The Hamilton Graving Dock

By Paul Louden-Brown FRSA
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The historic graving docks on Queen’s Island mirror the development of the passenger vessel from its humble origins in the 1860s to the zenith of ocean liner construction before the First World War.

Those pre-war floating palaces are all gone, together with many famous graving docks built to accommodate them across the British Isles, lost beneath a mass of urban renewal that swept the nation in postwar years.

The graving docks of Belfast survive - a unique and remarkable legacy of dock construction - and a lasting link with liners past.

Above, an unidentified coastal paddle-steamer in the Hamilton Graving Dock sometime in the late 1880s. On the right a merchant vessel is in-frame on Slip No. 5 and ready for plating. In the middle distance the dock’s pump house and tall chimney, behind this a Union liner is being re-fitted in the adjoining Abercorn Basin at No. 1 Jetty (later renamed No. 1 Fitting Out Jetty).

Graving Dock

What is a graving dock and what is it used for? The word ‘graving’ is an obsolete nautical term for the scraping, cleaning, painting, or tarring of an underwater body. Combined with the word ‘dock’ a graving dock refers to an enclosed basin into which a ship is taken for underwater cleaning or repair.

Older graving docks were fitted with watertight entrance gates when closed permitted the dock to be pumped dry. However these gates, hinged on either side, restricted the size of vessels entering and the gates were also difficult to seal and to repair. Later designs of graving docks incorporated the use of a caisson or pontoon (sometimes called a camel by shipbuilders) that fitted closely into the entrance. The caisson is flooded and sunk in place and the water pumped out of the dock. Reversing the process the dock is flooded, the caisson pumped dry, floated and is warped away from the entrance to permit passage of vessels.

A graving dock is sometimes called a graving dry dock or just dry dock. It is, however, not a dock. A dock is an artificial basin provided with suitable installations for loading and unloading, close to the sea, where vessels can lie afloat. The dock area may communicate freely with the stream or harbour, or the entrance to it may be closed by a lock or gates.


The primary function of a caisson is a device used for repairing outside damage to the hull at, or below, the waterline while a vessel is afloat. In the case of a graving dock a caisson is an iron or steel structure used for closing the entrance. It is constructed with buoyancy chambers and ballast tanks so that by means of valves and a pump or ejector the weight of the contained water ballast can be varied at will for floating or sinking the caisson into position.

A total of four of these types of caissons were constructed between the 1860s and 1910s for the three graving docks on Queen’s Island.

Hamilton Graving Dock

The oldest surviving example on Queen’s Island is only a short distance from the Titanic Belfast building. Called the Hamilton, it was named after the Chairman of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, Sir James Hamilton, JP (1815-1882).¹

The contract for the works was awarded to Thomas Monk & Company in December 1863 with excavation work beginning the following year. The graving dock cost a total of £40,000 to construct and created employment for about 250 men many of whom were Catholics excluded from employment in the shipyards in Belfast on the grounds of their religion. The work was hard, difficult and often dangerous and although the dock claimed only one life during construction there were a large number of accidents resulting in serious injury.

The pumping machinery for emptying the graving dock of water was designed and manufactured by Benjamin Hicks & Sons of Bolton at a cost of £1,200 and housed in a small stone built building with a tall chimney near the entrance. The first steaming of the engine and testing of the pumps took place at the end of May 1867.

The iron caisson for the Hamilton was constructed by Harland & Wolff and assigned the yard number 50. The completion of the caisson, in July 1867, had been delayed several months while the builders awaited delivery of brass control valves from England.

The caisson survives to this day and is believed to be the oldest surviving example of Harland & Wolff’s marine engineering. The structure is practically a vessel in its own right. The wooden ‘keel’ of the caisson, designed to fit perfectly in the granite groove at the entrance of the graving dock was constructed using heavy logs of African Green Heart timber². The frames, plating and rivets connecting each piece of the structure are made of iron and the same method of construction employed as used to build ships. A roadway on the weather or top deck of the caisson was laid originally in heavy oak beams. The pumping machinery, valves and water ballast tanks were also all of the same design and type as fitted by the yard in the vessels under construction at the time. A builder’s plate attached to the shell plating survives to this day but the dock’s name, in large white lettering and indicating its outward face, has long since disappeared under countless coats of protective paint.

Above, the Hamilton Graving Dock's iron caisson as it appears today awaiting restoration. This ship-shape, typical of the era, was a throwback to the days of wooden shipbuilding. This shape was repeated, albeit on a larger scale, for the two iron caissons constructed for the Alexandra Graving Dock by Workman, Clark & Co. Ltd. in 1888. However, by the time the fourth caisson was constructed for the Thompson Graving Dock mild-steel was employed and the design rectangular in shape for the new traveling-type of caisson. In the distance the Titanic Belfast building and to the right part of the original headquarters building of Harland & Wolff.

Work on the Hamilton was completed by February 1867 and the water let into the new Abercorn Basin adjoining the dock the following May. The first practical use of the graving dock came on 2 July 1867 when the wrecked hull of the paddle-steamer Earl of Dublin was warped into the dock for emergency repairs after the vessel had been salvaged by Harland & Wolff.³ On 1 August the hull was warped out of the graving dock and drawn up on the Patent Slip which ran alongside the graving dock for further repairs. After this the sailing ship Australian of 1,028-tons was placed in the graving dock.

The graving dock was formally opened on 2 October 1867 by the Marquis of Abercorn, Lord Lieutenant General and General Governor of Ireland. The original plan was to have placed the recently completed Bibby Line cargo steamer Illyrian (Yard No. 49) in the graving dock, fully rigged and dressed overall with signal flags, but her owners were not prepared to delay her departure for Liverpool so long and instead the dock was empty for the opening ceremony.

Above, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland onboard the paddle-steamer Wolf for the opening of the Hamilton Graving Dock.

In its day, the Hamilton was capable of admitting the largest class of vessel under construction at Belfast and was part of a larger improvement scheme for the Port. The existing graving docks, on the County Antrim side of the harbour, were 300 and 250 feet in length respectively, too small to handle the increased tonnage entering the port and the demands of the shipbuilders for greater dock accommodation. The scheme also included the construction of a tidal basin covering 10½ acres of water with quay space of 465 lineal yards with an average depth at low water of 14 feet. The basin, finished at the same time as the new graving dock, was named the Abercorn Basin in honour of the Lord Lieutenant. The graving dock, basin and other various improvements cost £250,000. This huge investment justified at the time by the increased tonnage entering the port, which, in fifteen years doubled to almost 1.4 million tons by 1866⁴; revenues for the Harbour Commissioners’ over the same period also rose from £32,000 to £60,000.

The Marquis of Abercorn (1811-1885).
In 1868 the Marquis was created Duke of Abercorn.

In December 1875 the dock underwent a major refurbishment; the caisson was drawn up on the Patent Slip which ran alongside the graving dock for cleaning, repainting and for the control valves to be repaired. At the same time the groove in which the caisson sat at the mouth of the dock was cleaned and various sections of stonework repaired.

Many famous vessels were repaired or completed in the Hamilton. Without doubt the most famous of these was the pioneer White Star liner Oceanic (Yard No. 73) - the world’s first true ocean liner. Launched in August 1870, her propeller was fitted and hull coated with anti-fouling paint below the waterline in the Hamilton before she left Belfast for Liverpool. Five years later it was the turn of the White Star liner Germanic (Yard No. 85) to be fitted out in the Hamilton and in February 1876 she took the eastbound Atlantic speed record. At 455 feet in length Germanic and her sister Britannic (Yard No. 83) fitted in the Hamilton’s 470 feet length, but the problem was the maximum 60 feet width of the dock. The White Star liners at 45.2 feet in breadth, left a margin of just over seven feet of clear space on each side amidships making cleaning, painting and general repair work difficult to undertake.

Above, The White Star liner Germanic (Yard No. 85) being overhauled on the Patent Slip. The famous North Atlantic liner was sent back to Belfast in November 1894 for new triple-expansion engines and boilers to be fitted. The work lasted almost five months but was too complex and time consuming to undertake in either the Hamilton or Alexandra Graving Docks. Instead the 5,000-ton liner was hauled out of the water on the Patent Slip (running alongside the Hamilton), described at the time as a kind of 'maritime railway'.  Leon Alaric Shafer (1866-1940) an American painter, etcher and illustrator on a trip to Belfast, made a number illustrations around the shipyard including this one of Germanic in the final stages of refitting, which later appeared in the New York Times Magazine.

Above, the Union liner Gaul (Yard No. 261) in the Hamilton Graving Dock, May 1893. Gaul was the first vessel designed and built by Harland & Wolff for Union and marked the beginning of a relationship with the Company and latterly with the Union-Castle Line, which lasted sixty-five years, ending in 1958 with the completion of Pendennis Castle (Yard No. 1558).

By this time the rapid advances in shipbuilding and the extra tonnage using the port put pressure on both the Commissioners’ and shipbuilders’ to find a solution; the new ships and those planned, had literally outgrown available graving dock space. It was clear that the largest graving dock in the port was too small to deal with the longer and broader vessels under construction and planned for the future and the facilities of a new graving dock were urgently required.

Right, the old meets the new. The massive sheer legs on the Abercorn Basin quay are in turn dwarfed by the brand new floating crane.

In the space of just forty years, between 1870 and 1910, ships under construction at Belfast had increased in length by more than double and in gross tonnage by a factor of twelve. In consequence of this fixed position cranes like the sheer legs designed for stepping masts into sailing vessels, were, by the early 1880s, largely useless for shipbuilding due to the size of the Basin which was too narrow to accommodate vessels over 550 feet in length beneath the sheers. The solution required yet another engineering leap this time to construct a crane on a pontoon barge capably of lifting 150 tons. In this photograph, taken in early 1910, the floating crane is making its first test lift.

Hamilton Graving Dock Dimensions

Extreme length: 470 feet

Breadth at entrance: 60 feet

Height of sill above bottom of dock: 2.2 feet


1. In July 1876 a portrait of the former Chairman was unveiled in the Boardroom of the Harbour Board presented by the members and ex-members as ‘a memorial of his long, useful and honourable connection with this important Trust.’ The portrait, painted by Thomas Alfred Jones (later Sir), President of the Royal Hibernian Academy, was said to be a faithful likeness. It represents Sir James seated and holding in his hand the plan of the Hamilton Graving Dock. Sir James Hamilton should not be confused with the Marquis of Abercorn, whose Christian name is James and family surname name Hamilton.

2. Green Heart, originating from Guiana in West Africa, was chosen because the wood was very hard, strong and resistant to marine-borers, decay and fungi. It was and still is, used in shipbuilding and marine structures, such as piling for docks, where great strength and durability are required.

3. The new paddle-steamer Earl of Dublin had run ashore at Burril Island near Ballywater during a gale on 20 March 1867. Harland & Wolff purchased the wreck, removed the engines and boilers before salvaging the hull.

4. 1,366,788 register tons; port charges were based on a vessel’s register tonnage.

Text and Images ©Paul Louden-Brown/White Star Line Archive

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