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date: 27 February 2021

Wolff, Gustav Wilhelmfree

  • Michael S. Moss
  • , revised

Wolff, Gustav Wilhelm (1834–1913), shipbuilder, was born at Hamburg, Germany, on 14 November 1834, the son of Moritz Wolff, merchant, and his wife, Fanny Schwabe. In 1819 his parents, along with other members of the Jewish family, had been baptized into the Lutheran church.

In 1849 Wolff left Hamburg to live with his uncle, Gustav Christian Schwabe, a partner in the Liverpool shipping line of John Bibby & Sons. He attended Liverpool College before being apprenticed to the well-known Manchester engineering firm of Joseph Whitworth & Co. He proved so able that he was chosen to represent the firm at the Paris Exhibition of 1855. On his return he joined B. Goodfellow Ltd of Hyde, on the outskirts of Manchester, as a draughtsman.

In 1857 Wolff's uncle secured him the post of personal assistant to Edward Harland, the manager of Robert Hickson's shipyard on Queen's Island, Belfast. In 1861 he became a partner in the enterprise, which was named Harland and Wolff. Both his uncle and his mother made substantial loans to the new firm, which was already engaged in a large contract for John Bibby & Sons. At first Wolff's duties were to manage the yard and provide engineering skills; but later, through his links with the Jewish community in Britain and Hamburg, he was to bring a large amount of business to the yard.

Wolff shared in the firm's success up to Harland's death in 1895, playing his part in the extension of the yard, particularly the construction of the engine works in 1879–80. When Harland and Wolff was converted into a limited company in 1888, he became a director or principal. By this time he played little active part in the business, devoting his attention to the management of the Belfast Ropeworks, which he had helped to found in 1872–3 with W. H. Smiles, the son of Samuel Smiles. Under Wolff's chairmanship, from 1876, the firm had grown quickly to become a serious competitor of the Clyde-based Gourock Ropework Company, the largest rope makers in the world.

After Harland and Wolff extended the system of building on a cost-plus basis to the majority of their established clients, Wolff was influential in securing a connection with the Hamburg-Amerika Line, managed by the Jewish Albert Ballin. At the same time Wolff personally bought into the ailing Union Steamship Company, with its services to South Africa, becoming a director and winning its custom for the yard. He helped to negotiate the merger in 1900 with the Castle Line of Sir Donald Currie. He retired formally from Harland and Wolff in 1906, although effectively he had been a sleeping partner for over ten years.

A Unionist in politics, Wolff was elected MP for East Belfast in 1892, and was returned unopposed at the next four general elections, until his retirement in 1910. In parliament he was a determined opponent of home rule. He was a very modest man, refusing to take any credit for the enterprise that bore his name. Although he came from a Jewish family, throughout his life he was a committed member of the Church of Ireland, giving generously to local charities. He never married and died at his London home, 42 Park Street, on 17 April 1913.


Wealth at Death

£9800: Irish probate sealed in London, 19 May 1913, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

£19,799—gross value of Irish estate: Johnson and Geary, ‘Wolff, Gustav Wilhelm’

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