by James O’Fee, Belfast
‘Titanic’ will probably be this year’s largest-grossing feature film, and readers may like to consider C. S. Lewis’s links with that ‘ship of dreams’.
Jonathan Bardon writes:
‘From the late autumn of 1908 a huge gantry, 228 feet above the slips, dominated the skyline of east Belfast; here Harland and Wolff prepared to build two immense ships on a scale never yet witnessed. The year before, Cunard had put into service the Lusitania and Mauretania, the largest and fastest vessels afloat, and now the White Star Line called on Belfast to provide the riposte to its rivals. Work began on the first ship, Olympic, on 16 December1908…’From the top of the gantry — where the city appeared to be spread out like a map below — huge cranes lifted tons of steel and carefully manoeuvred the frames into place… By the time the shell plating was finished (on the Olympic) in April 1910, the framing of the sister ship Titanic had risen up in the adjoining berth.’ (From Bardon’s Illustrated History of Belfast’, Belfast, 1982.)
C. S. Lewis came from a family where shipbuilding was in the blood. CSL’s grandfather, Richard Lewis (died 1908), was a shipbuilder and marine engineer who founded his own business in Belfast. Other cousins of CSL then worked in that trade. Some still do.
In 1905 CSL and his family moved to ‘Little Lea’, which overlooks both Belfast Lough and the shipyards. Lewis writes in Chapter 1 of Surprised by Joy ‘This was in the far-off days when Britain was the world’s carrier and the Lough was full of shipping; a delight to both us boys, but most to my brother. The sound of a steamer’s horn at night still conjures up my whole boyhood’.
Great popular enthusiasm accompanied the launching and departure from Belfast of those magnificent ocean leviathans. The Lough shore would be thronged with thousands of people on those occasions. As a boy in the early 1960s, my parents took me to see the departure of the last ocean liner built in Belfast, the Canberra. That event lives with me still.
The Lewis brothers, who delighted in the Lough’s shipping, could have followed from the windows of ‘Little Lea’ the progress of the constuction of the two ocean greyhounds. No doubt the boys did so. (The Titanic was a few feet longer, and 1,000 gross tons heavier, than her sister ship).
The Olympic was launched on 20 October 1910, and she steamed out of Belfast Lough on 31 May 1911. The Titanic was launched a few hours before the Olympic departed, and Titanic left Belfast Lough forever on 2 April 1912 for Southampton and her ill-starred maiden voyage.
In Chapter X of Surprised by Joy Lewis writes of the continual noise of the city (sometimes called ‘The Belfast Symphony’) — ‘whining and screeching of trams, clatter of horse traffic on uneven sets, and, dominating all else, the continual throb and stammer of the great shipyards.’ The ‘Symphony’ would reach the very tops of the Co Down hills, where Lewis walked. ‘And because we have heard this all our lives it does not, for us, violate the peace of the hill-top; rather it emphasises it, enriches the contrast, sharpens the dualism.’
C S Lewis enrolled at Cherbourg House, Malvern, in January 1911. I’d guess he would have followed the news of the ships’ construction there and when he returned home in the school holidays. CSL would have seen Titanic on its trials in the Lough during 1911 and early 1912, but he probably missed the ship’s final departure in April 1912.
I haven’t yet seen the movie, but I’ve seen a television film on the making of the movie. A major credit is given to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, near Belfast, a leading storehouse for Titanic memorabilia. Its Titanic exhibition is perennially among the museum’s most popular attractions.
Mr. O’Fee adds in C. S. Lewis News that Rupert Murdoch reportedly owns a large share of the film TITANIC, He arranged a special showing of the film for Chinese Communist leadership, and it is one of the few foreign films permitted to be shown in China this year.