Encyclopedia Titanica


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In Lord Pirrie, whose death we announce on page 10, the country loses one of its greatest business men. If captains of industry are classifiable, as no doubt they are, as a type of their own, then it is in such men as he that we should look for the prototype. Primarily, he was known as head of Harland and Wolff, Limited, but his interests in ship owning were extremely wide. Only the other day Lord Kylsant regretted his absence from the meeting of the African Steamship Company, of which he was chairman. He was also a director of Elder, Dempster, and Co Limited, and he has exercised, although not always seen by the public, a very powerful influence on shipping. Last year, it will be recalled, an agreement was concluded between the White Star and Cunard companies for alternate sailings of the biggest trans-Atlantic ships during the “off season.” There is good reason to believe that this arrangement was largely due to the farsightedness of Lord Pirrie, who is a director of the White Star Line. Lord Pirrie had the vision to see that shipbuilding and shipowning could be closely connected with each other, and to this policy the remarkable success of Harland and Wolff in recent years has been largely due.

In spite of his age Lord Pirrie was in manner a young man. He was an extremely hard worker, and at the time of his death he was returning from South America, where he had been on a visit in connection with the port facilities available for the large new ships which are now being built for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company by Harland and Wolff. It was evidently his enjoyment; of work which took him on that mission. On the, occasion of the recent trip of the new P and 0 liner Mooltan from Belfast to London Lord Pirrie seemed to be one of the youngest and happiest men on board. His buoyancy has long been the subject of admiration by younger business men, who envied him his possession of optimism and brilliancy. On various occasions Lord Pirrie has publicly paid tribute to the help which he has obtained throughout his cares from Lady Pirrie, from whom he was very rarely separated. She proceeded with him on his visit to South America, and accompanied him wherever he went, and is known to have taken the closest possible interest in his work and to have helped him vastly.


William James Pirrie was born in Quebec in 1847, the son of J.A.Pirrie of Little Clandeboyl, County Down, an Ulsterman, of Scotch extraction; his, mother was the daughter of another Ulster family, the Montgomerys. After his father’s death in Canada, his mother brought him back to Ireland and sent him to the Belfast Royal Academical Institution. When only 15 he entered as a premium apprentice the engineering and shipbuilding firm of Harland and Wolff, at Belfast. Of it he was destined to become the chief, and the firm in its turn under his leadership one of the greatest in the world.

The times were favourable. The most prosperous era which British industry has ever known, or perhaps will ever know, was mounting towards its zenith. In particular transatlantic traffic of every description was growing in volume year by year. In this traffic Harland and Wolff largely specialized, and from its earliest days they were associated with the White Star Line. Most of the White Star fleet were built by them from the first Oceanic of 3,000 or 4,000 tons in 1871 down to many of the monster ships of recent times.

In 12 years from his entry into the firm Pirrie had risen to a partnership, and thereafter played a dominant part in its affairs. He was admirably suited in spirit to the age in which he lived. The sympathies of his temperament flowed in much the same courses as the whole trend of human affairs at that period, and he was therefore able perfectly to appreciate the opportunities and liabilities of his business, with the result that he made on its behalf many shrewd moves and but few serious errors. - Big ship followed big ship. The Britannic in 1874 the Teutonic in 1889, the second Oceanic in 1899 of 17,000 tons, the Celtic in 1902 of 20,000 tons, the Cedric in 1903, and the Baltic in 1904, of more than 23,000 ton were all the largest or amongst the largest vessels of their time. Later still, came the Adriatic, followed in 1910 by the Olympic and her more famous and tragic sister, the Titanic.

He was extraordinarily successful in getting business. Of his ability to secure orders the following story is told. On one occasion a well-known shipping company asked, towards the end of a week, for tenders for the construction of a new liner from a number of leading shipbuilding companies. On the Monday morning there were written replies from all the shipbuilding companies with the exception of Harland and Wolff. When the letters were received, Lord Pirrie was closeted with the head of the company and secured the contract. He never allowed the grass to grow below his feet. In the industrial and mechanical sphere, therefore, Pirrie’s name must always be identified with a half-century of most remarkable adventure and progress, though it is as yet too soon to estimate the true value of its contribution to civilization as a whole.


A Conservative at heart, although he favoured the Home Rule cause - a circumstance which once, at least, brought him into violent conflict with the Orangemen - Lord Pirrie never sat in the House of Commons, though he played a considerable part in local affairs. He was Lord Mayor of Belfast, 1896-7, High Sheriff of Antrim, 1898, and of Down, 1899, and he had the distinction of becoming the first honorary Freeman of Belfast in 1898. He was also at various times Pro-Chancellor of Queen’s University, Comptroller of the Household to 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 of the City of Belfast.

During the latter part of the war he was Controller of Mercantile Shipbuilding, and the task of drawing up the programme for repairing the losses which our merchant shipping had suffered fell in large measure to him. Merchant ship building in the United Kingdom was then in a very unsatisfactory state, and a stimulus to increased production was urgently needed. He went to the Admiralty without any staff and, as a war measure, a large number of standard cargo steamers were built in British yards under his authority and with his active management. The standard ships, for which the original programme had been laid down by the Shipping Controller, were built for account of the State, and were subsequently sold to the shipping industry. Lord Pirrie, on his appointmerit, gave close attention to the speedy repairing of torpedoed ships, and improved the organization.

Lord Pirrie was made a Privy Councillor in 1897 in Ireland and in 1918 in Great Britain, was created a Baron in 1906, and was raised to a viscounty in 1921.He was also a Knight of Saint Patrick. Lord Pirrie married, in 1879, Margaret M., daughter of John Carlisle, of Belfast, but leaves no issue, and his peerage in consequence becomes extinct.

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Encyclopedia Titanica (2007) LORD PIRRIE - DOMINANT FIGURE IN SHIPBUILDING (The Times, Monday 9th June 1924, ref: #5536, published 10 May 2007, generated 9th June 2023 09:40:53 AM); URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/lord-pirrie-dominant-figure-shipbuilding.html