On This Day

17 August


1939 The ship that launched herself - HMS Formidable

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A fatal accident occured during the launch of the 28,094-ton ‘Illustrious’ class aircraft carrier HMS Formidable (Yard No. 1007) at Belfast today. Without warning, and half an hour before schedule, the enormous ship spontaeneously began to move down the slipways out of control.

Some of the dog shores were still in place when she started to move, and the blocks started to trip (thrown into the air) causing the launching cradle to collapse. It's a miracle the aircraft carrier did not fall to either port of starboard as there was nothing supporting her as she went down the ways.

Lady Wood darted forward and had the presence of mind to smash the bottle on the bow as the ship began to runaway but the vessel was a 'bastard' in shipyard lore as the actual naming ceremony never took place.

Tragically, the wife of a shipyard worker, Mrs Kirk, was killed by flying timbers and iron bolts from the burst cradle and twenty-two other spectators were injured.

WATCH: the dramatic footage of HMS Formidable's accidental launch

(Subsequently, and perhaps inappropriately, HMS Formidable featured in promotional adverts for Harland & Wolff during the 1940s - see Advert Archive)


1954 Southern Cross

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On this day in 1954 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II launched the £3.5m passenger liner Southern Cross (Yard No. 1498) at Belfast; the first occasion a reigning British monarch had launched a merchant ship.

17 August was a wet day with pouring rain and a heavy overcast. Not withstanding the typical Belfast weather, the Queen, flanked on either side by Sir Frederick Rebbeck, Chairman of Harland & Wolff and on her left by Basil Sanderson, Chairman of the shipowners, performed the christening ceremony faultlessly: ‘I name this ship Southern Cross. May God protect her and all who sail in her.’ With that, she operated a lever which released the launching triggers and simultaneously a bottle of Empire champagne struck and smashed on the bows of the great liner as it started to move down the ways.

No one on the launching platform, or any of the thousands of spectators in the yard, realised they were witnessing a closing chapter in shipbuilding on Queen’s Island.

Southern Cross was the last passenger liner launched from the slips beneath the Arrol gantries. The first liner launched from the very same Slipway No. 2 was Olympic, Titanic’s older sister, in October 1910. 

One of the spectators at that historic event was Harold Sanderson: partner with J. Bruce Ismay in the White Star Line. His son Basil joined White Star, rose through the management of the Company and in 1927 married Ismay’s eldest daughter, and eventually retraced his father’s footsteps with the launch of another flagship, this time for the Shaw Savill Line.

This being the first occasion on which a reigning monarch launched a British merchant ship; Sir Frederick Rebbeck, Chairman of the builders, remarked ‘Never has a British merchant ship had a more auspicious launching.’ (See: Ship Fact File - Southern Cross)

Watch Pathe newsreel of Queen launching Southern Cross -1954hqdefault.jpg


1901 White Star’s Athenic

The 12,234-ton passenger and cargo ship Athenic (Yard No. 341) was launched today for the Oceanic Steam Navigation Co. Ltd., (White Star Line).

Athenic was the first of three sister ships ordered for the new joint passenger and cargo service with Shaw, Savill & Albion between London and New Zealand.


1875 Connaught Ranger

The 1,200-ton iron sailing ship Connaught Ranger (Yard No. 92) was launched today at 10.30am for J. G. McCormick of Dublin, London and Dublin.

A considerable number of people assembled on both sides of the Abercorn Quay to witness the launching ceremony which was ‘performed without a single hitch.‘ The vessel’s dimensions were: Length, 218 feet; Breadth of beam, 34 feet, 6 inches. The three-masted vessel was built exclusively of iron and classed A1 at Lloyd’s of London. Connaught Ranger was intended for the East India and Calcutta trade and delivered to her owner on 23 October of the same year.


1943 Sarmiento

The 8,335-ton cargo ship Sarmiento (Yard No. 1157) was launched today for the Pacific Steam Navigation Co., Liverpool.