WILLIAM MCQUITTY: THE PRODUCER WHO REINVIGORATED BELFAST’S CIVIC PRIDE IN THE RMS TITANIC

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Ticket of Titanic launch. Photo Source: BBC.

Michael McConway, Contributor.  

Seeking refuge on a wind-swept afternoon on the 23rd of November 2008 among the dust laden shelves in Magherafelt public library, I happened to stumble upon a coffee stained copy of Senan Molony’s The Irish Aboard Titanic. Leafing through its brittle yellowed pages, I became fascinated with the biographies of the nine Harland and Wolff employees of the month whose lives were cut short when they were selected to accompany Titanic on her maiden voyage to deal with any minor finishing faults. The Guarantee Group: the Irish economic migrants who embarked on Titanic from Queenstown, now Cobh in County Cork, to create a better life for themselves in America. I became particularly fascinated with one Crew member in particular, who spent his youth not three miles from my own home. Matthew Leonard, the son of Catholic parents John Leonard and Sarah Barry, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on Tuesday 20th July 1886. Matthew’s parents, economic migrants in the USA themselves, returned to Ireland soon after and in 1890 Matthew’s only sibling Mary was born. Following the death of his father in 1895, Matthew, his mother and sister went to live with their grandmother, Bridget Barry, at the farm homestead in the village of Toome, County Antrim, and here they appear at 8 Brecart Road in the 1901 Census. By the 1911 census, the family have relocated to 23 Chatsworth Street, Pottinger, east Belfast, with Matthew employed as a grocer’s assistant and his sister Mary as a machinist. Seeking better wages, Matthew left to work at a Jewellers, Joseph Rea’s in Ann Street, but requiring more money to support his dependants, he decided to go to sea before Easter 1912. Matthew is listed as a crew member on the Titanic for her delivery trip from Belfast to Southampton, and when he signed on again for her maiden voyage on Thursday 4th April 1912 in Southampton as a Third Class Stewart with monthly wages of £3 and 15 shillings, he gave his address as 45 Chatsworth Street, Belfast.

Matthew Leonard. Photo Source: Belfast Titanic Society.

I can vividly remember my heart skipping a beat as I tentatively turned the page to discover Leonard’s fate. I’d seen the statistic tables at the beginning of the chapter. I knew that of the 899 crew who sailed on Titanic, 686 perished when she struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean at 10:40pm on the night of the 14th of April 1912, a death rate of 76%. Leonard drowned in the sinking, and his name is not mentioned in any of the testimonies given by surviving Third Class Stewarts at the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry or the United States Senate Inquiry in the aftermath of the tragedy. Neither was his body recovered by the cable ship Mackay Bennet. This ship, chartered by the White Star Line to search for bodies among the wreckage, recovered only 306 bodies of the 1517 victims and identified merely 56. The only thing we know for certain about Leonard is that at 2:20am on the morning of the 15th of April 1912, when Titanic slipped beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, his wages were stopped by the White Star Line as the ship sank from under him.

Almost 100 years earlier, another impressionable little boy, the son of the managing director of the Belfast Telegraph from Bangor no less, would become fascinated by the towering feat of engineering currently under construction at the Harland and Wolff shipyard. It was to be an experience that would stay with him for the rest of his distinguished life, provide inspiration for his greatest film and stem a reinvigorated sense of pride in the RMS Titanic in Belfast and across the island of Ireland. Without him, the poignant stories of those such as Matthew Leonard would be forgotten.

In later life, William McQuitty insisted that his earliest memory at the age of six was being taken down to the Harland and Wolff shipyard to witness the launch of the Titanic from the press stand with his father on 31st May 1911. He marvelled at the 20-strong team of draught horses required to pull one of Titanic’s anchors along the narrow streets of Belfast. The picture above ”is a ticket for the launch of the Titanic which was issued to David Moneypenny, a Harland and Wolff painter who worked on Titanic’s first class accommodation.” Over 90 members of the press were given tickets such as these to report on the launch of the second Olympic Class liner in White Star Line’s luxury fleet, including William’s father.

 After spending his youth as an employee of the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China, MacQuitty returned to Ulster and embarked upon a filmmaking career. His first official production for the Northern Ireland Government, Simple Silage in 1939, launched a successful series of war films for the Ministry of Information, providing Unionist Prime Minister Sir Basil Brooke with the war effort film Ulster Goes to It in 1943. After World War Two, McQuitty retained a burning ambition to make a film about the Titanic. He built an impressive portfolio of major feature films including Above us the Waves, a 1954 production starring John Mills which chronicled the disabling of the German Submarine Tirpitz by British Midget Submarines.

One evening in late 1955, his wife brought home a book which McQuitty would describe as a ‘ready made script’ for his Titanic film ambitions, namely Walter Lord’s definitive account of the Titanic story A Night to Remember. He quickly took the book and his casting ideas to Head of the Rank Film Organisation, John Davies, who bitterly complained that the film had been made countless times before. He cited 1953’s Titanic, an American romance aboard the doomed liner not unlike Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster and Atlantic in 1929, a fictionalised account of the sinking, and lamented the lack of international stars, despite the fact distinguished British actor Kenneth More headed the cast as Second Officer Charles Lightoller, the most senior ranking surviving member of Titanic’s crew and the officer responsible for loading and launching 10 lifeboats on the port side of the ship. McQuitty recalled that he spent a month ”explaining to Davies that the ship was the star of the movie, and no other star could ever have had so much drama, excitement, horror, terror and love as that ship.” Responding to accusations the story had already been told, McQuitty highlighted that the role of Belfast in the Titanic’s construction had been omitted from previous screen representations. He rather eloquently stated that the sinking was the end of an era for the rigid class structure in Edwardian Britain, for “Titanic’s Memorial in Belfast City Hall is right alongside the War Memorial; on the Titanic Memorial, names of those from Ulster lost aboard Titanic were ordered in terms of importance within the Harland and Wolff shipyard and the passenger and crew classes, whereas the names on the war memorial were written in alphabetical order.”

Yet McQuitty’s overwhelming civic pride in the Titanic was not a sentiment popular in Belfast in the late 1950s. Titanic set sail from Southampton on her maiden voyage on the 10th of April 1912, only a day before the Third Irish Home Rule Bill was introduced into the House of Commons. Unionist opposition to the Home Rule Bill led by Edward Carson was primarily motivated by the industrial character of north-east Ireland and its close economic links with mainland Britain and the British Empire, and the importance of this relationship was most evident in Belfast, where following the completion of the Oceanic in 1871, Harland and Wolff was responsible for the production of almost all White Star Line vessels. The sinking of the Titanic in April 1912 wounded Ulster’s civic pride in Belfast’s shipbuilding industry, and in the 1930s and 1940s strenuous efforts were made to ensure this wound was not reopened by excessive memorialisation of the Titanic’s links with Belfast in the public domain. In 1936, when the BBC in London announced plans to broadcast an interview with Charles Lightoller, NI Programme Director John Sutthery wrote to the Director of Regional Relations in London complaining the Titanic was a sore point in Belfast’s history which the programme should not dwell upon. Sutthery lamented that ”40 people from Belfast were drowned, and it was a very grave set-back in civic pride when this much-vaunted ship went out from Harland and Wolff’s shipyard to sink on its maiden voyage.” When in 1947 the BBC planned a programme on the Titanic during its series entitled “Sensation,” Harland and Wolff lobbied BBC NI and the Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister Sir Basil Brooke to pressurise the BBC to cancel the programme, as it was scheduled for broadcast on the same day as the launch of the first Cunarder-White Star liner to be built in Harland and Wolff since the end of the war. The programme’s transmission was eventually postponed by a week when Director of BBC Northern Ireland George Marshall explained to London that “a Titanic programme would undoubtedly damage the prestige of Harland and Wolff, one of the main employers of labour in Northern Ireland, and jeopardise the BBCs relationship with the firm.”

Thus when McQuitty began production on A Night to Remember, Harland and Wolff chairman Sir Frederick Rebbeck refused his permission to film in the shipyard or use footage of the launch. Yet in the following months McQuitty’s film rekindled Belfast’s civic pride in the ship permeating silence within the Northern Irish public sphere on the Titanic for more than 40 years. McQuitty’s visits to Belfast were widely reported by the local press and in anticipation of the film’s release in 1958, the Northern Whig serialised extracts from Walter Lord’s book to promote the project. Titanic (1953) opens with American passengers joining the ship via the tender SS Nomadic at the port of Cherbourg, whereas McQuitty’s film dramatises the ship’s launch by Harland and Wolff labourers in Belfast, albeit in fictional terms, for the ship never had a christening ceremony as is portrayed. The emphasis upon Thomas Andrews, managing director and chief designer at Harland and Wolff who went down with the ship, as a key player in the moments immediately after the sinking in sounding the ship, encouraging passengers to board the lifeboats despite their incredulity that the unsinkable ship was foundering, and meeting his death with dignity in the First Class Smoking room went far beyond the details provided by Walter Lord. It is a portrait that is replicated virtually verbatim in James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster, albeit with Victor Garber’s misleading Southern Irish brogue. A Night to Remember may have been a black and white Rank film which soon became outdated with the advent of colour on the big screen, but its portrayal of Thomas Andrews, the launch of the Titanic in Belfast and its depiction of economic migrants leaving Queenstown rehabilitated the memory of Titanic in Northern Ireland and acknowledged the loss of families of Irish migrants in steerage who never completed their journey to the New World. It ensured their stories would never be forgotten. A prime example of this loss was Margaret Rice and her five children from Athlone in County Westmeath, who were travelling to Spokane, Washington, to start a new life after the death of her husband William in a railway accident. All six were lost, and when Margaret’s body was recovered by the Mackay Bennet, her effects were logged, valued and given the demeaning label “Probably Third Class” until she could be properly identified.

Today, Belfast’s civic pride in the Titanic’s construction at Harland and Wolff is best represented by the various tours, exhibitions and interactive experiences available at Titanic Quarter Belfast. 2017 saw a 22% increase in footfall to the exhibition, and marked a milestone that since opening in 2012 Titanic Belfast has welcomed 4 million visitors from 145 countries to Northern Ireland, whilst on August 6th 2017, the exhibition broke records when 5000 visitors passed through on one day alone. Titanic Hotel Belfast opened on the site of the famously barrel-vaulted Drawing Offices of the original Harland and Wolff headquarters in September, whilst Hickson’s Point, a new shipyard themed hospitality space at Titanic Belfast is set to open in late March. Despite all this grand development, the core success of Titanic Belfast is the focus on the individuals who constructed and sailed on Titanic, such as John Arthurs, a Harland and Wolff ship fitter in cabinet making, or Mary Sloan, the White Star Stewardess from Belfast who was saved aboard Lifeboat 16, whose stories feature heavily in the exhibition’s Galleries on Titanic’s construction and maiden voyage. Yet without William McQuitty’s burning determination in the late 1950s to restore Belfast’s civic pride in the construction of the Titanic, the stories of these individuals, and Matthew Leonard’s story, my own specialist case study on Titanic’s crew, would be forgotten. Hence, the next time you visit Blackwell’s or No Alibis for a textbook and browse through the latest Titanic offerings, or notice a billboard promoting Titanic Belfast’s summer season of promotions, or happen to flick through the channels and find Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio descending the Grand Staircase to join a ceilidh in third class on Channel Four after Gogglebox, spare a thought for the little boy who was inspired by that leviathan of Ulster’s workmanship when she was launched into Victoria Channel on the 31st of March 1911, who would grow up to fulfil his burning ambition to restore Belfast’s civic pride in the Titanic.

The Odeon, Leicester Theatre, London, July 3rd 1958, William McQuitty, Producer, pictured with Titanic’s Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall (technical advisor on the film) and her Third Officer Herbert Pitman at the Premiere of A Night to Remember.   Photo Source: Encyclopedia Titanica.

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