The Lewis Legacy-Issue 84, Spring 2000
Shipbuilding in 2000
The C.S. Lewis Foundation for Truth in Publishing
March 1, 2000
by James O'Fee
Cunard has decided to award the contract for its latest cruise liner, the Queen Mary II, to a French shipbuilding firm rather than to the Belfast shipbuilders Harland's and Wolff. This contract was widely regarded as the last hope for Harland's, whose order-book is empty after June 2000.
C. S. Lewis saw Harland's build the Titanic and its sister-ships Olympic and Britannia. At its peak, Harland's employed over 35,000, the largest shipbuilding firm in the world. By 2000 that figure shrank to 1,800. Harland's position as the largest employer in Northern Ireland has been taken over firstly by the aeroplane-builder Short Brothers and Harland and the supermarket chain Tesco. All the other great shipbuilding firms of Britain have already disappeared. Shipbuilding is defunct in the Clyde, which once accounted for over half of the world's tonnage under construction.
It's a marvel that shipbuilding ever became established in Belfast, which lacked coal, iron, steel, and a good natural harbour. The reason seems to have been not 'comparative advantage' -- which Adam Smith used to explain international trade -- but the vision and energy of a few people.
Harland's declined after World War I, and although it prospered during
World War II, it suffered crises that brought with them government subsidy, eventual nationalisation by the Northern Ireland Government, privatization by the Thatcher government, and then foreign ownership, currently by the Norwegian Fred Olson Line.
The firm built its last passenger liner, the Canberra, at a loss, in 1961. I'm old enough to remember crowds waving goodbye to the Canberra.
Afterwards, Harland's built oil platforms, repaired ships, etc. Some economists see its attempted return to passenger ships as a mark of its desperation.
It was two former employees of Harland's who formed 'Workman Clark', which bought out McIlwaine & Lewis, the marine engineering firm founded by Richard Lewis, grandfather of C. S. Lewis.