No Place for a Boy
A Life at Harland & Wolff
By Tom McCluskie, MBE
No Place for a Boy takes the reader on a journey that begins with young Tommy starting work at a busy and vibrant Harland & Wolff at age 15 and ends with the virtual dismantling of the shipyard in what has been called industrial vandalism. This sad end of the works, and the events and internal forces leading to that point are the real focus of this book. The story is not a potted history of Harland & Wolff, nor is it only an autobiography set in a shipyard. It is the story of the gradual decline of a once great company from the eyes of one who not only worked there, but also a man who cared passionately
about the company.
On the first day at work together with his father who was an employee, young Tommy was introduced to a friend of his father. The man looked at the youngster and said, “…have you no bloody sense?” His father shot back “Sure, that … shipyard is no place for a boy!” McCluskie was asked his first name and replied that it was Thomas, he was quickly informed “That’ll be Tommy while you work down here. The only Thomas ever to be known in the history of the shipyard was the great Thomas Andrews.” At that point in time, not even knowing who Andrews was, McCluskie began his career at Harland & Wolff as a messenger boy. Interestingly, years later, the legacy of Thomas Andrews’ last ship, the Titanic, would become the focus of McCluskie’s work at the shipyard.
With the exception of a five-year break, McCluskie spent the remainder of his working career at Harland & Wolff. After meeting the woman he would marry, he returned to the shipyard and quickly worked his way up to Chief Administrator of the Technical Department. The situation also began to receive continuous inquiries into the Titanic and other ships built by the works, and there was nothing in the company to handle them. McCluskie eventually created for himself, the position of Company Archivist.
To create this circumstance took heartache and hard work, and Tom McCluskie pulls no punches as he describes the working conditions and oppressive management that often tormented the employees, as well as numerous battles with the head of the shipyard over the use and preservation of the archives. McCluskie once stated in the heat of an argument “You do realize that any company who denies its past hasn’t got a future?” a statement that proved very prophetic.
Conditions were hard, and McCluskie is never guilty of sugar-coating the stress, strain and the real and present danger that working in the shipyard brought. At the same time, he is quick to point out that the workers all had an immense pride in each new ship that set out from Belfast. The inference is that this pride made the job worth it all.
Tom McCluskie is an excellent raconteur, and some of the stories he tells, border on the insane––except that they are true! From the story of Minger, a boy whose feet were found to be the same color as a pair of well-worn socks to the antics of Arnold, a messenger boy who accidentally summoned a massive police presence in response to the push of a button, the reader is treated to story after story that lightens the tone of the book and adds real enjoyment.
The Harland & Wolff archives are a priceless collection of material, drawings and specifications going back to the beginning of the company. As McCluskie emphasized the importance of the archives to management, developing them both for their historical and intrinsic value, obstacles were erected at nearly every step of the way especially when Harland & Wolff began to bring in a string of foreign executives and experts to run the company. This new breed of executive had no loyalty to the long history of Harland & Wolff.
Regardless of the difficulties and opposition, McCluskie’s efforts were noticed and, in 2005, he was recognized and awarded the official honor of MBE (Order of the British Empire) by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, for services to preserve maritime history.
The fall of Harland & Wolff has been chronicled in great detail. Today, the works once known as Shipbuilders to the World no longer builds ships, and the once massive work force is a mere shadow of its former size; the yard itself has been dramatically contracted, with most of the historic buildings in place at the time of the building of the Olympic-class ships having been demolished.
From McCluskie’s writing, it was clearly not an easy place to work — yet he mentions that “my life has been enriched by the experience that I gained in the many years I worked there”. McCluskie’s word pictures paint such a vivid image of Harland & Wolff that this should be the next book that you buy. No Place for a Boy has an honored place in my library, and I highly recommend it to you. Excerpted from a review by Tim Trower
Softcover, 160 pages