Until the American War of Independence broke out, it had been cheaper to build ships there. As a part of meeting the demand for ships during this period three yards were set up in Saltcoats. Between 1775 and 1790, William Ritchie was involved in shipbuilding in Saltcoats. 64 vessels were built here during that time. Some of these ships and brigs were sold on to owners in England, Ireland and Spain. The shipyards employed up to 60 men.
In 1791, the Reverend Dr James Woodrow of Stevenston reported in the Statistical Account of the Parish that one of three master shipbuilders was moving to Belfast. The industry in Saltcoats had declined but there was the opportunity of starting a shipbuilding business in Belfast at that time. William Ritchie took that opportunity. He came to be known as the father of shipbuilding in Belfast. The Ulster-Scots Community Network has produced a pdf booket called 'Belfast Shipbuilders.
William was born on the 12th February 1755 to James Ritchie and Susanna Niven. They were married in Stevenston on 30th March 1750. William was one of 12 children. James Ritchie's occupation is given as coal grieve, (either a coal merchant or mine overseer), in the records of birth for the older children. By the time the younger children are born his occupation is given as either a merchant or an innkeeper.
William's brothers and sisters were John, born 11th February 1751, James, born 29th October 1752, William and Robert, twins born 2nd March 1754 and baptised on the same day both died in infancy, Robert, born 18th January 1757, Susanna, born 2nd April 1759 and died in childhood, Jane born 13th September 1761, Walter born 1st August 1763, Hugh born 9th February 1766, Susanna born 26th November 1768, and Margaret born 14th August 1773.
Sources tell that Hugh moved to Belfast with William and worked with him until he was able to set up a shipbuilding business of his own in 1798. Their first ship built in Belfast, the Hibernia, was launched on the 7th July 1792.
The Belfast Trade Directory for 1800 recorded an entry for William Ritchie, a ship builder at Thomas Street (North Dunbars Quay). Hugh went into partnership with Alexander McLaine. Hugh died in Belfast in 1808 and his eldest brother John took his place in the shipbuilding partnership with Alexander McLaine. John moved his wife, Jane, and children to Belfast. Ritchie and McLaine were the first to build a steamship in Ireland.
The Belfast Newsletter of the 8th April 1828 reported on the launch of a brig.
"Launch. - On Friday, at one o'clock, a very fine coppered brig, 168 tons register, was launched from the dockyard of Messrs. Ritchie & McLaine, and went off the stocks in excellent style, amidst the cheers of hundreds of spectators. - She has been built for Messrs. Hardy & Clark, and Messrs. George & Richard Haloran, and is intended for the West India trade. She was named the Boyne".
John Ritchie died on the 4th April 1828 in Belfast. A notice in the Belfast Newsletter of the 23rd May 1828 was posted by his business partner Alexander McLaine to enable the partnership to be dissolved.
"In consequence of the death of Mr John Ritchie, the partnership accounts of Ritchie & McLaine must be closed. The subscriber therefore requests that those persons who are indebted to the Firm will make immediate payment of their accounts; and also requests that any claims against said Firm may be furnished forthwith".
The following advert appeared in the Belfast Newsletter on the 27th May 1828.
"For Freight or Charter, the Brig Star, 113 Tons Register, Coppered and Copper-fastened, And now ready to receive a Cargo or proceed on a Voyage - Apply to the Master on board, or to Ritchie & McLaine".
The business continued with Alexander McLaine in sole charge.
James Ritchie, brother of William, Hugh and John, would most probably have been in Belfast. A death notice in the Belfast Newsletter of 26th September 1828 reflects the connection of the family with the city.
"At Paisley, on the 22d inst. after a short illness, Mr. William Ritchie, the second son of Mr. James Ritchie, of Saltcoats in Scotland, aged 23 years. A residence of several years in this town, afforded to many in Belfast and its neighbourhood the pleasure of being acquainted with this amiable young man. His private and social behaviour commanded the esteem and affection of all that knew him, and by his removal from this town, back to the land of his fathers' in 1826, some of our benevolent institutions sustained the loss of a very valuable member. The Brown street Sunday School, in particular, was for many years the scene of his most assiduous and effective exertions, and to those who were his associates in that labour of love, his early decease will doubtless be a subject of deep and unfading regret".
It was not unusual for business men to be actively involved with charitable institutions. William Ritchie was a committee member of several and chaired the General Board of the Charitable Society in 1829. By this time he had retired from the shipbuilding business. In the Belfast Newsletter of the 5th May 1829 he announced that there would be a meeting of this Board on the 12th May to receive the report of the Spring Water Commissioners, elect new members and consider a proposal to build a lying-in hospital.
William Ritchie had other ongoing business interests. In a government report published in 1835 he was named as proprietor of a quay used for loading and unloading ships. The following image shows how much duty was paid to government by that business over a three year period.
The Belfast Newsletter of 24th January 1834 printed the following notice on the death of William Ritchie.
"On Saturday the 19th inst. in the 79th year of his age, Mr. William Ritchie, ship-builder. He was a native of Ayrshire, in Scotland; and settled in this town about the year 1792, and was the first who established a regular system of ship-building in the harbour of Belfast. Ever zealous in the cause of humanity - he was for many years a member of the Poorhouse, Dispensary, House of Industry, Pipe-Water, and Police Committees. He was greatly respected by all who knew him, and his death is much regretted".
The will of John Ritchie's daughter Susanna, granted in 1867, contains a considerable amount of information about the family. Another daughter of John's, Martha, married Alexander McLaine. Susanna never married and her bequests to her nieces ensured that they would receive income independent of their husbands through trusts. As the property of a married woman belonged to her husband, until an Act of Parliament in 1870, making use of a trust was a way of ensuring income went to the person it was intended for.
Susanna lived in Corporation Street and left £2750 in the hands of her nephews Alexander, a shipbuilder, and John McLaine to distribute as she wished. Their brother George Langtry McLaine was a Solictor. Their father Alexander died 14th February 1857 and their mother Martha died 8th August 1864. Alexander and Martha had a younger son, Lachlan, and daughters, Jane and Helen.
Jane McLaine married Edward McDowell in Belfast on 28th July 1858. Their daughter Jane was included in Susanna's will as her mother had died. Jane went to live with her father in Liverpool.
A sister of Susanna had married a John Chambers. This sister was possibly Agnes or Jane. They had four sons, John, Archibald, Robert and Malcolm, named in Susanna's will. Susanna also made bequests to their married daughters, Agnes Carson widow of Lamont Carson in Edinburgh, Martha McNair wife of Robert McNair in London and Elizabeth Wallace wife of James Wallace also in London.
Susanna left money to two further nieces, Jane Coleman wife of James Coleman in Belfast and Susanna Ellis wife of Mr Ellis in Liverpool.
The image of William Ritchie below is courtesy of the Ulster History Circle.
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