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date: 28 February 2021

Harland, Sir Edward James, baronetfree

  • Michael S. Moss
  • , revised

Harland, Sir Edward James, baronet (1831–1895), shipbuilder, was born on 15 May 1831 in Scarborough, the fourth of six sons (the third of whom died in infancy) and seventh of ten children of Dr William Harland, physician, a close friend of the engineer George Stephenson, and his wife, Anne, daughter of Gowan Peirson of Goathland, Yorkshire. He was apprenticed to Robert Stephenson & Co. at Newcastle from 1846 to 1851. Through his uncle, Dr Thomas Harland, he got to know Gustav Christian Schwabe, a partner in the Liverpool shipping company of John Bibby & Sons. Schwabe arranged for him to work for the Clyde engineering and shipbuilding firm of J. and G. Thomson, who were building ships for Bibby. He returned to the Tyne in 1853 to manage a shipyard, leaving the following year to take up a similar post at Robert Hickson's shipyard in Belfast. Here he quickly became notorious for his stern management, which turned the shipyard round, allowing it to survive the financial embarrassment of the owner in 1855. Two years later he recruited Gustav Wilhelm Wolff, Gustav Schwabe's nephew, as his personal assistant. In 1858 he purchased the yard, renaming the business Edward James Harland & Co. Immediately Bibby placed a contract for three boats. They were so pleased with these that they ordered a further six vessels in 1860 of novel long design, with a narrow beam and flat bottom, which earned them the nickname of ‘Bibby's coffins’. Harland and Wolff went into partnership in 1861 to form the company of that name.

Over the next thirty years the shipyard prospered. Building on the technical success of the Bibby ships, the partners established a strong relationship with the White Star Line of Thomas Ismay, Cunard's principal competitor on the north Atlantic. In 1879–80 the partners added an engine works to their enterprise and the following year equipped the yard to handle the newly introduced open-hearth steel. By this time most of the contracts were being negotiated by William James Pirrie, who had become a partner in 1874. During the home rule crisis in 1885, Harland made secret preparations to withdraw to mainland Britain if the situation became intolerable. This proved unnecessary and massive investment followed to provide facilities for the construction of the latest generation of Atlantic liners. In 1891, when shipbuilding was distressed, Harland was persuaded to introduce a system of cost plus contracts for favoured customers which secured a large volume of business over the next four years.

The success of the shipyard depended on improvement to the Lagan waterway made by Belfast harbour commissioners. Harland served as a commissioner from 1875 and was chairman from 1875 to 1885. Although a unionist in politics, he tried to pursue a policy of non-discrimination in the shipyard, strained by the sectarian troubles in 1864 and in 1884–5. He was mayor of Belfast in 1885–7 and helped co-ordinate the campaign against the Home Rule Bill. He was elected MP for North Belfast in 1887, moving to London but rarely speaking in parliament. He was knighted in 1885 and created a baronet later the same year.

A Presbyterian, Harland was a member of the First Congregation in Rosemary Street, Belfast. In January 1860 he married Rosa Matilda, of Vermont, near Belfast, the daughter of Thomas Wann, a stockbroker and insurance agent. They had no children and the baronetcy became extinct when Harland died on Christmas eve 1895 at his Irish home, Glenfarne Hall, near Enniskillen, co. Leitrim.


Wealth at Death

£67,438 5s. effects in England: Irish probate sealed in London, 22 Oct 1896, CGPLA Ire.

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
D. J. Jeremy, ed., , 5 vols. (1984–6)