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Titanic Tales: A man and his machine

The fate of the Titanic chief designer is a well known tragedy. Travelling with his creation, the enormity of the impending disaster seems to have weighed heavy on his shoulders.

Thomas Andrews Jr. 7 February 1873 (Comber, County Down, Ireland) - 15 April 1912 (Atlantic Ocean)

Early Life

Thomas Andrews was born at Ardara House, Comber, County Down in Ireland. He was the son of the Right Hon. Thomas Andrews, a member of the Privy Council of Ireland and his maternal uncle was Viscount Pirrie, part owner of the Harland and Wolff ship yard. His brothers include the future Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, John Miller Andrews, and Sir James Andrews, the future Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland. As a family of Presbyterians, of Scottish descent, the family considered themselves Scottish.

Andrews attended the Royal Belfast Academical Institution from 1884 to 1889, when, aged 16, he began his apprenticeship at his uncle's shipyard.

Harland and Wolff

He began with three months in the joiners' shop before a month in the cabinetmakers' department before a further two months working on the ships. He then spent 18 months in the drawing office. Andrews may have been born into privilege, but he worked hard, studying by night and working long days in the drawing office. He worked his way through the ranks of the company before being named manager of the construction works in 1901. He was also made a member of the Institute of Naval Architects that same year. By 1907 he was appointed managing director of the drafting department. His reputation was one of recognised talent but also his generous, likable character. He was well known to acknowledge the work of others and was often considered humble whilst also being revered as a nautical design genius.

On 24 June 1908 Andrews married Helen Reilly Barbour, daughter of textile industrialist John Doherty Barbour.

Olympic Class

In 1907, Andrews undertook management of the plans for the new Olympic class liners. The three White Star Line ships, Olympic, Titanic and Gigantic (later renamed Britannic) were designed by William Pirrie, Alexander Carlisle and Andrews. The design brief was for the largest, safest and most luxurious ocean going liners of their day. The first of the class, Olympic, was launched on 20 October 1910, just over a month before Andrews daughter, Elizabeth Law-Barbour Andrews (known affectionately by her initials as ELBA) was born on 27 November.

Andrews took great care over his work and familiarised himself with the intricate details of his ships, always looking for improvements. He campaigned with determination for 48 lifeboats on the class as well as a double hull and watertight bulkheads up to B deck. Part of his dedication was to head up the working party named the guarantee group who travelled on maiden voyages to observe performance and establish any potential improvements. Andrews had done this for other vessels, Titanic was no exception. The guarantee group travelled with Titanic to Southampton from Belfast and despite various cosmetic adjustments, Andrews is believed to have observed that Titanic was "as nearly perfect as human brains can make her." He also wrote to his wife claiming "The Titanic is now about complete and will I think do the old firm credit tomorrow when we sail".

The Maiden Voyage

At sea Andrews not only made notes but also assisted crew in getting to know the new ship. His reputation as a likable, humble and generous man as expressed from the shipyard and previous maiden voyages is further cemented by testimonial from the surviving crew. Chief Baker Charles Joughlin would bake Mr. Andrews a special loaf of bread. Stewardess Violet Jessop also spoke fondly of Mr. Andrews in her memoirs.

Andrews was attended by Bedroom Steward, First Class, Henry Etches. It is from Etches that we get the enduring image of Andrews at work. He remarked that Andrews had charts rolled up by the side of his bed and papers of all descriptions on his desks and was constantly taking notes on any improvements that could be made. Etches would see him regularly about the ship, mainly on E-deck, always with his team, taking notes on improvements. None of his team would escape the ship.

The Collision

On the evening of April 14th, Etches attended Mr. Andrews to assist him in preparation for dinner. He usually dined with Dr. O'Laughlin, the ship surgeon. After dinner he returned to his cabin to continue his work. He was unaware of any problem until Captain Smith sent for him requesting his immediate presence on the bridge.

Andrews and Captain Smith discussed the situation and Saloon Steward James Johnstone stated at the British Inquiry that he saw Andrews and Captain Smith inspecting the flooded areas of the ship, including the mail room and the racquet court. Andrews quickly realised the horrendous reality and informed the Captain the ship would go down within two hours.

The Unfolding disaster

Andrews busied himself scouring the staterooms telling passengers to put lifebelts on and to head up on deck. At around 12.20 Steward Etches was still working along the rooms on B-deck when Andrews, without a lifebelt of his own, stopped him to ask if all his passengers were out and boarding the lifeboats. Andrews instructed Etches to follow him to C-deck, down a pantry staircase and get passengers to open their cabin doors and advise them their lifebelts were on top of the wardrobes and the top racks. The pair walked along C-deck and encountered Purser McElroy surrounded by a number of ladies. McElroy was asking them to return to their rooms, not to be alarmed and as a preliminary caution to put on their lifebelts. Mr. Andrews responded "That is exactly what I have been trying to get them to do" and headed down the stairs to D-deck.

Many survivors testified to have met or seen Andrews repeatedly urging reluctant people into the lifeboats. He of course was well aware of the lack of sufficient space on the lifeboats.

The final moments

The infamous depiction of Andrews last moments as seen in most film versions is the report of Steward John Stewart seeing the ship designer in the First Class Smoke Room at around 2.10am. He was stood at a fireplace staring at a painting of the Plymouth Sound by Norman Wilkinson, which Titanic was scheduled to visit on her return to the UK. A discarded lifebelt was lying on a table by his side. "Aren't you going to have a try for it, Mr. Andrews?" asked Stewart. Andrews neither answered or moved, apparently in a state of shock.

This image has been seemingly cast in stone, especially after being published in the 1912 book Thomas Andrews: Shipbuilder by Shan Bullock but Stewart claimed to have abandoned ship on board lifeboat 14 which had been launched at least half an hour prior to this time. However romantic the imagery of this idea is, there are other sightings of him in the final moments.

At about 2.03am the power decreases and the telegraph no longer functioned. One of the final telegrams issued by the ship explained he was observed on the back of the boat deck waving his arms and shouting loudly to get people's attention to encourage them to leave the ship. This failed and so he started to throw deck chairs into the ocean to provide some sort of flotation device for people to use.

Contemporary news accounts reported that Steward Cecil William N Fitzpatrick claimed to have seen Andrews together with Captain Smith together on the bridge in conversation and then saw both men jump overboard before the bridge was submerged.

He died in the disaster and his body was never recovered. His father received a telegram from his mother's cousin, who had spoken with survivors in New York: "INTERVIEW WITH TITANIC'S OFFICERS. ALL UNANIMOUS THAT ANDREWS DIED A HEROIC DEATH, THINKING ONLY OF OTHER'S SAFETY. EXTEND HEARTFELT SYMPATHY TO ALL."


The sole surviving Andrews designed ship is the SS Nomadic and Asteroid 245158 Thomasandrews was named in his honour in 2004. The Thomas Andrews Jr. Memorial Hall in his hometown Comber was opened in January 1914.


Andrews has always been presented as a sympathetic character and almost always as perishing in the First Class Smoke Room. There is certainly plenty of evidence to suggest the heroic and generous portrayal of the man are justified, even if the charitable depiction of his final moments is a symbolic gesture to the man and his machine.


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