Kerr's Corner

Kerr's Corner is a regular feature in East Antrim and Newtownabbey editions of The Wizard. David Kerr would like to hear your memories of life in your own area. Maybe you'll trigger some thoughts for a future column.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

When The Red Hand Sailed The Ocean

AS I MENTIONED in my first Kerr’s Corner, it has been thirty years since I left Rathcoole Secondary School. It is now been three decades since I started working in the Port of Belfast and I have seen many changes there since then.

In October 1974 I started working for a company called G Heyn and Sons Ltd. Just look at the picture. That’s how I looked then! Where have all my flowing locks gone? My first employers were managers of the Ulster Steamship Company – the ‘Head Line’. This long-established company celebrated its centenary in 1977. I still have my commemorative mug!
The company was founded in 1877 by Gustavus Heyn – not George Heyn as many people seem to think – and two of his sons. Gustavus came to Belfast from Danzig in 1826. An 1854 Belfast directory lists him as a general merchant, a shipbroker and as the Prussian Consul in Belfast. He had the title, Chevalier Gustavus Heyn.

He married Letitia Pirrie who was quite a catch for a shipowner as a member of her family, Captain William Pirrie, was a major share holder in Harland and Wolff. Indeed, the first ever vessel built by H&W for a local shipping company was the Fair Head. This vessel remained in service for 62 years, so the Head Line got a great bargain there! Gustavus and Letitia must have gotten on really well. They had sixteen children.

The company’s vessels were all named after Irish coastal headlines – Fair Head, Torr Head, Main Head, etc – hence the ‘Head Line’ name. Head Line ships carried the famous Red Hand of Ulster symbol on its funnels and on its House Flag to ports all over the world. Mind you, the Red Hand on Ulster Steamship Company vessels was a left hand rather than the more traditional right hand.

The company suffered many losses during two world wars when merchant shipping became a target for enemy submarines. Nine Head Line vessels alone were sunk by German U-boats in 1917. During the Second World War, the company lost seven vessels to enemy action. The Fanad Head was sunk by a U-boat a few days after the outbreak of the war. Another vessel, the Kenbane Head went down with the loss of 23 lives. Belfast writer Sam McAughtry has written movingly of this in his classic book, The Sinking of the Kenbane Head. I think he lost his brother, Marty when the Kenbane was torpedoed. Yet another vessel, the Fair Head was hit by German bombs during the blitz while berthed in the Dufferin Dock.

As it happens, some other former employees of the company arranged a reunion evening for ‘ex-Headliners’ in the Stormont Hotel in East Belfast. I went along together with some other 120 others for a great night out. I ran into some folk I haven’t seen for over twenty years. I left the company in 1987.

Entering the hotel, I was surprised to see David Hollis, the former Newtownabbey councillor. I hadn’t realised that he had once worked for the Head Line too. David had sailed as an engineer across the North Atlantic on Head Line vessels in the early Sixties. Another engineer, Fred Picking regularly sailed the North Atlantic to New Brunswick, Montreal and then down to New Orleans. Fred told me that it usually took about two weeks to cross the ocean and at times the weather was horrendous. On his second voyage his vessel had to navigate through forty-eight icebergs! He wasn’t able to see them down in the engine room but he knew they were there because of the cold.

Sadly, the Head Line was unable to compete with the bigger shipping companies. It continued to build conventional ships and was caught napping by the container revolution in the mid-Sixties. The last ship of the fleet, the Inishowen Head was converted into a container vessel but it was too late. The trade had passed the company by. The last of the Head Line fleet was finally sold in 1979. Many people in the shipping world started their careers in the Head Line and they now work in competition with their old employer. As I discovered at the Stormont reunion, many old Headliners still have great affection for the company that started them in the business. The company still lives on, now rebranded as Heyn Shipping.

IT’S INTERESTING to see how times have changed general working practices. A copy of a 1960 memorandum to all Heyn office staff makes interesting reading today. Here’s a few prize quotes!

“SATURDAYS OFF: These will be continued as a privilege and not as a right and it must not be assumed that they are on a rota basis. Although it is desired to give a Saturday off, in turn, so far as this is possible, it can be done only by arrangement through the Heads of Sections, subject to the position of the work of the Section being suitable”.

The use of Christain names, when addressing other members of the Staff – including Typists – is considered undesirable and everyone is requested to introduce, as quickly as possible, the use of Mr/Miss.

“SMOKING: Between 9 am and 5 pm smoking at desks is not permitted”.

If you have any memories of working for G Heyn & Sons Ltd, please let me know by e-mail: