There are two Belfast shipowners that are still fondly remembered today in this busy Ulster city, John Kelly Ltd. in the coastal Irish Sea and Continental trades, and G. Heyn & Sons Ltd., managers of the Head Line and the Ulster Steamship Co. Ltd. operating in the Transatlantic trades to the Eastern Seaboard of Canada and the U.S.A., as well as the coastal Baltic Sea, Mediterranean and Black Sea trades, and including worldwide tramping. Samuel Kelly began in coastal shipping on Queen’s Quay in 1840, and the successor company of Kelly Fuels Ltd. is still providing home heating solutions in Ulster today.

The 5,571grt Lord O’Neill was built in 1930 by Wm. Beardmore & Co. at Dalmuir as the Dalhanna for J. M. Campbell & Son, transferring to Paddy Henderson in 1941 without a change of name. She joined Head line in 1946 and in 1950 she moved to Schulte & Bruns of Emden as Johann Schulte. She was broken up at Vigo where she arrived on 26th September 1962.

Gustavus Heyn (1803-1875), born in Danzig, arrived in Belfast in 1826 to take up the post of Consul for Prussia. He stayed with Capt. William Pirrie and married his daughter, Letitia Pirrie, in 1830, becoming the auditor and a director of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners for eight years until 1855. He then became a shipowner in Belfast from the early 1850s, owning shares on the 64ths system in a fleet of deep sea sailing ships. He bought and sold sailing ships in rapid succession and operated them carrying passengers and cargo in many trades. These included three masted barques, brigs, brigantines, schooners and snows with names such as Advena, Alpha, British Queen, British Princess, Evangeline, Jessie Amelia, Lady Mary, Lady Sale, Jane Hughes, Jane Erskine, Josepha, Julie Heyn, Rival (lost in the Irish Sea in 1854), Kezia, Union and Volant. His two sons, James and Frederick, then set up the Ulster Steamship Co. Ltd. in Belfast on 25th August 1877, known as the Head Line as most ships had names of Irish headlands e.g. Inishowen Head. Funnel colours were black bearing the ‘Red Hand of Ulster’ on a white shield, and these striking funnel colours were worn by a fleet of 58 steamers and motor vessels and fifty managed ships over the next century. A third son, John Heyn, later became an agent for this company in New Orleans.

Ulster Steamship Co. Ltd.

The Ulster Steamship Co. Ltd. with offices in Ulster Chambers in Waring Street in Belfast had an authorised capital of £100,000, taken up by seven Belfast merchants and shipowners, including James Heyn and Frederick Heyn. A fleet of short sea traders and tramps was operated in the timber trades of the Baltic, and the ‘triangular’ trade of coal out to the Mediterranean, ballast to the Black Sea, and grain from Nicolaieff and Odessa back to northern European ports. Larger tramps loaded coal on the Tyne or at Cardiff for worldwide destinations including Bombay, Madras, Calcutta or Singapore, and returned with Far Eastern cargoes. China clay was loaded at Fowey in Cornwall for the ceramic and paper industries of Canada and the U.S.A., with regular voyages to New Orleans begun in 1896 and also carrying a few passengers. The winter Canadian ports of Halifax (NS) and St. John (NB) were used instead of St. Lawrence ports, and the Canadian Government later paid a winter subsidy for services from these two ports to Belfast and Dublin, Cork or Londonderry.


The 5,021grt Torr Head was built in 1937 by Harland & Wolff at Belfast. In 1961 she was sold to Pan-Norse SS Co. SA and renamed Balboa. On 4th March 1967 she arrived at Kaohsiung to be broken up.

The first of 21 Belfast built vessels, out of a total fleet of 58 ships, and the first with a ‘Head’ suffix to her name, was launched as Fair Head on 24th May 1879 by the Belfast yard of Harland & Wolff Ltd. and completed five weeks later. Heyn also had vessels built at Belfast by Workman, Clark & Co. Ltd. and McIlwaine and McColl Ltd. The size of the worldwide tramping fleet increased rapidly with big five and six hold tramps including Inishowen Head of 4,900 dwt in 1886, Malin Head of 5.500 dwt purchased in 1889, Ramore Head of 6,450 dwt in 1891, Torr Head of 8,700 dwt in 1894, Glenarm Head of 6,000 dwt in 1897, and the twin screw Rathlin Head of 9,875 dwt in 1899.

Torr Head sailed from Cardiff on her maiden voyage with a coal cargo on 12th April 1894 for Bombay and arrived on 7th May via Suez, and sailed again on 26th May for Ijmuiden where she arrived on 1st July. She then made further voyages to Malta and Singapore with coal cargoes from Cardiff later that year, sailing from Singapore to Marseille with a full cargo. On 1st February 1901, she rescued the crew of the German sailing ship Helene in mid North Atlantic. The Master and navigating officers were awarded gold medals, a portrait of the German Emperor, and handsome binoculars in beautiful cases, while the crew received monetary gifts. She berthed at Belfast on 12th October 1904 with a cargo of three thousand hogsheads of Kentucky tobacco loaded at Norfolk (Va). She was then placed on the regular trade from New Orleans and Galveston, with occasional cargoes of nitrate from Chilean ports. She made a voyage in February and March 1913 from Liverpool to Calcutta, returning to London. She was requisitioned for one month as a stores carrier by the Admiralty on the outbreak of World War I.

The smaller White Head of 1,192 grt was launched on 5th May 1880 by Harland & Wolff Ltd. for the Continental and Baltic trades. She loaded in Belfast, Barrow, Glasgow, Bristol and the Tyne with coal for Bremerhaven, Riga and Cronstadt. She sailed from Swansea with coal for Alexandria on 11th November 1881, and after sailing from Cardiff with coal on 17th March 1882 for the Mediterranean she encountered thick fog and ran into and sank the steamer Alert anchored off Lavernock Point with the loss of one crew member. Marine casualties included Horn Head in August 1893 after she had passed Cape Henry while on a voyage from Baltimore to Dublin with general cargo, thirty lives being lost. A fleet of thirteen ships was being traded at the turn of the century with full employment in the trades outlined above, but Black Head stranded on Bornholm in the Baltic on 26th January 1912 while on a voyage from Reval to Belfast. Malin Head stranded in the Pentland Firth on the 21st October 1910 while on a voyage from Dublin and the Tees to Montreal with pig iron, and was subsequently refloated and beached but became a total loss during a prolonged bout of bad weather.


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