Ritchie, William (1756–1834), shipbuilder, was born in Ayrshire, Scotland, and had a shipbuilding practice at Saltcoats. In March 1791 he visited Belfast and, seeing the potential of the port, returned on 3 July 1791, with ten men, apparatus, materials, and his younger brother Hugh Ritchie (1766–1807), who was taken on as a partner and received a third of the profits until 1798, when he went into business on his own. Ritchie is credited with being ‘the first who established a regular system of shipbuilding in Belfast’ (Northern Whig, January 1834). After setting up a shipyard on the site of the Old Lime Kiln dock, he had within a year launched (7 July 1792) the Hibernia, which the Belfast News Letter noted approvingly ‘was the only vessel of any burden which had for many years been built in the port’ (10 July). In 1795 he obtained a lease from the marquis of Donegall for three acres of ground adjoining his yard, and the following year he entered into contract with the ballast board (also known as the harbour corporation) to build a graving dock, which he completed on 1 January 1800 on ground reclaimed from the sea by embankments and quays fronted with stone. This was known for many years as ‘Ritchie's dock’ and then as ‘Clarendon dock 1’. On his arrival in Belfast there had been only six jobbing ship-carpenters in the city; by 1811 he and his brother employed, between them, forty-four journeymen carpenters, fifty-five apprentices, seven pairs of sawyers, twelve blacksmiths, and several joiners. By the same date Ritchie had built thirty-two ships between fifty and 450 tons, and averaging 220 tons. Several of these vessels were of Irish oak, but imported timber was more generally used as most of the native forests had been cut down by the beginning of the eighteenth century. The port traded with Dublin, Liverpool, London, Bristol, and the West Indies. Ritchie was by this time a celebrated Belfast citizen; in 1806 lines addressed to him appeared in Juvenile poems, by the 12-year-old Thomas Romney Robinson (qv). This collection had a great vogue, sold 2,000 copies, and paid for its young author to attend TCD. His father, Thomas Robinson (qv), painted Ritchie's portrait, which is in the Belfast municipal art gallery.
Ritchie retired in 1828 and his business was taken over by Charles Connell, who continued the yard until 1843. In his retirement Ritchie devoted himself to the Second Congregation of Presbyterians, of which he was a member, and to numerous literary, scientific, and charitable institutions, including the general hospital and the Academical Institution. He died at his residence on James's St. on 18 January 1834 and was buried in the new burying ground. He was predeceased by his wife, Agnes (d. 15 January 1812).
His elder brother, John Ritchie (1751–1828), came to Belfast in January 1807 in order to take over the shipyard of the recently deceased Hugh. His yard, John Ritchie & Co., was on the future site of Pilot St. By 1811 he had built eight ships; shortly afterwards he went into partnership with another Scotsman, Alexander MacLaine (1783–1856), who later married his daughter, Martha. The firm was renamed Ritchie & MacLaine and was responsible for building, for a prominent Belfast citizen, George Langtry, the first steamship in Ireland – the Chieftain, launched in 1826. John Ritchie died on 4 April 1828 and was survived by his wife, Jane (d. 26 January 1837). He did not enter much into the public life of the city and his death was barely noticed in the local press. His shipyard was continued as MacLaine & Sons and existed until 1879.