Tuesday, May 02, 2006


Survivors of a shipwreck remember


April 28, 2006

The Harland and Wolff-built
Magdalena went down in 1949.

Most people by now know about the Titanic, but not so many realise it was just one of three Harland and Wolff ships to sink on their maiden voyage.

The last was the Magdalena which sank in 1949 after hitting rocks off the coast of Brazil.
No-one was killed or seriously injured, but the drama left a lasting mark on its crew, including Belfast man Bill Harkness.

This week Bill helped organise a reunion with three of his shipmates in the east Belfast shipyard where the Magdalena was built.

Almost 60 years ago, all four were shipmates on the Magdalena's maiden voyage, but despite a shared history, they never really knew each other.

For the four men the ship was, for a brief period, both workplace and home - until the night in 1949 when she struck rocks and sank off Rio de Janeiro.

It was only when the men came together in Belfast that they were able to pool their memories.
Former seaman Neville Strangword travelled from Australia for the reunion.

He said he was about 18 when the Magdalena met her end. No-one, he said, felt particularly heroic at the time.

"None of us wanted to get the VC, all we wanted to do was get off.

Bill Harkness, the ship's refrigeration engineer, remembers the fateful night well.

Bill laughed as he recalled: "I had one leg in my pyjamas and one leg out, balanced in my cabin, when the ship struck.

"The second time I got the big crunch, it was so severe, it threw me across against my bunk."

While Belfast's maritime history is dominated by another, more famous ship, the Magdalena's sinking is just as important to these men and to those who try to preserve that heritage.

Charlie Warmington of the Lagan Legacy heritage organisation said he had managed to contact seven of Magdalena's "old seadogs" from all over the world.

"They survived the wreck. No-one actually went down with the ship because the ship initially didn't go down," Charlie said.

"She crashed onto rocks."

The Magdalena is also important to the Belfast shipyard employees who built her.

Bob Bankhead, a former Harland and Wolff welder who worked on the building of the Magdalena, said it was a big order at the time.

"It was indeed, because that was the first passenger ship built in Harland and Wolff after the war," he said.

"In fact, it was the third-biggest ship built in a British yard at that particular time."

But signs of shipbuilding are gradually disappearing along the Lagan and Reuben Griffiths, the Magdalena's lift boy, feels it is vital to capture that part of his and other people's history before it is lost forever.

The shipyard, he said, should be developed as a tourist attraction.

"But where are the tourists? This is a wonderful, wonderful opportunity for Belfast to show this off to the world," Reuben said.

"The world knows about the Titanic and they should be here seeing the shipyard. It's not a dump, it's a wonderful thing."

Plans of the Magdalena have been kept for posterity and seeing the paperwork and documents again brought memories flooding back to her former crewmen.

Reuben Griffiths remembers rowing towards land after leaving the stricken vessel.

"As we were pulling away, we heard the cracking and creaking and saw the ship as it broke in half," he said.

"We finished up landing ourselves on Copacabana Beach - everybody's dream, but not in a lifeboat."


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