Monday, July 16, 2012

The McTear Brothers - from Covenanters to Shipbuilders - the Belfast Glasgow Steamship Company (founded 1826)


As you head out of Belfast towards Greenisland, you'll pass Hazelbank Park on the shore of Belfast Lough. One of Belfast's grand houses stood there until the IRA blew it up in the 1970s; in its later years it had been used as a Council headquarters. The big house at Hazelbank Farm had been bought by David McTear in 1796. His grandfather, Noah McTear, had fought as a Covenanter at the Battle of Bothwell Brig near Hamilton in Scotland in 1679, and like so many fled across the water to Ulster in the aftermath (one account says he was in an open boat with his wife and son). They settled at Ballycarry.

David McTear had two sons - Thomas and George. Inspired by the leading innovation of their day, the steam-powered engine and specifically ships driven by these new-fangled engines, the brothers brought the technology to Ulster when they founded the Belfast Glasgow Steamship Company in 1826. They headhunted a Robert Patterson Ritchie (nephew of William Ritchie of Saltcoats) to oversee the construction of their first vessel (called the Fingal) which was built in Greenock in Scotland. Maybe the engraving above is Fingal? Robert Ritchie became her first captain.

The Glasgow agents for the company were brothers James and George Burns - in a series of mergers and acquisitions the company became the Burns & Laird Line which continued operations across the North Channel up until the 1960s. The architecture of the firm's former headquarters in Belfast is adorned with stone carvings of Scottish thistles and depictions of St Andrew, Scotland's patron saint.

With all the publicity Titanic has received this year due to it being her centenary, other important maritime stories have been overlooked. The Belfast-Glasgow connection is a truly titanic story.