The ocean liners of the Edwardian Age were giant, dauntingly complex pieces of machinery, and it wasn’t easy to get all of their many pieces to work together properly. At Harland & Wolff, the job of making sure that a ship such as the Titanic performed properly fell to the Guarantee Group, a team of workers skilled in various disciplines—plumbing, electrical systems, carpentry and machine fitting—who accompanied the ship on its maiden voyage.
In addition to serving as repairmen, who were to be available around the clock to fix whatever broke down, the group gathered data and observations that were intended to aid Harland & Wolff’s designers in making improvements in the design of future vessels. This was a crucial function, because the steamship business was intensely competitive, and builders continually were looking for anything that might give them an edge.
Indeed, the Titanic itself incorporated a number of design features and operational differences gleaned from the group’s testing of the Olympic, its sister ship, which had been plagued by mishaps. Most of those modifications were minor—the Titanic’s First Class cabins had firmer beds, because the ones on the Olympic had been judged too springy, and an automatic potato peeler was added to the crew’s galley. But one modification was significant: Just weeks before the Titanic’s completion, glass and steel windows were added to the forward two-fifths of the Titanic’s Promenade Deck, because passengers on the Olympic had complained about spray from the bow that was blown across the open deck.
The Guarantee Group was headed by Thomas Andrews, Harland & Wolff’s managing director in charge of design, who had a holistic approach to fine-tuning the immense machines created under his direction. Though not a university-educated engineer, the broad-shouldered, handsome Andrews—who wore a paint-smeared bowler hat and usually had his jacket pockets stuffed with blueprints and notes—had a broad knowledge of shipbuilding, developed through years of laboring as an apprentice in various departments of Harland & Wolff. Daniel Allen Butler, author of the book Unsinkable: The Full Story of the Titanic, writes that Andrews “learned not only the tasks required to build a ship, but came to know the men who performed them.”
Andrews and his team started the work of vetting the Titanic for flaws on April 2, when he joined Capt. Smith for the sea trials of the Titanic in the Belfast Lough, an inlet that connects the Irish Sea with the Atlantic. After the boilers were lit, the ship was put through a prolonged series of twists and turns, followed by a succession of runs across the inlet. During the tests, the Titanic achieved a top speed of 18 knots, and Smith was able to bring the ship to a complete stop in three minutes and 15 seconds, over a distance of 3,000 feet. After the Titanic was deemed to have passed, the Guarantee Group remained on the ship as it steamed down the Irish Channel and then to Southampton to begin coaling and provisioning for its maiden voyage. One member of the team, chief draughtsman Roderick Robert Crispin Chisholm, was a last-moment addition. He took the place of engineer William Wilson, but he was forced to get off the ship at Cherbourg to help repair another vessel, and Chisholm was tapped as his replacement.
Once the voyage began, Andrews and his team began moving around the ship, dealing with the inevitable faults and breakdowns that plague new ocean liners.At the U.S. Senate inquiry into the Titanic disaster, Henry Etches, a First Class Steward on the Titanic—who delivered Andrews’ breakfast of fruit and tea to him at 7 a.m. each day—recalled Andrews as a driven perfectionist whose cabin was strewn with paperwork and diagrams of the ship. Andrews worked from early morning until late at night. He eschewed the smoke room and the fancy dining areas of the ship where First Class passengers wiled away the hours. Instead, when he was seen around the ship, it was in the mechanical areas, where he talked with workmen and gathered information. Instead of evening attire, he donned the blue work clothes customarily worn by engineers and visited the boiler room. He was something of a perfectionist, obsessing about details that other men might have overlooked or dismissed as unimportant. Andrews found fault with the pebble dashing on the Promenade Deck, which he thought was too dark, and was unhappy with what he saw as an excessive number of screws needed to affix coat hooks to stateroom walls. He also discovered a problem with the hot press, a device for heating food in the First Class Galley.
After the Titanic suffered its catastrophic collision with the iceberg, Andrews and other members of the team jumped into action and tried to save other passengers. Within a few minutes of the accident, Andrews had Etches make the rounds of the First Class areas to remind passengers about the lifebelts stored on top of the cabin wardrobes and show them how to put on the devices. It was Andrews who toured the flooded areas of the ship with Capt. Smith, and who broke the news to him that, in view of the severe damage the Titanic had suffered, it was likely to sink. Andrews was last seen alive in the First Class Smoking Room. He was not wearing one of the lifebelts he had pushed for others to don. All nine died in the disaster. Unfortunately, as Titanic re-discoverer Dr. Robert Ballard has written, “details of their work have mostly died with them.” Today, a memorial plaque in the city of Belfast honors the Guarantee Group members, along with 13 other locals who served as crew members and went down with the ship.