While this tale is likely to be at least somewhat doubtful, the story of the trio of liners that would define the White Star Line in the 20th century often begins with a dinner in Belgravia in July of 1907.
As the story goes, on a summer evening after dinner and coffee at Lord William Pirrie’s London home, J. Bruce Ismay and Pirrie, with both their wives present, had a discussion about building three gigantic liners which would be the most-luxurious and largest vessels afloat and larger than any moving object yet made by man. The story continues that the general design for what became the Olympic-class started with just a drawing on a napkin. Thus, it is told, the great trio that would meet with so much hardship was born.
True or not, the Olympic-class ships were conceived in 1907, with an agreement being signed in September of that year to build three new behemoths that would compete with Cunard’s new Lusitania and Mauretania for the North Atlantic passenger traffic. Unlike Cunard’s speedsters, however, White Star’s ships would go all-in on luxurious accommodations to pair with good, but not record-breaking, speed. Alexander Carlisle, the brother-in-law of Lord Pirrie, was charged with constructing the three monster ships.
Harland & Wolff had to demolish three existing slipways in order to construct two new and larger ones. Above them was erected the famous Arrol Gantry, with all matter of cranes and other ways of making the construction of a set of ships more manageable. In addition to new slipways and a towering gantry, Harland & Wolff had to create a new dry dock, the Thompson Graving Dock, to accommodate the ships when out of the water for maintenance and fitting out.
The dry dock was opened in 1911 and named after the chairman of the commissioner at the time, Robert Thompson. It has a length of 850 feet with caisson in inner position, but can be extended by an extra 37.5 feet. The dock holds 21 million gallons of water with the door in the inner position at 23 million in the outer, which at the time was the largest dry dock ever constructed. Harland & Wolff also constructed massive gantries that were built by Sir William Arrol & Co, which were 228ft (69 metres) high, 270ft (82m) wide and 840ft (260m) long.
Ships need names, and on 22 April 1908, having already named yard number 400 ‘Olympic’ – a title previously intended for a never-built liner at the turn of the century – there was another Greek mythology-themed moniker for yard number 401.
She would be christened ‘Titanic’, and would come to represent that name in every conceivable fashion – from the size and strength intended, to the legend she eventually became.
On 31 July 1908, the contract letter was officially signed between the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company and Harland & Wolff. Work could now officially commence.
Soon after, in December of 1908, Olympic’s keel was laid. Titanic’s keel would follow in the neighbouring slipway in March of 1909. Eventually, in November of 1911, the keel of the final ship, Britannic, would be laid where Olympic had once risen from her keel plates and into a grand ocean-going city. In slipway number one, next to the huge gantry, the tender SS Nomadic was also being built. Along with her near-sister Traffic, she would service the Olympic-class ships in their Cherbourg port calls. Nomadic would go on to have a storied career of her own, surviving to this day as the last of the ships of the White Star Line.
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