Pirrie, William James (1847–1924), 1st Viscount Pirrie , shipbuilder and politician, was born 31 May 1847 in Quebec, Canada, the only son of James Alexander Pirrie, shipping merchant (and son of a shipping merchant, Capt. William Pirrie), of Conlig, Little Clandeboye, Co. Down, and his wife, Eliza Swan, daughter of Alexander Montgomery, of Dundesart, Co. Antrim. Returning with his mother to the ancestral home at Conlig in 1848 after the death of his father in the same year, most of William's life was spent in Co. Down. Educated privately and at the RBAI, he entered the growing Belfast shipbuilding firm of Harland & Wolff, 23 June 1862, aged fifteen, as an apprentice. In 1874, after rising rapidly from draughtsman to manager at Queen's Island shipyard, where he thoroughly absorbed practical and commercial knowledge of the business, he joined the board of directors as a partner to Walter H. Wilson (who resigned in 1877) and the company's founders, Edward J. Harland (qv) and G. W. Wolff (qv). When the founders retired from active partnership in 1884 they left Pirrie in virtual control of the business. At Harland's death in 1895 Pirrie became chief executive and also, on Wolff's retirement in 1906, chairman.
As a pioneer in Ireland's most industrialised city, Pirrie developed local shipbuilding beyond the iron-hulled (e.g. Oceanic, 1871) to the steel-built Belfast passenger liner, an international byword of marine engineering. He advanced it in terms of volume and awe-inspiring splendour (e.g. Teutonic, 1889) in the way that his fellow Irishman, Charles Parsons (qv), simultaneously increased motive power and speed at sea with marine turbine engines. Pirrie also presided over engine-building at Harland & Wolff, adopting innovations as they emerged. After a devastating fire in 1896 he greatly improved shipyard facilities and erected a massive gantry which, when enlarged, could accommodate several ships at once. By 1914, with orders from many clients, the oldest including the renowned Bibby and White Star Lines, he had extended the business to Glasgow and Liverpool with smaller works in the Belfast and Dublin areas. He encouraged the interdependence of local industries, such as linen and glassmaking, with shipbuilding, supporting a comprehensive economic system in and around his extensive yards.
Pirrie was prominent in philanthropy and public education, partnered by his dynamic wife (and first cousin), Margaret Montgomery Carlisle (qv), daughter of John Carlisle, professor of the RBAI, whom he married in 1879. A woman of formidable influence and organising ability (especially in health care), she became first female honorary burgess (1904) and first female JP (1922) of Belfast, and a life member (1926) of Belfast chamber of commerce. Pirrie himself entered local politics in Belfast corporation as a liberal unionist. He was lord mayor of Belfast in 1896 and 1897 (initiating the construction of the city hall and other major institutions), a privy counsellor in 1897, and first honorary burgess (freeman) of Belfast in 1898. He was high sheriff of Co. Antrim (1898) and Co. Down (1899).
Such distinctions (and honorary university degrees) aside, conservative unionism attempted to chasten him in 1902 by denying him a candidacy in the general election. Disappointed but accelerated further into liberalism by the experience, he became Baron Pirrie (1906) for his work on behalf of the Liberals in the general election of that year. He was created KP (1909) and appointed Belfast city lieutenant (1911). Then, to the outrage of many (unionists above all), he supported Irish home rule in 1912. Illness, however, shielded him from public view for long enough to offset recrimination, and in later years he reverted to a unionist position.
Meanwhile, having been chairman of the chamber of shipping of the UK in 1900, he greeted the twentieth century with ever-greater business plans and projects. He influenced the formation of the International Mercantile Marine Co. (1902), a major Anglo-American shipping cartel for the Atlantic trade. He became sole director of Harland & Wolff (1904) and was a member of several client boards, not least the White Star Line; his promotion of Harland & Wolff's ‘floating hotels’ (using Charles Parsons's turbine engine technology) reached its high point with the White Star liners Olympic (1910), Titanic (1911), and Britannic (1914). Titanic’s tragic maiden voyage in April 1912, endemic financial strains, skilled labour shortages, and disputes with Belfast harbour commissioners over land lease, all failed to buckle the monumental self-confidence which sustained Pirrie through the world war of 1914–18. He immediately turned over Harland & Wolff's entire peacetime enterprise to war production, converting Britannic into a hospital ship (it was later sunk in the Mediterranean) and created an unprecedentedly large company workforce in Britain and Ireland, though one that was sometimes fraught with sectarian conflict. He produced warships and other military hardware, and was appointed comptroller general of merchant shipbuilding by the admiralty in March 1918, as the war entered its final phase.
Through the brief postwar shipping boom of 1918–20, Pirrie acted with as much vigour as political upheaval and the subsequent economic recession of 1920–22 would allow, including the further purchase of works in Scotland. He was created a viscount (1921) and a unionist senator in the new Northern Ireland parliament; his other offices included JP, comptroller of the household to the lord lieutenant of Ireland, pro-chancellor of QUB, and member of the committee on Irish finance and of the road board. A Belfast sports ground, Pirrie Park, was named after him. He had houses at 24 Belgrave Square, London; at Witley Park near Godalming, Surrey; and Harland's old home, Ormiston, at Strandtown, Belfast. Professionally, he was MICE and MIME; and he was a member of the Ulster Club (Belfast), Kildare Street Club (Dublin), and Reform Club (London). Less well known are the many family relationships through which he undoubtedly advanced his social and economic fortunes; among others, he was cousin to the Heyns who owned the Ulster Steamship Co., to the Carlisles of the Blue Star Line, to the Sinclairs of Liverpool, and even (more distantly) to the Harlands and the Wolffs.
Pirrie's extraordinary career, weighed down by titles, citations, and latterly by ill health (mainly prostate trouble) and company debt (largely to the Midland Bank), ended suddenly when he died 7 June 1924 while travelling by sea on company business to South America. As he had no children, his peerage died with him. Lady Pirrie, although appointed in that year as life president (until her death in 1935) of H&W, had a difficult relationship with her husband's successor, Sir Owen Cosby Philipps (Lord Kylsant) (1863–1937), whose unenviable task it was to chair and continue the business of an industrial autocrat whom the journalist W. T. Stead and Sir Shane Leslie (qv), saw as the greatest shipbuilder since Noah.