The Titanic Connection
Sitting proudly on the Ballygowan Road in Comber, just opposite the Spinning Mill complex, is the Thomas Andrews Junior Memorial Hall (the Andrews Hall for short). This opened in 1915, erected by the people of Comber in memory of one of their own number – the man who designed the White Star liner Titanic and who unfortunately was among those lost on that fatal night in April 1912 when the seemingly unsinkable ship hit an iceberg and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
Thomas (or Tom as he was known) was a member of a very special family, that of Thomas Andrews, known as Thomas of Ardara because he lived at Ardara House on the Ballygowan Road. Thomas of Ardara (1843-1916) was a well known figure in Comber, and indeed in Ulster – President of the Ulster Liberal Unionist Association, Chairman of the Belfast and County Down Railway Company (BCDR), a Privy Councillor, a Deputy Lieutenant and later High Sheriff of Down, and Chairman of Down County Council. In 1870 he married Eliza Pirrie, whose brother William, created Viscount Pirrie in 1906, became owner and managing director of Belfast’s world famous shipyard, Harland and Wolff.
Thomas and Eliza had four sons and a daughter. The eldest, John Miller Andrews (1871-1956), became an accomplished politician, who was Minister of Labour in the first Northern Ireland Cabinet of 1921. In 1937 he was given the Finance portfolio, and from 1940-43 was charged with the responsible position of guiding the Province through the Second World War as Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister. Tom was the second son, born on 7th February 1873. Eliza Montgomery Andrews (known as Nina) followed in 1874. She married Lawrence Arthur Hind, who rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the army and was killed in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme. The third son of Thomas of Ardara was James (1877-1951), who had a brilliant legal career, in 1937 becoming Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland. The youngest of the family was Willie (1886-1966). He is best known in cricketing circles, being a stalwart of the North Down Club for many years and representing Ulster on a number of occasions and Ireland once. For 18 years he was Chairman of the Northern Cricket Union (NCU).
Tom grew up at Ardara where he developed a very close relationship with his elder brother. One of his occupations was that of beekeeping and he kept nine hives in the shelter of the hedge. He loved animals, and had a special passion for horses, becoming one of the most fearless riders in County Down. Even in these early days he was very fond of boats, and because of his skill at making these was nicknamed the “Admiral”.
Tom was a pupil at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (Inst) from 1884 to 1889. Here he showed no special aptitude for study and was much fonder of games, especially cricket. But on leaving school he joined Harland & Wolff as an apprentice and here he showed great enthusiasm for his new job. As an apprentice he gained an excellent knowledge of all aspects of shipbuilding, and supplemented this practical experience with a course of night studies. But it was in the Drawing Office that he found his true forte, and Tom became involved in the design of many of the great ships of his day, starting in 1893 with the Mystic. By 1904 he was Assistant Chief Designer and the following year head of the Designing Department. In 1907 he was made a managing director of Harland & Wolff, of which his uncle was head.
In 1908 Tom married Helen Reilly Barbour in Lambeg Parish Church. Helen was from a well-known Dunmurry family, who like that of Tom had made their money in the linen industry. They went to live at a house called Dunallen, at Windsor Avenue in Belfast, and Tom is sometimes referred to as Thomas of Dunallen. There was one daughter, Elizabeth Law Barbour Andrews, born in 1910.
Harland & Wolff constructed many ships for the White Star Line, and Tom was involved in the design of the Celtic, Baltic, Adriatic, Oceanic, Olympic and Titanic, among many others. These were among the largest ships of their day, built to withstand the perils of trans-Atlantic crossings. Titanic was the mightiest of all. Construction started in 1909, with the launch on 31 May 1911. By early 1912 work was complete and Titanic left Belfast for Southampton and its first voyage to the New World. Tom was on board.
Unfortunately, Titanic didn’t make it to America. An iceberg saw to that. The ship collided with this great mountain of ice on the night of Sunday 14th April 1912 and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic. Only 712 people were rescued out of 2,201 on board. Tom was not among the survivors. But he was a hero. There are stories of how, on that fateful night, he selflessly helped people on to the lifeboats and threw deckchairs and other items overboard to those unfortunates struggling in the water. He no doubt felt largely responsible for what had happened.
Comber was stunned, and Comber still remembers. Although Tom lies underneath the Atlantic, his memory is still preserved. In the graveyard of the Non-Subscribing Church can be found the grave of Thomas of Ardara and the rest of his family. On the headstone there is a reference to Tom – “Lost at sea in the foundering of the SS Titanic 15th April 1912. Pure, just, generous, affectionate and heroic, he gave his life that others might be saved”.
And of course we have the Andrews Hall itself, erected originally as a community hall for the townspeople, although nowadays it is part of the Andrews School complex. An inscription proclaims the laying of the first sod by Tom’s young daughter in 1913 when she would have been just 3 years old. Another indicates a memorial stone laid by Tom’s mother in 1914. The hall was officially opened by Tom’s widow on 29th January 1915. A fitting tribute to an outstanding man.
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