Harland, Sir Edward James (1831–95), shipbuilder and politician, was born 15 May 1831 at Scarborough, Yorkshire, the third surviving son of Dr William Harland, a general medical practitioner, and his wife, Anne Harland (née Peirson). William Harland was a Unitarian with an inventive turn of mind, and was a friend of the engineer George Stephenson and his son Robert. At the age of twelve Edward was sent by his father to Edinburgh Academy to receive a classical education, with a view to his becoming a lawyer. But he had other ideas and persuaded his elder brother William Aurelius, who was studying medicine at the university, to teach him mathematics and help him to learn how to make engineering models. Anne Harland died in 1844 and Edward returned to Scarborough, where he attended the grammar school for two years before being apprenticed in 1846 at the engineering works of Robert Stephenson & Company in Newcastle upon Tyne. As he reflected later in life, ‘I was now in my element’ (S. Smiles (ed.), Men of invention and industry, 292). It was during his apprenticeship that he first became interested in ship design, investigating with his father improvements in the construction and safety of lifeboats.
On completing his apprenticeship in May 1851, Harland became a journeyman with Stephensons, but as work was short he quickly resigned his position so that he could travel to London to marvel at the wonders of the Great Exhibition. During his apprenticeship he got to know the shipping magnate Gustave Christian Schwabe (b. 1813), who was of Jewish descent and came from Hamburg; Schwabe was related by marriage to Harland's uncle Dr Thomas Harland, a medical practitioner in Salford. By 1840 Schwabe was a partner in the Liverpool agency house of Sykes, Schwabe & Company, which was ‘doing a very respectable business’ (Bank of England agents’ letter book, 1844) with Manila and Singapore; at some time in the 1840s he became a partner in John Bibby & Sons, a long-established shipping company.
When Bibbys switched from sail to steam in 1850, Edward Harland gave advice about the purchase of second-hand tonnage. The first order, for two vessels in 1851, was placed with John Reid of Port Glasgow, with engines supplied by J. & G. Thomson of Glasgow, followed in 1852 by three vessels from Thomsons themselves. Schwabe arranged for Harland to work as a journeyman with Thomsons, where within a year he had been promoted to the position of head of the drawing office, though with no increase in pay. He resigned in the autumn of 1853 when he was appointed manager of Thomas Toward's shipyard in Newcastle upon Tyne. ‘As there did not appear to be a satisfactory prospect’ there (S. Smiles (ed.), Men of invention and industry, 302), he resigned within a year to become manager of Robert Hickson's yard on Queen's Island, Belfast. This was a bold decision as at that time there was only one ship on the stocks. He soon gained a reputation as a stickler for detail. During the summer of 1855 he had a stroke of luck when, following the death of Thomas Toward, his foreman and a number of leading hands moved to Queen's Island. In Harland's own words, ‘from that time forward the works went apace’ (ibid., 304).
Gustav Wilhelm Wolff (qv), Schwabe's nephew, a time-served engineer (having served an apprenticeship for five years), was appointed Harland's personal assistant in 1857. By now Harland was keen to open his own yard. After several abortive attempts, in September 1858 Hickson offered him his interest in the Queen's Island yard. His decision to accept was almost certainly taken on Schwabe's advice and the promise of three contracts from Bibbys. The new business was an immediate success and by 1860 Harland was employing over a thousand hands. Further orders were placed by Bibbys for long narrow ships with flat bottoms of novel design, which were quickly dubbed ‘Belfast coffins’. In January 1860 Harland married Rosa Matilda Wann of Vermont, near Belfast, the daughter of Thomas Wann, a Belfast stockbroker; they had no children. The following year he and Wolff became partners and the firm of Harland & Wolff was founded.
After a bitter row between the partners and the Belfast harbour commissioners, work began in 1864 on a new graving dock and on the adjoining Abercorn basin on Queen's Island. A large number of catholic navvies were employed to excavate the site, and tension soon developed between them and the predominately protestant workforce in the yard. This spilled over into rioting in August, followed by moves on the part of the workforce to evict any catholic workers from the yard. Harland reacted swiftly, putting up notices stating that the yard would close till every evicted catholic worker had been reinstated.
The business was in the doldrums during the late 1860s owing to a downturn in the economy. Schwabe came to the rescue in 1869 when he persuaded Thomas Ismay to place orders for five 420-foot Atlantic liners for his new White Star Line. This was new territory for Harland and Wolff and the yard had to be re-equipped and enlarged. The first liners were an immediate success and further orders followed. Sectarian tension erupted in 1872, and on 15 August 500 men stopped work and fought a running battle with the police. Although Harland opposed evictions from the yard, he could do nothing to prevent catholic workers being turned out of their houses.
In 1873 Harland purchased an estate in the Ardoyne area of Belfast and in April 1874 he was elected chairman of the Belfast harbour commissioners. His partnership with Wolff was reconstructed during the summer to include three senior managers. Over the next nine years Harland gradually reduced his interest in the business and ceased to be a partner in 1884. The following year he was elected mayor of Belfast and welcomed the prince and princess of Wales on their tour of Ireland, which many protestants considered was designed to curry favour with nationalist opinion; their reception in Belfast was enthusiastic due largely to Harland's careful preparations and personal expenditure. He was consequently offended to be offered only a knighthood rather than the customary baronetcy in the queen's birthday honours list. Unionists responded by offering him a safe parliamentary seat and the slight was rectified later in the year when a baronetcy was conferred.
In February 1886 Gladstone formed his third ministry, which was committed to granting Irish home rule. As mayor of Belfast, Harland plunged into coordinating the campaign against the bill. There was a serious riot on 4 June, when shipwrights from the Harland and Wolff yard attacked catholic navvies working on a new dry dock in Queen's Road. Although the bill was defeated on 8 June and the government collapsed, disturbances continued in Belfast throughout the summer. At the yard 190 out of 225 catholics left their jobs, fearful for their safety. Harland was adamant that the firm's policy had always been non-sectarian. In the ensuing parliamentary inquiry into the riots, he was closely examined about the failure of the management to censure the workforce. His replies were guarded and he made no reference to preparations to move the business to the Clyde or the Mersey if the measure should be passed. He was elected MP for North Belfast in 1889 and moved to Kensington Palace Gardens, London, next door to his friend and collaborator Schwabe; but he played little part in the house of commons. He made his Irish home at Glengorme Hall in Co. Leitrim, where he died quietly during the night of 24 December 1895; he was buried at Belfast.
The success of Harland and Wolff was undoubtedly due to the connection with Schwabe and his circle of contacts that brought business to the yard on a regular basis. Between 1859 and 1874 no fewer than twenty-nine vessels were built either for Bibby or Ismay. After Harland's retirement, under the leadership of William Pirrie and the continuing support of Schwabe, the yard became arguably the most successful shipbuilding business in the world.