William Ritchie (1756 – 1834) Stevenston-born shipbuilder who became known as the ‘Father of Belfast shipbuilding’.
On the 12th of February, 1755 William Ritchie – known as the “father of Belfast shipbuilding”- was born in Stevenston. His parents James and Susanna were married on 30th March 1750 in Stevenston and went on to have 12 children, William being the 5th born.
William was involved with shipbuilding in Saltcoats between 1775 and 1790. There were 3 shipyards in Saltcoats during that time and they employed up to 60 men. There were 64 vessels built in these yards with some of the ships being sold to owners in England, Ireland and Spain.
By 1791 the industry in Saltcoats had declined, however there was the opportunity of starting a shipbuilding business in Belfast. Ritchie was invited to the city by Belfast merchants with the aim of transferring his shipyard from Saltcoats.
On his first visit in March 1791, Mr Ritchie found only 6 jobbing ship-carpenters, who were in need of guidance and were by no means in constant employment, as the ships belonging to the town were purchased and repaired in England and Scotland.
This did not deter Ritchie and he returned to Belfast on the 3rd of July that same year, taking with him ten skilled work men, quality materials and his younger brother Hugh. The shipyard was started on the site of an Old Lime Kiln dock on the County Antrim side of the Lagan. The first vessel he launched on 7 July 1792 (almost a year after his arrival) was the Hibernia. Over the next twenty years his enterprise grew and by 1812 Ritchie was employing 44 journeymen carpenters, 55 apprentices, 7 pairs of sawyers, 12 Blacksmiths and several joiners.
The Belfast Ballast Board also offered Ritchie the additional inducement of building ‘a graving platform’ on which vessels could be beached for ‘careening’ (beaching a vessel at high tide in order to expose one side or another of the ship’s hull for maintenance below the water line when the tide goes out) and then repaired. The Clarendon dock was completed in 1800.
As well as building ships, Ritchie was well respected by all who knew him and especially within the ship building industry to the degree of having the extension of the Belfast Harbour Office named after him. There is also an Ulster History Circle plaque dedicated to him on the building. He was actively involved in charitable work for the Poor House, and the House of Industry. He died at the age of 79 and was buried in Clifton Street Cemetery in Belfast.
The Belfast Newsletter of 24th January 1834 printed the following notice on the death of William Ritchie.
“On Saturday the 19th inst. in the 79th year of his age, Mr. William Ritchie, ship-builder. He was a native of Ayrshire, in Scotland; and settled in this town about the year 1792, and was the first who established a regular system of ship-building in the harbour of Belfast. Ever zealous in the cause of humanity – he was for many years a member of the Poorhouse, Dispensary, House of Industry, Pipe-Water, and Police Committees. He was greatly respected by all who knew him, and his death is much regretted”.