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  • A Masterwork of a Great British Sculptor: The Titanic Memorial in Belfast
  • James Stevens Curl (bio)

Early in the morning of 15 April 1912, the White Star liner RMS Titanic (then the largest ship afloat), having struck an iceberg, sank on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City. The force of the collision apparently buckled the plates and popped the rivets (although there are other theories concerning the cause and effects). The loss of over fifteen hundred lives was a disaster seared into British national consciousness, with particular resonances in Southampton and, especially, in Belfast, where the shipyard (then the largest in the world) of Harland & Wolff, builders of the Titanic and her sister ships, Olympic and Britannic, was situated.

Within a few days of news of the catastrophe reaching Belfast, it was proposed that the local victims should be commemorated with a memorial, and Belfast Corporation passed a motion to that effect on 1 May 1912: the City of Belfast recognized “with unbounded pride” that in the “hour of trial the fortitude of her sons failed not,” and although the city mourned [End Page 12] her dead, she rejoiced “in having given to the world men who could so nobly die” (qtd. in Barczewski 222). A proposal that a memorial should be erected was formally tabled on 3 May 1912 at a meeting in the city hall chaired by the distinguished philanthropist and politician Julia McMordie, wife of Ronald James McMordie (the lord mayor of Belfast); the McMordies had both been present at the well-publicized launch of Titanic the previous June (McCaughan 90), an event that celebrated the achievements of Belfast’s industry and craftsmanship at a time when anxieties about the future of Ulster were stirring grave political upheavals and violent passions.

Very soon, it was resolved to erect an “appropriate public Memorial . . . on the most prominent site available” in order to “keep green” the memory of those lost and to record their “heroism” and their “devotion to duty” (Cameron 83). The matter of the design and character of the monument was referred to a special subcommittee for consideration and, by the end of the following month, over £1,000 had been raised, of which around a third was donated by the public: £200 was donated by employees of Harland & Wolff; more than £350 came from members of the Andrews family (Thomas Andrews, Chief Designer and from 1907 Managing Director of Harland & Wolff, went down with the ship); and just over £100 came from the White Star Line (Cameron 83). In July 1912, Mrs. McMordie requested of the Improvement Committee a site for the proposed monument, and the city surveyor reported that a suitable spot was Donegall Square North (Barczewski 222–23).

In due course, Sir Thomas Brock was commissioned to design and make the memorial, and he began work once the contract was confirmed by the corporation, in January 1913. Brock had completed many unfinished works begun by his teacher, Irish sculptor John Henry Foley, including the huge monument to Daniel O’Connell in Dublin and the gilded bronze figure of Prince Albert in Kensington Gardens, London, but he was also responsible for the massive Queen Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace, which earned him his knighthood, in 1911 (Stocker 753–54). The Titanic memorial was not the only contribution Brock made to Belfast’s collection of monumental sculptures: he also made the statue of Queen Victoria that stands in front of Sir Alfred Brumwell Thomas’s city hall, as well as the statue of Sir Edward James Harland in the city hall grounds (Roscoe et al. 467–73).

Erection of the memorial was delayed by World War I, and Brock’s wonderful creation (fig. 1) was not put up on its island site in Donegall Square North until June 1920. It was unveiled by Field Marshal Sir John Denton Pinkstone French. The memorial is of Carrara marble, set on a pedestal of granite inscribed with the names of those “gallant Belfast men” who died in the disaster (Cameron 84). They are in shipboard rank rather than alphabetical order, so at the head of the list on one side is the name...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 12-16
Launched on MUSE
2019-06-12
Open Access
No
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