways before they become harbour then lough then sea.
All of our projects have reinforced that Belfast is a city with a long maritime history, and we want to help deliver, protect and promote Belfast’s magnificent maritime heritage.
One of Belfast’s biggest industries, shipbuilding, began slowly in Belfast, and it wasn’t until the establishment of the Ballast Board in the 18th and 19th centuries that real progress began with the creation of Belfast Harbour. Early wooden and iron ships had been constructed by local foundries and small shipbuilders, allowing merchants to trade and the town to expand across both sides of the River Lagan. When Scottish shipbuilder William Ritchie set up his business in Belfast in 1791, it began more than two hundred years of commercial shipbuilding, with some of the biggest and most productive shipbuilders in the UK and the world. The city also laid claim to the largest rope works and linen mills, industries that were all interlinked and succeeded together.
Modern Belfast retains much of this early maritime heritage, from the Clarendon dry docks to the Hamilton, Thompson & Alexandra Docks, which are now all scheduled monuments. The historic Slipways where so many huge ships were built remain, and visitors today can walk in the footsteps of the dockers and yardmen. Titanic Belfast has been constructed on the site where its namesake was built over a hundred years ago, and its design pays tribute to the huge ships once built in the gantries, as well as telling the story of Belfast’s most famous ship. The former Drawing Offices where hundreds of ships were designed have been restored and transformed into Titanic Hotel Belfast. The last remaining White Star line ship, the SS Nomadic, rests in the dock where she was fitted out, and the original Caisson Gate, one of Harland & Wolff’s earliest vessels, sits beside her.
The area once dominated by shipyards is now one of Europe’s largest waterfront regeneration sites with millions of visitors every year, while the port handles millions of tonnes of cargo. This part of Belfast has embraced its maritime beginnings and we have clustered new attractions around the waterfront. The Great Light, one of the world’s largest lighthouse optics, is now on display to the public on the Titanic Walkway, a pedestrianised link between the Thompson & Alexandra Docks and the Slipways. The Belfast Buoys, local landmarks previously found in the city centre, have also moved to the Maritime Mile, allowing people to learn about the importance of safety at sea.
We’ve also gathered a collection of artefacts from former employees and their families that tell the story of the industry that built and shaped Belfast, tools from joiners and draughtsmen, linen from tracers, that we put on display in Titanic Hotel Belfast, or in our free Out of Stores exhibition.