Titanic, the second of the Olympic class ships, was a colossus of her time. Not the fastest, but certainly among the largest, Harland & Wolff number 401 caused quite a stir among rich Edwardians. She sat elegantly in the port of Southampton, but would have to visit other ports to pick up the great and the good of Edwardian society.
However, this would prove a challenge. Titanic’s draught (the height of the ship below the waterline) was just over 10 metres, and her length was nearly 270 metres, meaning that many ports simply did not have the space to accommodate her. This was a particular issue for the White Star Line, Titanic’s owner, who were keen to popularise the small Northern French port of Cherbourg.
Fortunately for the White Star Line, Titanic’s designers had thought of this. To get passengers from Cherbourg on board the Titanic and Olympic, what was needed was a smaller ship which could ferry passengers from shore to ship – a tender. To this end, Harland & Wolff designed two further ships, the SS Nomadic and the SS Traffic.
Why two ships? While it is true that one ship could have been designed for the purpose, one must remember the strict class divisions of the time. On Titanic herself, first, second and third class passengers were strictly separated, to the point it would be extremely difficult for a first class passenger to even see a third class passenger. There were separate dining rooms, promenade decks, bathrooms, gangways, and much else separate on board. It would thus not be appropriate to have first and second class passengers share a tender with large numbers of third class passengers.
SS Traffic was the third class tender. She was slower, far less luxurious and much less elegant than Nomadic. Sadly, she does not survive, but Nomadic, the first and second class tender (though she did have a small third class area), does, and is now back where she was built, in Belfast, a stone’s throw from the Harland & Wolff shipyard, after a long, varied and interesting history.
Nomadic, as mentioned earlier, was built as a tender for the Olympic class ships, and did meet the Titanic off Cherbourg, on the 10th April 1912, though of course, they would never meet again. She continued as a tender for the White Star Line, until World War One, when she was used to ferry US troops into France. Following the war, she went back into service with the White Star Line as a tender, continuing to serve great ocean liners.
In 1933, a deep water berth was opened in Cherbourg, vastly reducing the importance of the tenders. However, in 1934 Nomadic was bought by Societe Cherbourgoise de Remorquage et de Sauvetage (SCRS), or, in English, the Cherbourg Towing and Rescue Company, and continued to serve ocean liners from time to time. She was renamed Ingenieur Minard. Also in 1934, the White Star Line merged with its nearest competitor, the Cunard Line, to form the Cunard – White Star Line, due to financial difficulties as a result of the Great Depression. Duly, Nomadic served ships of this line too, including the Queen Mary, among many other liners.
During 1940, as the Battle of France raged on, the British Army struggled to escape from the German advance. This culminated in the heroic evacuation from Dunkirk, immortalised in the recent film of the same name, where the vast majority of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was brought home, unfortunately minus most of its heavy equipment. This was not quite the end of the story for the British in France, however.
The German advance had split the Allied armies in 2, with some penned in against the sea (mainly BEF, with some French units), North of the German advance which were evacuated at Dunkirk. To the South, there was the bulk of the French army, and a handful of British troops. These troops now had to escape, and fled west, towards ports still in French hands, such as Cherbourg, and Nomadic was on hand to evacuate troops and other persons fleeing France. She was then requisitioned by the British Government and spent the rest of the war as a troop ship.
Following the war, Nomadic was kept busy helping to repair the facilities at Cherbourg, until 1952.When the repairs were complete, she also served the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth when they were unable to berth there, but was largely redundant due to the deep water berth. This went on until 1968.
She then went through a few changes of ownership, before opening as a restaurant on the river Seine in Paris, with many changes of layout for various ventures. In 1999, new safety regulations required annual inspections of the hull in dry dock, so Nomadic closed as a restaurant. In 2002 she was moved to Le Havre, and in 2006 she finally returned to Belfast, where she was restored.
Which brings us to today. Nomadic is now the only surviving ship of the White Star Line, and has been wonderfully restored, inside and out. The same pattern as Titanic’s first class dining room graces the floor of the first class area. This floor is actually linoleum, not a cost cutting exercise, but in fact what was used when Nomadic was built. Most of the on board fittings were made by the same manufacturer, and, thanks to surviving records and moulds, could be recreated in exact detail. For example, Harland & Wolff still had the original moulds for the portholes, and new ones were cast for the restoration.
The interior of Nomadic was designed to give passengers a taste of the luxury that they would enjoy on board Titanic or Olympic. Thus the carving is incredibly intricate and even the toilets have decorative woodwork. Second class, as one might expect, is somewhat less decorative, and the small third class area is very spartan indeed. This too gives something of a feel of the Titanic.
The only fly in the ointment is that the boilers and steam engines were removed in the 1970s, leaving a large empty space in the middle. Now, you can watch a video of how it all worked, but it is a shame you can’t see all the various parts as they would have been. Incidentally, this is why Nomadic is no longer seaworthy, and had to be brought to Belfast by barge – she is not balanced without all the propulsion equipment, and besides, her steering gear is steam operated.
I could go on, but this would rather spoil it. She must be seen first-hand to be properly appreciated, and, helpfully, admission to Nomadic is included in the ticket for the Titanic Experience in Belfast. If you’re ever in that neck of the woods, or are particularly interested in Titanic, do consider giving her a visit.
With that, I shall wish you an excellent day.