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Working on the chain gang

The Black Country village men who made the huge anchors and chains for the Titanic

Titanic's centre anchor was at the time and for some time to follow, the world's largest anchor ever forged by hand. The anchor measured an impressive 18ft 6in in length. The cast steel head of the anchor was 10ft 9in in width. The overall anchor weighed an incredible 15 tonnes. And it was made in a relatively small forging works in the village of Netherton, near the town of Dudley, about 10 miles from Birmingham.

The order for the anchors, both side and centre, was received from Harland & Wolff in late 1910 by the Black Country forging company, Noah Hingley & Sons Ltd, in Netherton, which specialised in making chains and anchors for ships. However, not every part of the anchors was produced by Hingleys.

The head of the anchor was cast by John Rogerson & Co in Newcastle-on-Tyne at the request of Hingleys. And the forged anchor shank was subcontracted to Walter Somers Ltd, another forge works a mile away from the Hingley works.

The head of the anchor was cast in a bed of sand. The process was typical of late Victorian casting, but on a much larger scale. The bed had the shape of the anchor cut into the sand from large wooden moulds made of the anchor head sections. The bed, which sat close to the furnaces, had molten metal poured into the mould. Cooled down, the whole cast head was lifted from the mould and cleaned up. If the head of an anchor was incorrect in weight, pig iron was blasted onto the head when it was received by Hingleys.

The anchor shank was a much more daunting process. Huge sections of ingot steel were sent to the drop forge shops. Steam-powered hammers were used to form the anchor shank's principal shape. The result was an object over 15ft in length and weighing almost 8 tonnes. Once the shape was achieved, the eyelets for the pins to secure the head and shackle were cut and then cleaned.

The anchor parts were then passed onto the Lloyds Proving House, which was situated alongside the Hingley works. The anchor was put through a series of tests, as set down by Lloyds Register of Shipping. Some of the tests included the drop test which would see the assembled anchor lifted to a height of 12ft and dropped onto a solid concrete and steel-topped base. This was to establish the drop load of the anchor when used at sea.

Next there was the hammer test in which the anchor was lifted and a Lloyds' worker would strike the head and shank of the anchor. If the steel had a "ring" effect, it would mean no imperfections and so was passed. It was then stamp-marked with certificates from the Proving House.

Each link of the anchor chains for the Titanic was of an impressive scale and made from steel which Hingleys proudly claimed "Hingleys Best". The largest link assembly was situated within the anchor attachment and measured 36in per link, with the others forged to 33in. Each link was forged from pig-iron bars, heated up and run through a machine known as a mandrel. The mandrel gave the link its distinctive shape.

However both ends of the link did not meet. The link would then be heated while a centre stud was hammered into place. The link, still open, was then hooped into its neighbouring closed-up link. The "chain gang" would then close the link and fuse the ends together. Like the anchors, tests were carried out on chain sections by the Lloyds Proving House.

Lengths of the chain were tested at the Hingley works in hydraulic pulling beds. One end of the length of chain was secured to a stationary clamp. The other was fitted into the jaws of the anchor and chain-testing machine. The machine would then apply pressure upon the chains to a set tonnage recommended by Lloyds. Once tested, both Hingley and Lloyds Proving House workmen had the lengthy task of checking each of the links. Almost 1,200ft of chain was forged for the Titanic.

Transportation for the Titanic anchors came from the West Midlands haulage company WA Ree, who were subcontracted to LNWR (London & North Western Railways).

The company sent a large 25-tonne heavy cart, more commonly known as a dray, and eight shire horses to help pull the cart. These huge horses could easily pull their own weight and were a common sight on canals and roads at the time.

The horses were connected to the cart after the huge completed-and-tested anchor had been lowered on it. With a two-mile journey ahead to the railway station, the Hingley works attached six of their own horses to the eight WA Ree horses to help take the extra strain as the horses and dray made their way up hill and cobbled street. From the LNWR terminal at the Dudley railway station, another six horses were sent down to assist, if needed.

The streets in Dudley were lined with hundreds of people who were dressed in their Sunday best, eager for a glimpse of the huge anchor. After a couple of hours, the anchor finally arrived at the LNWR goods yard from where the anchors and chains were sent via rail to Fleetwood.

From Fleetwood docks, the anchor was put onboard the passenger/cargo steamer Duke of Albany and sent across the Irish Sea to Donegal Quay in Belfast. From there, it went on to the Belfast shipyards of Harland & Wolff via Harland's own horses and cart.

The side anchors were then fitted aboard the ship for her launch while the centre anchor was installed following Titanic's launch on May 31, 1911.

Jonathan Smith is a trustee and researcher at the Titanic Research & Modeling Association (www.titanic-model.com). He has contributed to books and TV documentaries on the Titanic. He was a consultant for the 2010 acclaimed Channel 4 series Titanic: The Mission which saw parts of the ship replicated using today's technology, including a faithful reproduction of her centre anchor. This replica is now on display at the Black Country museum in Dudley.

Irish Independent Supplement