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The Story Behind the Harland And Wolff Cranes (Samson and Goliath)

The Story Behind the Harland And Wolff Cranes (Samson and Goliath)

The iconic Harland and Wolff cranes are marvels of engineering that have become Belfast’s most famous landmarks.

The yellow gantry cranes, dominating the dock’s skyline, have become enduring symbols of the city’s shipbuilding history.

The cranes, which were constructed by Krupp, a German engineering firm, are a stone’s throw from both Titanic Belfast and the SS Nomadic.

Below, you’ll find info on everything from the history of the Harland and Wolff shipyard to the story behind the now-iconic cranes.

Some quick need-to-knows about the Harland and Wolff Cranes 

Harland and Wolff cranes map


Although a visit to see the Harland and Wolff cranes from afar is fairly straightforward, there are a few need-to-knows that’ll make your visit that bit more enjoyable.

1. Location

The Harland and Wolff Cranes are located in the Harland and Wolff shipyard at Queen’s Island in Belfast. It’s next to what is referred to as the Titanic Quarter.

2. Part of the iconic ship makers

The cranes are known locally as ‘Samson and Goliath’ and were part of the Harland and Wolff shipbuilding company. The iconic ship makers were the biggest employer in Belfast in the early 1900s and constructed over 1,700 vessels, including the Titanic.

3. Where to get a good view of them 

While they dominate the city skyline from almost anywhere in Belfast, if you walk around to the Titanic Hotel (here on Maps) you will get one of the better views. From there, you can see them in their full glory as the hotel is just across from the shipyard.


The history of Harland and Wolff

Harland and Wolff was founded in 1861 by Edward James Harland and Gustav Wilhelm Wolff. Harland had previously purchased a small shipyard on Queen’s Island in Belfast with Wolff as his assistant. 

The company quickly achieved success through small yet significant innovations, such as replacing wooden decks with iron ones and increasing ship capacity by giving the hulls a flatter bottom.

Even after Harland’s death in 1895, the company continued to grow. Between 1909 and 1914, it built the Olympic, Titanic, and Britannic, continuing its longstanding collaboration with White Star Line since the company’s foundation.


During and after the wars

During the first and second world war, Harland and Wolff shifted to building cruisers and aircraft carriers and naval ships.

The workforce peaked in this time to around 35, 000 people, making it the biggest employer in Belfast City. In the post-war years, ship building went into decline in the UK and Europe.

However, in the 1960s a huge modernisation project was undertaken and included the construction of the iconic Krupp Goliath cranes, now known as Samson and Goliath. 


Late 20th century 

With mounting competition from overseas, Harland and Wolff broadened their capabilities to focus less on shipbuilding and more on other engineering and infrastructure projects.

They constructed a series of bridges in Ireland and Britain, commercial tidal stream turbines and continued ship repairs and maintenance.

Final closure

In 2019, Harland and Wolff officially entered formal administration after no buyers were willing to purchase the company.

The original shipyard was bought in 2019 by InfraStrata, a London-based energy firm.


Enter Samson and Goliath

visiting titanic belfast

Photos via Shutterstock

The two iconic cranes of the Harland and Wolff shipyard are known locally as Samson and Goliath and they’re visible from many parts of the city.

The now-iconic cranes tend to grace the covers of many guidebooks and posters of Belfast, as their yellow exteriors are immediately recognisible.

Construction and usage

The cranes were constructed by Krupp, a German engineering firm, for Harland and Wolff.

Goliath was completed in 1969 and stands 96 metres high, while Samson was constructed in 1974 and is 106 metres tall.

Each crane can lift loads of up to 840 tonnes to 70 metres above the ground, giving them one of the largest lifting capacities in the world.

They were constructed in order to spearhead modernisation in the shipbuilding industry in Belfast. 


Decline of shipbuilding and preservation of the cranes

While Harland and Wolff enjoyed a successful 20th century, shipbuilding has all but ceased in Belfast at present mostly due to overseas competition.

However, the cranes have not been demolished and instead, have been scheduled as historic monuments.

While they can’t be listed as buildings, they are recognised as being a symbol of the city’s past and of historic interest.

The cranes are retained as part of the dock, adjacent to the Titanic Quarter and remain a dominant part of the city’s skyline.


Things to do nearby

the best things to do in Belfast Ireland

One of the beauties of a visit to see Samson and Goliath from afar is that they’re a short spin away from many of the best places to visit in Belfast.

Below, you’ll find a handful of things to see and do a stone’s throw from the Harland and Wolff shipyard:

  1. Titanic Belfast: Located right across from the cranes, this world-class museum tells the Titanic story like nowhere else
  2. SS Nomadic: Located a short stroll from the cranes, it’s here you’ll find the historic ship that was used to carry passengers to the ship
  3. Food in the city: There’s endless places to eat in Belfast. See my guides to the best vegan restaurants in Belfast, the best brunch in Belfast and the best bottomless brunch
  4. Key attractions: There are plenty of walks in Belfast and heaps of great tours, like the Black Cab Tours and Crumlin Road Gaol

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Bill Smyth

Thursday 9th of February 2023

The cranes are a great addition to the Belfast skyline. I worked on the site for the Goliath, welding and laying the rails for the crane to run on. This was 1968/1970. "Glad it stayed upright." LOL. The company was Molyneux Engineering, in England.

Dave Connor

Monday 25th of April 2022

I worked in the engine works Queens island, in 1969 watched the drydock construction of the supertanker, and the first heavy life crane erected. The biggest natural drydock in the world. It was an interesting period in the company. Unfortunately I left due to the start of the troubles. 1972 moved with my wife and children to NSW Sydney.

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