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British Industrial History

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William James Pirrie

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1904.
1911.
1924.

William James Pirrie (1847-1924), shipbuilder and shipowner.

1847 Born on 24 May in Quebec, the son of James Alexander Pirrie and Elizabeth Margaret Swan Montgomery. James Pirrie had moved to Canada in 1844 to enter the timber shipping trade.

1849 his father died and his mother took her young son back to Ireland to live with his grandfather, Captain William Pirrie, a Belfast shipowner and harbour commissioner.

1858 educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution

1862 became a premium apprentice at Harland and Wolff.

1868 Appointed chief draughtsman

1874 both Edward Harland and Gustav Wolff, the founders of the firm, wished to pursue other business interests and Pirrie was made a partner in the firm.

1879 Pirrie married his cousin Margaret Montgomery Carlisle (d. 1935); the couple had no children.

Pirrie was said to be remarkably persuasive in selling ships but many orders were won only by offering very generous financing.

By late 1880s, the firm was building large liners on 4% commission, in return for all of the customer's repair work and future contracts.

Pirrie developed close relations with several large shipping companies, notably the White Star Line, Baltimore Steerage and Lighterage Co, Elder Dempster, and the African Steamship Co.

1892 Became a director of the African Steamship Company.

1893 With help from Wolff, formed an alliance with the Hamburg-Amerika Line and the Union Steamship Co.

1894 Elected to Belfast Corporation.

1895 After Harland's death, Pirrie became chairman of Harland and Wolff. He was also elected lord mayor of Belfast.

1898 Moved operational headquarters to London

1902 Took part in the formation of International Mercantile Marine Co (IMM) with J. Pierpont Morgan. Contracts from the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co brought him together with Owen Cosby Philipps - the two men were to work closely together for the rest of their lives.

1906 Raised to the peerage

Pirrie secured the appointment of Joseph Bruce Ismay as president of IMM which led to an order from White Star Line for three enormous liners for the north Atlantic service which needed the yard to be enlarged. Pirrie also formed an alliance with John Brown and Co.

1911 he purchased a shipyard on the Clyde.

By end of 1912, because of his health, he was spending most of his time in London or at Witley Park, near Godalming. While he was recuperating, he made arrangements to build diesel engines under licence in Glasgow

WWI Accepted Admiralty contracts for the first time, including monitors to bombard the enemy coast.

1916 Pirrie was planning for peace and started buying yards on the Clyde, as well as the Scottish steel makers, Colvilles.

1918 Appointed as controller-general of merchant shipbuilding to expedite the building programme,

1921 created a viscount for his wartime services

Post War: Order book seemed healthy, largely due to the Royal Mail group.

1923 forced to admit that some rationalization, particularly in the steel industry, was inevitable.

Late 1923 taken ill

1924 Died of pneumonia on 7 June on the liner Ebro in the Caribbean.

In the aftermath of his death, the business suffered from lack of succession planning. His wife became honorary president of Harland and Wolff.


1924 Obituary [1]

WILLIAM JAMES, VISCOUNT PIRRIE, K.P., P.C., LL.D., D.Sc., was born in Quebec on 31st May 1847, of Ulster parentage and Scottish ancestry, and died on his voyage home from South America on 7th June 1924, at the age of seventy-seven.

His father died when he was very young and he was brought back to Ireland by his mother, who settled in County Down.

He received his education at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, and, when fifteen years of age, was apprenticed to Messrs. Harland and Wolff, who had only four years previously started in a small way their shipyard at Queen's Island, Belfast. From the date of his entry into the works he showed that tireless energy and devotion to work which characterized his life, and particularly attracted the attention of the senior partner, Mr.- afterward Sir - Edward Harland, who made him chief draughtsman at the age of twenty-two, and took him into partnership when only twenty-seven.

In 1877 he designed the firm's new engine works without the aid of an architect.

The growth of the firm of Harland and Wolff is one of the best tributes to his life's work. Most of the White Star vessels were built at Belfast, which became famous for larger and larger ships. The first "Oceanic," in 1871, was of about 3,500 tons, and the second "Oceanic," in 1899, of 17,000 tons, was the largest vessel of that century. Later came the "Olympic" and the "Titanic," which came to a tragic end on her maiden voyage in 1912; both of these were 882 feet overall, with a displacement of 60,000 tons.

In addition to the White Star Line, many other steamship companies and railway companies had their ships built at Queen's Island. During the War the yards were employed at full pressure day and night. Lord Pirrie was, from the first, a believer in the internal-combustion engine for marine work. As a result of the continual enlargement of his activities, Queen's Island eventually became too small, and branch establishments were established and other firms absorbed on the Clyde, Liverpool, Southampton, and the Thames. Recently he founded an additional shipyard in the Musgrave Channel at Belfast.

In spite of Lord Pirrie's immense business interests he found time to take a fairly active part in public life, in which he was greatly assisted by Lady Pirrie. He was Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1896 and 1897, and in the former year both he and Lady Pirrie gave a hearty welcome to the Members of this Institution on the occasion of the Summer Meeting in that City. He was High Sheriff of County Antrim in 1898, and of County Down in the following year. He was made a Privy Councillor for Ireland in 1897, and for Great Britain in 1918. In 1911 he was appointed Lord Lieutenant of the County and City of Belfast, and was at various times Pro- Chancellor of Queen's University.

In 1906 he was elevated to the Peerage as Baron Pirrie, and subsequently he was appointed a Knight of the Order of St. Patrick. On the occasion of the visit of the King and Queen to open the Northern Parliament in 1921 he was made a Viscount, and lie was one of the original members of the Senate.

The number of businesses with which he was connected, either as a director or in some other way, was very large, nor were they confined to Ireland. He was a member of the Committee of Lloyd's Register of British Shipping, and of the Worshipful Company of Shipwrights.

He joined this Institution in 1888, and served on the Council from 1899 to 1910, and from 1912 to 1914. He was a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers and a Vice-President of the Institution of Naval Architects.

During the War he acted as Controller-General of Merchant Shipping, and was largely responsible for the programme of standard ship construction and the speedy repair of torpedoed vessels.

He had been abroad for two or three months on business connected with the Royal Mail Steamship Co., and was on the way from Buenos Aires to New York when he succumbed to pneumonia.


1924 Obituary [2]



1924 Obituary[3]

"THE LATE LORD PIRRIE.

The death of Lord Pirrie, which occured at sea on Friday last, June 6, terminates a career associated to a greater degree than that of any other man with the shipping and shipbuilding industries. Not only in shipping circles, but even among the general public who know little of things of the sea, the names of Harland and Wolff and of the White Star Line hold an honourable position in connection with the development of our mercantile marine, and behind the policy and enterprise of these two great companies there has been for many years the mastermind of Lord Pirrie. The direction of such concerns did not, however, absorb by any means the whole of his wonderful energies. His interests in shipping were extremely wide, and extended to every ocean. He was chairman of the African Steamship Co, and a director of the White Star Line and of Frederick Leyland and Co., when in 1910 in conjunction with Sir Owen Philips he bought the vast shipping business of Elder Dempster and Co., controlled by the late Sir Alfred Jones. This comprised the British and African Steam Navigation Co, Elder Dempster Shipping, Limited, The African Steamship Company, The Imperial Direct West India Mail Service Company and the Com-pagnie Beige Maritime du Congo. He was further interested in the Pacific Steam Navigation Company, Lamport and Holt, the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co, The Union Castle Line and other shipping companies. In banking, railways and oil-production his sound judgment and acute business ability found further scope, but he will be remembered principally in his capacity as head of the great shipbuilding firm of Messrs. Harland and Wolff.

William James Pirrie was born in Quebec on March 31, 1847, of Ulster parentage and Scotch ancestry. His father died when he was very young, and as a lad of a year old, young Pirrie was brought back to Ulster by his mother and spent his early childhood at the old family home in County Down. He received .his education at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, where he showed great proficiency in mathematics, and, when 15 years old, was apprenticed to Messrs. Harland and Wolff, who only four years previously had started in quite a small way on the mudbank of Queen’s Island, the shipyard which was destined to become one of the most famous establishments of its kind in the world. Harland was a Yorkshire man from Scarborough, stern and brusque, but with that grit and unrelenting tenacity often associated with his type. Wolff, on the other hand, was genial and easy going, but possessed to the full of that instinct for business which seems inborn in the Jewish race. Both were exceptional men, and there can be no doubt that Pirrie’s association with them in the early days of their quickly growing works, and when he was at the most impressionable age, did something to develop the great potentialities of his own character. He gained too in these same receptive years a practical understanding, not only of the actual work of a shipyard, but of the outlook of workmen and thus laid the foundations for his future success as the administrator of great shipbuilding undertakings.

His college was the school of practical experience, where he learned more of men and things than can ever be set down in a book.

From the date of his entry into the works Pirrie showed that tireless energy and devotion to work which characterised his entire life. Harland appreciated a youth of this type, and when Pirrie was only 22 he was made chief draughtsman. His enterprise in the projection of ever advancing types of naval architecture and his success in designing them resulted in the very rapid development of the business. In 1869 the firm received what was then thought an extraordinary order from the recently-established Oceanic Steamship Company for six new vessels, the nucleus of the famous fleet which is now known all over the world.

Five years later, in 1874, when Pirrie was only 27 years of age, the part he was playing in advancing the fortunes of the firm was handsomely acknowledged by his admission as a junior partner. The greater the scope given to his enterprise, the more, strikingly did his abilities demonstrate themselves.

In 1877 he designed Harland and Wolff’s new engine works without the aid of an architect. He was pre-eminently a man of vision and courage, with the energy and capacity to make his dreams come true. Besides these qualities, he possessed the gift of discerning ability in others, and could thus surround himself with colleagues and subordinates fitted to assist him in hi3 work. Furthermore, and most important of all, he was a man of _ recognised integrity, who could be relied on to carry out a written or verbal contract in the spirit as well as in the letter. The confidence reposed in him was amply shown by the practice of many shipping companies other than the White Star Line, of placing orders with Messrs. Harland and Wolff on commission terms without a formal contract, the understanding being that the best ship should be constructed for a, given purpose as economically as was consistent with good design, workmanship and materials. He appreciated the value of a sixpence as keenly as any of his thrifty race, and saw that his customers got the return for their money which he himself would have expected.

The growth of the firm of Harland and Wolff is one of the best tributes which could be paid to Pirrie’s life work. When he joined the firm as a boy it employed one hundred men, and under his direction it grew to one of the largest establishments of its kind in the world, giving employment to many thousands and many a time holding the record for a year’s output of shipping. That such a position could have been achieved by a firm having to import the. whole of its coal and steel from Great Britain is a tribute to the man who was so closely identified with its prosperity. Most of the White Star vessels were built at Belfast, which became famous for bigger and bigger ships. The first Oceanic, in 1871, was of about 3,500 tons, the Britannic followed in 1874, and the Teutonic and Majestic in 1889. The second Oceanic, in 1899, of 17,000 tons, was the largest vessel of that century. Before the keel was laid 20,000Z. was spent in the preparation of the slip and the construction of an overhead travelling gantry 100 ft. high to traverse the full length of the ways and so facilitate construction. All the important riveting of this ship was performed hydraulically. The Celtic, of 20,000 tons, was launched in 1902, and she was followed by the Cedric in 1903 and the Baltic in 1904, both of over 23,000 tons. All these ships were the largest or among the largest of their time. Later came the Adriatic, then the Olympic and the ill-fated Titanic, which came to such a tragic end on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic in 1912, with the loss of over 1,200 souls. The sister ships Olympic and Titanic were in their day the largest in the world, being 882 ft. long overall, with a displacement of 60,000 tons and a speed of 21 knots.

Lord Pirrie, in spite of his immense business interests found time to take a fairly active part in public life. He was Lord Mayor of Belfast for two years 1896 and 1897, but declined the offer of election for a third term in order to devote himself more fully to the construction'of the Oceanic. He was High Sheriff of County Antrim in 1898, and of County Down the following year. He was elected a member of the Privy Council in 1897 for Ireland and in 1918 for Great Britain. He was also at various times Pro-Chancellor of Queen’s University, Comptroller of the Household of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, a member of the Road Board and a member of the Committee on Irish Finance. In 1911 he was made Lord Lieutenant of the County and City of Belfast. He was created a Baron in 1906 and received a Viscountcy in 1921. He never stood for Parliament. His great abilities and power of organisation were made use of by the Government in the latter part of the War, when he was given a task for which he was eminently adapted. As will be remembered, in the earlier stages of the War merchant shipbuilding was brought practically to a standstill by the demand for men in the naval yards and in the fighting services. The intensive submarine campaign of the Germans brought about a serious depletion of merchant vessels and to Lord Pirrie was assigned the task of dealing with the situation.

He was appointed Controller of merchant shipping and going to the Admiralty without any staff, was largely responsible for the programme of standard ship construction and the speedy repair of torpedoed vessels which was so valuable. The standard ships were built in British yards under his authority and active management, and were subsequently sold by the Government to the Shipping industry.

Space does not permit us to attempt anything but an outline of Lord Pirrie’s activities, but we have endeavoured to indicate in some measure the character of the man. His enterprise was not lessened by years, nor apparently was his capacity for strenuous work. He retained to the full that interest in new ideas and readiness to accept any that appeared promising, which marked his younger days. The application of oil fuel to steamers, and later the development of the motorship found in him an active supporter. The practical knowledge which he had of the arts of shipbuilding and engineering were of immense assistance to him, and he made it his business to supplement this knowledge by a personal study of the conditions under which ships were operated. He travelled across every ocean in the world to acquaint himself with the requirements of ocean travel and the features which are conducive to the comfort of the passenger. This knowledge he put to good use in the products of his yards. On his journeys he was almost always accompanied by Lady Pirrie to whose helpful companionship he attributed much of his success in life. She was with him on his last journey. He had been abroad for two or three months on business connected with the Royal Mail Steamship Company, and was on the way from Buenos Ayres to New York en route for England when he succumbed to pneumonia. He leaves no heir to the title, which therefore becomes extinct, except in so far as it lives in memory as that of a great industrial leader."


See Also

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Sources of Information

  • Biography of William J Pirrie, ODNB [1]