On the outbreak of the war, commercial and industrial concerns across the United Kingdom encouraged their employees to enlist for active war service, often promising to keep their jobs open for their return. However, the government was aware that men employed in industries that were vital to the war effort – shipyards, engineering works, etc. – would need to retain skilled workers so that they could continue to operate efficiently. Consequently, an On War Service badge was introduced and issued to men employed on Government contracts and indirect war work – men working in the shipyards, engineering works such as Mackies, the Sirocco Works and dockworkers. On Wednesday 27th January 1915, the Belfast News-Letter quoted the words of the Secretary of State for War who had stated that, the men employed on work for the Government are discharging their duty to their King and country just the same as those who are holding the trenches or are in training to meet the crash and shock of battle. The article went on to say that the badges indicate that the wearers are doing their duty in a patriotic spirit and are not shirking the call to service in the forces of the Crown. The men were also issued with a certificate on which the number of the badge issued to the named man was recorded.


On 11th March 1915, HMS Bayano was torpedoes and sunk by the German submarine U27 and some survivors were picked by SS Balmarino, a vessel operated by Kelly’s Colliers of Belfast, and another Kelly’s vessel, SS Castlereagh, reported sighting the wreckage and being pursued by a submarine, possibly U27, for some time around dawn the following morning. It is known that German submarines ventured into Belfast Lough and an article in the Belfast News-Letter on 13th March 1915 reported that Workman Clark employees were prepared to take on the interlopers in their own back yard.

The Belfast tug Milewater, owned by Messrs. Workman, Clark, & Co., which left Belfast sometime after the Balmarino, had also an exciting experience. Between noon and one o’clock on Thursday she was passing the scene of the disaster when the captain noticed floating wreckage. He had brought his vessel to standstill and was examining the wreckage when a submarine came to the surface some distance away. He immediately put on full steam and made for the hostile craft with the intention of ramming it. As the latter, however, was under way and his own vessel had been completely stopped, he could not get up sufficient speed in time, and the submarine gradually increased its distance and disappeared. The tug’s captain had come to the conclusion that the wreckage was that of an Elder and Fvffes vessel which was subsequently confirmed by the official announcement of the loss the Bayano.

The following is a transcription of an extensive article regarding the importance of war work in the shipyards that appeared in the Northern Whig on 23rd April 1915.

Response of Workman, Clark, & Co’s Employees.

Messrs. Workman, Clark, & Co., Ltd., Belfast Shipyard, write to us as follows:-
We have pleasure in sending you herewith for publication in your newspaper copy letter addressed to the shipyard workers of Belfast, signed by Mr. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, and Lord Fisher, First Sea Lord, along with copies of resolutions passed by our workers at mass meetings held in the north and south shipyards and boiler-shop —Yours truly, pro. Workman, Clark, & Co., Ltd.,
W. Strachan, Secretary

Letter of Lord Fisher and Mr. Churchill.

The letter of the Lords of the Admiralty is as follows:-

To the shipyard workers of Belfast.
We wish to impress upon you the supreme importance of the work you are doing for the navy in Belfast and the urgent need for its early completion. The great issues involved in the struggle in which we are all engaged depend for their successful accomplishment as much upon you as upon your comrades at sea and in the field, and we are confident that the efforts you are making in the common cause will continue undiminished and unrelaxed.
(Signed) Winston S. Churchill
First Lord of the Admiralty.
(Signed) Fisher, First Sea Lord.

North Yard Workers’ Answer.

The response of the workers of the north yard, approved at a mass meeting, is as follows:-
Belfast, 9th April, 1915.

We, the ironworkers of Messrs. Workman, Clark, & Co., Ltd., at a mass meeting held in the north shipyard on above date have resolved to keep good time and otherwise do all in our power, as far as is humanly possible, to further the progress of any Government work the firm may be asked to do. Further, we repudiate the statements made in certain quarters with regard to the members of our trade being slackers at this the most serious time in the whole history of our country, and, while admitting one or two black sheep, as in every fold, the aforementioned statements cannot be applied to us in anything approaching a general sense.—Signed on behalf of Platers, William Russel; Riveters, Robert Waring; Caulkers, James McNally; Drillers, James Todd; Platers’ Helpers, William Stewart, John Bowman.

South Yard Workers’ Response.

The south yard workers have drawn up the following reply: Belfast, 15th April, 1915.

We, the workers of Messrs. Workman, Clark, & Co., Ltd., at a meeting held in the south shipyard on the above date, desire to relieve the Admiralty of any doubt in reference to any work which we are privileged to do for our King and country, and we are resolved that nothing shall deter us in its execution. Just as our comrades are facing the dangers of the trenches and the deep night and day we too are prepared to do our utmost, and trust that our combined efforts will have the desired effect.— Signed on behalf of Platers, George Stevens and J. Bell; Riveters. James Given, Caulkers, J. Johnston; Drillers, R. Craig, Platers’ Helpers, W. Tracey; Painters, W. Leith; Shipwrights, J. Wright and C. Ferris; Fitters, J. Watson: Blacksmiths, S. Conn; Plumbers, R. Carlin; Joiners, S. Somerville.

A similar resolution to the above was passed at a mass meeting of the ironworkers held in the boiler-shop on the 20th April, and signed on behalf of platers by Jobs McCourt; riveters. N. Halliday; machinemen, James McClean; labourers, James Hall.

Shipyard Accidents

The shipyards had always been a dangerous place to work – 13 boys and men had died in accidents during the construction of RMS Titanic – and it would be no different during the Great War.

The authors’ review of local newspapers has identified that 22 Workman Clark employees died in workplace accidents – the youngest was 14 and two workers died in accidents at the age of 53.

Albert Hugh Nelson Truesdale (sometimes Trousdale), a catch-boy from Listowel Street, was watching the launch of a ship on 29th April 1915 when a surge of water swept him and two other boys into the dock. Two of the boys were rescued but Albert could not be found. His body was discovered at Victoria Wharf on 17th June. Albert Truesdale was born on 13th June 1900 at Imperial Street to Francis Truesdale and Hannah Truesdale (nee Nelson) and is buried in Kilmegan Church of Ireland graveyard near Dundrum.

On 6th September 1915, Edward Knox, a labourer from Little George’s Street, fell a distance of 50 feet into the hold of the ship on which he was working. He was 32 and died of a fractured skull one hour after being admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital. Edward Knox was born on 16th April 1883 at Meadow Lane to John Knox and Catherine Knox (nee Brennan) and married Margaret Jane Pirie on 20th March 1904 at St John’s (Laganbank) Church of Ireland. He was survived by his widow and five children, the eldest being ten and the youngest being 20 months old and is buried in Carnmoney Cemetery.

On 30th September 1915, on his 19th birthday, Robert Gilfillan, an apprentice riveter from Manor Street, was cutting rivets close to No 3 hatchway when he fell from the bridge deck into the hold of the vessel, hitting a plank, and striking his head on the tank top. There were no railings around the hatchway. He was taken to the Royal Victoria Hospital where he died of his injuries. He was working on Ship No. 349 (SS Mahana), a refrigerated cargo and passenger vessel that was being built for the Shaw, Savill & Albion shipping line of London. Robert Gilfillan was born on 30th September 1896 at Upper Cargill Street to William Gilfillan and Rose Gilfillan (nee Greenan) and is buried in Carnmoney Cemetery. SS Mahana was used to transport Australian troops home in 1919 and, when she sailed to New Zealand in 1920, she was carrying English women on their way to marry New Zealand soldiers and is often referred to as the “Brides’ Boat”.

On 22th October 1915, George McGaw, a shipyard labourer from Cloughfern near Whiteabbey, was descending into Alexandra Dock by the “tiers” when he lost his balance and fell into the water. The report on the inquest printed in the Northern Whig on 25th October stated that the injuries sustained in the fall had rendered him incapable and life was extinct when he was brought ashore. George McGaw married Annie Milliken on 16th September 1908 at St Anne’s Parish Church in Belfast. They were living at Harrisburgh Street in Belfast when Annie died of pulmonary tuberculosis on 13th December 1913, aged 39. George McGaw is buried in Carnmoney Cemetery. The entry in the Register of Deaths has been amended to change George’s marital status from “married” to “Widower”.

On 16th February 1916, Samuel Henry, a painter from Eastland Street, was employed at whitewashing the upper portion of a shed at the North Yard. He, and a colleague – William Heaney of Rosevale Street – were walking along a set of staging when a plank gave way and both fell about 25 feet to the floor. Another colleague, James Murdock of Upper Meadow Street, had just got off the staging when the plank broke. The shipyard ambulance was immediately called and both men were rushed to the Royal Victoria Hospital, where a brief examination showed that Samuel, whose skull had been broken, was beyond aid whilst William Heaney was in a critical condition having sustained a fractured arm and grave internal injuries. Samuel Henry is buried in Dundonald Cemetery.

On 17th August 1916, George McCleery, an apprentice shipwright from Adam Street, fractured his skull when he fell a distance of 38 feet whilst working on fitting out HMS P16, a Naval Patrol Vessel, which had been launched on 23rd March 1916. At least seven P-Class sloops were constructed by Workman Clark between 1915 and 1918. Whilst giving evidence at the inquest, Mr Thompson Donald, a shipwright who lived nextdoor to the McCleery family, said that he did not see the fall but reported that the staging was in good condition before and after the accident. George McCleery was born on 13th April 1896 at Spamount Street to James McCleery, a Railway Inspector, and Alice Jane McCleery (nee McIlrath) and is buried in Carnmoney Cemetery.

On 25th November 1916, James Johnston, a catch boy from Abbey Gardens in Whiteabbey, was working on Yard Number 352 at the North Yard when he fell 35 feet from a ladder at No 2 hatchway. He was alive with a head wound and two broken arms when he was found by Samuel McCallum of Cultra Street and taken to the ambulance room. He died, aged 18, shortly after arriving at the Royal Victoria Hospital and is buried in Carnmoney Parish Church graveyard.

On Thursday 4th January 1917, William James Dowds, a driller from Rathcool Street, was admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital suffering from injuries to the head received when his clothing got caught in the drilling machinery in the boilershop at the shipyard. In his evidence at the inquest, George Crowe, foreman driller, said that the machine at which Dowds was employed was, fairly speedy and made 150 revolutions to the minute (Northern Whig, 8th January 1917). William James Dowds was born on 16th October 1889 at Boyne Street to James Dowds and Selina Rose Dowds (nee Megarry) and he is buried in Belfast City Cemetery. The surname was recorded as DOUDS in the Register of Births and in the 1901 Census.

On 8th January 1917, George Edward Richardson, a fitter from Ivanhoe Street, and his helper, William Norwood from Young Street in Lisburn, were overhauling a mechanical water-tight sliding door on the inside bunker of a naval vessel. In his evidence at the inquest, William Norwood, stated that Richardson had directed him to go to the ammunition corridor and to close the door. As he was turning the wheel, Robert Hutchison of Kyle Street, shouted out that there was a man stuck in the door and he reversed the wheel to reopen the door. Robert Hutchison gave evidence that, as he was coming along the ammunition corridor, he saw a man standing with his head through a water-tight door which was closing. George Richardson was born on 29th September 1887 at Sandy Row to John Richardson and Annie Richardson (nee Dickey) and married Margaret Crawford on 22nd November 1914 at St Anne’s Parish Church in Belfast.

At about 6.30pm on 23rd January 1917, William John Warnock, a shipyard labourer from Lindsay Street, was sent to get some red lead but did not return to his station. At 11.30pm, William Campbell, a caulker, went to look for Warnock and found him injured but conscious lying on top of a tank top. He had fallen a distance of 20 feet and was taken by ambulance to the Royal Victoria Hospital where he died at 1am on 24th January. The inquest heard that the ship was not lit and that Campbell had had to procure a hand-lamp in order to search for Warnock. William John Warnock married Margaret Hyde on 5th February 1882 at St Anne’s Parish Church in Belfast. Following an asthma attack, Margaret Warnock died of a heart failure at Park Road in Portadown on 5th January 1908.

On the morning of Sunday 18th February 1917, William Alexander Reid, an engineer from the Upper Newtownards Road, was tightening a gland on the stop valve of a boiler in the engine works’ power station, when he was severely scalded by a sudden escape of steam. At the inquest, witnesses reported hearing a crack and seeing steam escape from the boiler on which William Reid was working. The foreman of the engine works said that the boiler, which was had only been in use for a year, had been tested to double pressure before it was put into position.

On 30th March 1917, a plank being lowered caught on the plank on which Thomas Lynas (sometimes Lyness), a stager from Milewater Road, was standing, causing it to break and throwing him to the ground. Thomas Lynas was born on 11th December 1897 at Hillman Street to Richard Lynas and Agnes Lynas (nee Rodgerson) and is buried in Carnmoney Cemetery

On 2nd April 1917, John Bickerstaff, a Catch Boy from Halliday’s Road, died of septic meningitis after he sustained a fractured skull in an accident at the North Yard. He was born on 1 December 1900 at Halliday’s Road to William Bickerstaff and Agnes Bickerstaff (nee Glasgow) and In Memoriam notices recorded that he was buried in Carnmoney New Burying Ground.

On 12th May 1917, Samuel Rea McElhone, a crane operator from Upper Mervue Street, was engaged in slinging tank floors at the Thompson Graving Dock. Whilst lowering a heave, the tank floors caught on the staging, but slipped off causing a sudden jerk. The crane immediately toppled over into the dock and was smashed to pieces, Samuel McElhone being killed instantaneously. He was survived by his widow, Elizabeth, and is buried in Saintfield Burying Ground.

On 21st June 1917, Richard Totten, an apprentice driller who resided at the Working Boys’ Home in May Street, was working on the top deck of a vessel when he lost his footing and fell thirty feet, fracturing his skull. He was taken to the Royal Victoria Hospital where an operation was performed. However, Richard Totton died on 23rd June 1917. Richard Totten (sometimes Totton) was born on 4th July 1901 at Malcolm’s Street to Charles Totten and Agnes Totten (nee Stafford). In October 1917, Agnes Totten of Woodstock Place sought legal arbitration in a compensation claim from Workman Clark, the firm having offered £10, that was based on the boy’s average wage of seven shillings and sixpence a week. Agnes Totten stated that she was living apart from her husband and had five children to feed and clothe. The judge declared £23 and eight shillings to be the amount of the dependency.

At about 11.30am on 15th December 1917, Robert Henry Harkness, a joiner residing at Bedeque Street, left the part of the ship where he was working to get his “board” signed by the foreman on the upper deck. Shortly afterwards, he was found in an unconscious condition on a tank top in No. 1 hold, having fallen through an unprotected hatch. James Keenan, a fellow joiner, informed the inquest that the walkways were lit and that the men had been issued with candles. Robert Henry Harkness was born on 4th July 1892 at Cookstown to Alexander Harkness and Rachel Harkness (nee Allen).

On 21st December 1917, a chart table fell on the foot of Alexander Holley, a joiner from Moyola Street, causing painful injury. On 16th January 1918, in its report on the inquest, the Northern Whig stated that, he did not regard the injury as of a serious nature, and when he went home for dinner he bathed the injured limb. Later in the day in the shipyard he was again seen bathing his foot in hot water and told one of his workmates that it was very painful. Alexander did not resume work after that day and was admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital on 29th December. Dr C J Mitchell informed the coroner that he was suffering from, a septic condition of the lower portion of the right leg and also wounds on his toes. Mr Mackie, a foreman joined, gave evidence that he had not been informed of the accident and that there was every facility at the shipyard for treating any injuries that the men might receive and even the most minor wounds were attended to. They had a proper ambulance system at the yard, and throughout the place there were notices telling men to report accidents at once. Alexander Holley died on 11th January 1917 and is buried in Belfast City Cemetery. Alexander Holley was born on 15th January 1866 at Macosquin in County Londonderry to William Holley and Margaret Holley (nee Nelson). He married Margaret Thompson at Terrace Row Presbyterian Church in Coleraine on 19th July 1894 and they had three children.

On 2nd February 1918, George Lillie, a shipwright from Dee Street, died at the Royal Victoria Hospital following a fall of 33 feet at the shipyard and the inquest jury suggested that Lillie did not receive sufficient warning when about to heave a frame (Belfast News-Letter, 6th February 1918). George Lillie was a sailor when he married Margaret Saunders on 8th August 1882 at St Anne’s Parish Church in Belfast. They had 12 children, of which only three survived to adulthood. George Lillie is buried in Dundonald Cemetery.

At about 6.15am on 25th February 1918, Cornelius Dunn, an apprentice riveter from Earl Street, was crossing the deck of a vessel when a pair of shearlegs fell and struck him on the head. The shipyard ambulance took him to the Royal Victoria Hospital, but he died of his injuries in transit. At the inquest, Mr A Black, representing the next-of-kin, suggested that the jury record that the accident happened by reason of an employee losing or slackening one of the ropes holding the shearlegs in position (Northern Whig, 27th February 1918). This was a second tragedy for the Dunn family as Newton Dunn, an iron turner and an elder brother of Cornelius, died at the Royal Victoria Hospital on 10th December 1917 of injuries sustained at Harland & Wolff on 7th December. In his evidence to the inquest, William Pitkethly, leading-hand turner, said, on the date of the accident deceased bent his head to see that the machine was cutting properly. His neck was jammed against the kicker of the boring machine (Belfast Telegraph, 12th December 1917). Cornelius (22nd October 1896) and Newton (24th March 1888) were both born at Earl Street to Newton Dunn and Maria Dunn (nee Grego) and both are buried in Carnmoney Cemetery. Newton Dunn had married Margaret McIntosh on 28th March 1910 at Mariners’ Parish Church in Belfast and their only child, Newton, was born on 16th February 1915 at Kells Street.

On Saturday 11th May 1918, an explosion occurred at Workman Clark’s South Yard whilst ten workmen were testing an engine. The bearings overheated and caused a fire, which soon reached the petrol tank, causing the explosion. All ten men were injured and transferred to hospital suffering shock and burns to the face, arms, and body. One man, Thomas Livingstone, an apprentice shipwright from Garden Street, died as a result of his injuries at the Royal Victoria Hospital. Thomas Livingstone was born on 14th October 1901 at Garden Street to Colin Livingstone (Shipwright) and Mary Ann Livingstone (nee McMeekin) and is buried in Carnmoney Cemetery. His elder brother, Colin, was an apprentice engineer at Harland & Wolff when he enlisted with the Highland Light Infantry and served for a year in Mesopotamia before being invalided home. He later saw service with the Royal Scots and, in September 1918, the Larne Times reported that Private Colin Livingstone had been wounded in action. The other nine men – Clifford Walker, Ernest Morgan, Charles Smith, Daniel Magill, William Mullan and John Mullan of Berlin Street, John McFarlane of Comber, James Vance of St Vincent Street, and Robert McDowell of Syringa Street – were able to return home after treatment.

On 24th June 1918, Henry Salters, a catchboy from Glasgow Street, fell a distance of 30 feet whilst at work in the North Yard and was taken to the Royal Victoria Hospital, where he died of head injuries. Henry Salters was born on 6th May 1903 at Glasgow Street to Robert Salters and Margaret Salters (nee Farrell). His father, a mechanical engineer, had died in an accident at the North Yard on 4th September 1911 at the age of 39. Father and son are buried in Carnmoney Cemetery.

World Record

However, whilst there were tragic accidents, there were also occasions of pride, such as the launching of a new warship or the winning of world records! Three weeks after the South Yard explosion, Workman Clark was in the news for a more positive incident.

On 5th June 1918, John Watson Moir from Alexandra Park Avenue set a new world riveting record at Workman Clark’s North Yard. As reported in the Northern Whig the following day, John W Moir handsomely beat all the world’s riveting records, driving in the nine hours’ working day 11,209 rivets, against the previous record of 7,841 achieved by John Lowry at Harland & Wolff’s Queen’s Island yard on 28th ult., and beating his own previous record of 1,115 rivets in an hour by 294, the new figure being 1,409. He also set up a new record of 26 rivets in one minute. The article went on to report that the rivets driven weighed two-and-a-half tons and that the work was supervised by Mr McIlvenna, Lloyds surveyor, and Mr Buchman, surveyor of the British Corporation of Shipping. Sir George Clark took a great personal interest in the test as he was keen that superiority should be established for British as compared with the output of the American yards, and was personally highly gratified when it was seen that beyond doubt this would be accomplished. Sir George presented John Moir with a solid silver rose bowl and the directors of the company presented him with a cheque for £50 (which equates to approximately £2,900 in current terms). Telegrams of congratulation were received from His Majesty King George V, Field Marshall Sir John French, Prime Minister David Lloyd George and from Lord Pirrie. In a letter to Sir George (reported in the Belfast News-Letter on 8th June 1918), Sir Edward Carson wrote, l must write a line to congratulate your firm, and especially Mr. J. W. Moir, on his record riveting achievement. It is splendid and will show the Hun that Ulstermen will continue to use all their powers to defeat the murderous efforts of the Uboats. I am sure you are proud of Moir.

The Moir family served its King and country overseas as well. The Roll of Honour for Fortwilliam Park Presbyterian Church records that all three sons of John Moir and his wife, Isobel Moir (nee Harris), served with the armed forces. George Harris Moir was born in Scotland around 1889 and served in the South African Defence Force and the Royal Naval Air Service before receiving a commission with the Royal Air Force. John and Isobel had moved to Belfast from Dundee when the second of their three sons, David Watson Moir, was born on 27th May 1895 at Castleton Park Avenue. He was an apprentice draughtsman before the war and was wounded whilst serving with the North Irish Horse. Their third son, Stewart Harris Moir, was born on 1st February 1898 at Ivan Street. He was an engineer at Workman Clark before the war and served with the North Irish Horse, the Highland Light Infantry, the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Air Force.

Next: Workman Clark’s Wartime Philanthropy