Who really designed the Titanic?

By Paul Louden-Brown FRSA
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Thomas Andrews did not design Titanic or her sister ships Olympic and Britannic. The man who deserves credit for the design is Alexander Carlisle. So why, when so much is written and talked about Titanic, has such a mistake been made? The answer lies partly in the power of film.

In 1958 Walter Lord’s best seller ‘A Night to Remember’ about the Titanic disaster was turned into a feature film. The film’s screenplay, outside of the author’s control, featured a degree of dramatic license in order to increase the impact of the story. The first of these dramatizations was the launch of Titanic - the White Star Line held no formal naming ceremony for their steamships and Titanic was no exception - yet in the film a lady names the vessel and breaks a bottle of champagne over the bows.

I asked Bill MacQuitty, the Belfast-born producer of the film, who, as a child, witnessed the launch of Titanic, why he included an invented scene in his film? His answer was revealing; ‘because it’s what an audience expects to see at the launch of a ship.’ The same, he said, applied to Thomas Andrews’ characterization. The idea of the designer of the ship going down with his creation, while the owner escaped in a lifeboat, was too good a storyline to ignore. 

MacQuitty was well aware who really designed Titanic and that J. Bruce Ismay was not a coward but his primary concern was turning an historical event into a commercially successful feature film. In that respect he succeeded and ‘A Night to Remember’ remains the definitive version with Titanic enthusiasts and the public alike. The film’s influence is clear to see. James Cameron’s blockbuster film ‘Titanic’ also re-enforced Andrews’ position as ‘designer’ in a similar caricaturization to that used by MacQuitty almost forty years before. 
Countless books, magazine articles, TV documentaries and, as recently as last year, a set of 100th anniversary stamps featuring an image of Andrews; all reinforce the misconception that he designed the ship - the invented story is just too powerful. 

None of this uncomfortable truth is intended to take anything away from the reputation of Thomas Andrews; he was a brave man and did his duty. He died helping others and his name is properly honoured in the country of his birth but he does not deserve credit for designing the ‘Olympic’ class liners; that honour belongs to Carlisle.

Alexander Montgomery Carlisle (1854-1926) ©White Star Line Archive

The man who designed Titanic was born in Ballymena, Co. Antrim on 8 July 1854. Alexander Montgomery Carlisle, eldest of five children and the son of John Carlisle, Headmaster of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, was educated at his father’s school. 

In 1870, aged sixteen, he began work at Harland & Wolff as a premium apprentice. Serving alongside him for the next five years was his friend, fellow apprentice and future brother-in-law William James Pirrie (he married Carlisle’s older sister Margaret in April 1879). The two young men were destined to play a leading role in the development of Harland & Wolff. 

In April 1884 Carlisle married American born Edith Wooster, twelve years his junior, at the First Congregational Church in San Francisco. The couple had two daughters and a son and, as Carlisle was steadily promoted, the family purchased a large red brick house in Elmwood Avenue near Queen’s University.

In 1889 Carlisle was made chief naval architect at the yard and from this date he designed some of most famous liners belonging to the White Star Line; amongst the long list were Teutonic, Cymric, Oceanic, Adriatic and finally the ‘Olympic’ class liners. As Manager his redevelopment plan of the yard in order to facilitate the construction of the world’s largest liners transformed Harland & Wolff into a virtual factory production line.

At the end of June 1910 he resigned from the positions of General Manager and Chairman of Managing Directors at the relatively young age of fifty-five - the reason for his decision to resign are unknown. Remarkably he had never taken a day’s sick leave since joining the firm. 

Universally popular with the workforce, who nicknamed him ‘Big Alec’, the growing issue of Home Rule and the political instability of the period may have contributed towards his decision to leave. At the time of his retirement Carlisle split his time between his homes in Belfast and 12 Hyde Park Place, London.

His designs for the ‘Olympic’ class were completed with both vessels under construction; Olympic plated and just four months away from launching and Titanic in frame. Thomas Andrews’ involvement, from July onwards, was to take up where Carlisle had left off in the management of a project where the major designs decisions had been completed several years before.

The Arrol Gantry towering above Carlisle’s reorganised shipyard. ©White Star Line Archive

The disaster which overtook Carlisle’s last creation was said to have broken his heart. Called to give evidence at the British enquiry into the loss and asked about his role in the design of Titanic, he explained that he was in charge of turning the concept for the ‘Olympic’ class into design reality. Both ships, he said, were ‘entirely designed practically by Lord Pirrie. The details, the decorations, the equipment and the general arrangements all came under me.’ Carlisle was being modest about his influence and abilities. His ‘signature style’ for the White Star fleet was well established by the 1890s; the proportions of the hull to the upper works, rake of the funnels, spacing of the masts, design of the bridge front and more, gave each vessel an unmistakable and identifiable White Star look.

Lord Pirrie’s opinions on the design, or otherwise, were not sought by Lord Mersey and it remains a significant oversight that he was not called to give evidence, or asked to provide even a written statement, particularly with regard to the decision made regarding the number of lifeboats provided on each ship. Carlisle placed blame for the lack of lifeboats with the White Star management. It was Carlisle who outlined the design of what became the Welin Quadrant Davit system, capable of handling up to twice the number of lifeboats (a total of 32) the Board of Trade regulations required, but the owners made the decision to reduce this number to just 16 with four collapsibles.

The famous shipbuilder always followed his own inclinations having scant respect for convention. In February 1901 he was arrested on a Coroner’s warrant for failing to attend the inquest into the death of a workman killed in the yard. On promising to attend the adjourned inquest he was released. He was made an Irish Privy Councillor by King Edward in 1907. Like Pirrie, Carlisle became a Home Ruler, but in 1920, during a particularly heated debate in the House of Lords an outburst of his resulted in his expulsion: ‘I was censored by the House of Lords and reprimanded by the late Lord Curzon for interjecting, from the steps of the throne, while the vote was being taken on an Irish Bill - “My Lord, if you pass this Bill, you will kill England, not Ireland.” However, His Majesty King George V., whose very loyal and devoted subject I am, refused to accept my resignation.’

Carlisle, a keen collector of autographs, counted amongst his collection many prominent personalities including those of King George and Kaiser Wilhelm. He met the Kaiser on a number of occasions before the First World War. His eldest daughter married Baron Frederick von Versen, one of the Kaiser’s aides, and in 1908 when visiting the married couple in Berlin he was entertained by the Kaiser. The two men were formally introduced at the unveiling of Queen Victoria’s memorial in front of Buckingham Palace in 1911 and they met again when he was a guest at a famous supper party after one of the Kiel yachting regattas.

A noted Germanophile, the Ulsterman was certainly impressed with all things Germanic and made several Atlantic crossings in the liners Amerika, Kaiserin Auguste Victoria and Imperator (he seldom travelled in British ships, or even ones of his own design, and he never sailed in Olympic); it appears his tastes were better satisfied by the lavish surroundings in the German liners.

Long after the war, anti-German sentiment still prevailed in Britain but it did not bother him. It was rumoured that a rift existed between Carlisle and his brother-in-law Lord Pirrie, but no reason has been offered as to why this should have been the case. The most plausible explanation was Carlisle’s Bohemian tastes, his close ties with the Kaiser, popularity with the workmen in the yard and his plans to join the Labour party and stand as a Parliamentary candidate. The many statements he made about German shipbuilding ‘they are equal in every way to us as shipbuilders and operators’ and his prophesy that they would once again compete with the British in the size and speed of ocean liners and his left wing politics did nothing to endear him to the Chairman of Harland & Wolff. For Pirrie, a Liberal but conservative by nature and by now a rising star of the British establishment, the idea of a relative with known German sympathies making statements like this and with a daughter married to a former aide of the Kaiser was galling enough, but, if he had lived long enough to discover Carlisle also planned to visit his old friend the now ex-Kaiser, it would probably have ended their relationship.

Eighteen months after Pirrie’s death in November 1925 Carlisle did just that and visited Wilhelm exiled at Doorn in the Netherlands; he said at the time ‘My friends tell me that it was an extra-ordinary thing for a British subject to accept the hospitality of the former War Lord, whose subjects, military and civilian, chanted the Hymn of Hate, but I am an unconventional man.’

He stayed for a weekend and in some style; the standards the Kaiser was used to in the old days at Potsdam were still kept up. He brought along his autograph book and the two men reminisced about many of the famous names the book contained and, life before the war. Carlisle had been unwell for sometime with heart and lung problems, and during his stay ‘took a chill’.

On return to London and confined to bed in his new house in Orme Square, a strange story appeared in the newspapers in December. A thief had broken into the garden at the back of his home and stole everything movable including valuable statues and a marble bird bath. ‘I don’t know how the thieves found out it was the first wink sleep I had had in three weeks,’ he said ‘but when I looked out in the morning to see my favourite bird in the little bath - it was gone. I’m as sorry for the bird as for myself.’ Carlisle placed the matter in the hands of Scotland Yard and also mentioned his now famous autograph book. ‘If the person who looted my garden won’t send me the lead back,’ he added, ‘he might send his autograph. It would be one more curiosity to my collection - a postcard will do.’

Defining convention to the very end he organized and paid for his funeral in advance, proudly showing off to family and friends the framed cremation certificate that cost £2 18s 6d and telling them how cheap it was to dispose of himself in this way and that it was time he disappeared from this earthly stage.

That time came on 5 March 1926 at his London home and three days later, on the 8th, his funeral, as arranged, took place at Golders Green in North West London. The German theme continued with light music - Schubert’s ‘Reminiscences’ and ‘Nachtstuck’ and an Allegretto by Mendelssohn - played by an organist who was also paid in advance. There was no clergyman present, no formal religious rites were observed, no hymns were sung and no prayers were recited. The small group of mourners included his two daughters, sisters Viscountess Pirrie, Mrs Hunter and several family friends. After the cremation he left instructions for the ‘Merry Widow’ waltz to be played as his ashes were scattered in the Garden of Rest. ‘I am sure it will be more agreeable than the dead march from “Saul”’, he had remarked.

So ended the life of a remarkable man. During his lifetime Carlisle had overseen the tremendous growth in world shipbuilding and his own part, pivotal in transforming the emigrant ship into a virtual floating city and the need for improved life saving appliances in the new generation of large passenger liners, but his plans were ignored. Many of the obituaries published in Britain omitted mention of Titanic, still a painful subject even in 1926. In other countries that was not the case and he was given the credit he deserved for his far sighted designs and for the influence he made on British and world shipbuilding, denied him in modern times because of the power of film, the very thing, paradoxically, that has been largely responsible for keeping the story of Titanic alive.

A footnote concerns ‘Big Alec’s’ highly prized autograph book and the mystery surrounding its whereabouts. At the end of March (1926) it was reported the valuable book was missing. ‘It was last seen in my father's house a few days before his death.’ Carlisle’s daughter said, ‘I think it is probable that he took it with him and left it at somebody's house. If that is so they have probably not realised to whom it belonged, and we are appealing for its return.’

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

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