William James Pirrie, Viscount Pirrie (1847-1924) became a shipbuilder and ship owner. He was born in Quebec City in Canada in 1847, and his sister, Eliza Pirrie, was born in 1845. His father, James Alexander Pirrie, the son of Captain William Pirrie, a Belfast ship owner, married Eliza Swan, daughter of Alexander Montgomery. In 1844 his father went to Canada to enter the trade in shipping timber. He died in 1849 and Pirrie, aged two, and his sister and mother came back to live with his grandfather in Ireland. It was there that he was apprenticed to the Harland and Wolff shipbuilders in Belfast at the age of 15. In 1874 he had risen to the position of partner in the firm.
On the 17th April 1879 Pirrie married his cousin, Margaret Montgomery Carlisle, by special licence but there were no children of the marriage.
In 1895 Pirrie became Chairman of Harland and Wolff, and elected Mayor of Belfast in 1896/7. In 1906 he was made Baron Pirrie of Belfast and from 1907-1913 was comptroller of the Lord Lieutenants’ household at Dublin Castle. In May 1909 Pirrie bought Witley Park, near Godalming at a sum “not far short of £200,000” according to The Times of 8th May. A description of Witley Park, at the time of Pirrie’s ownership, can be found in Viscount Pirrie of Belfast by Herbert Jefferson. His wife was a hostess, and had honours and offices bestowed upon her. Pirrie spent his time between London and Witley Park. In the 1911 census he was living at Devonshire House, 24 Belgrave Square, Westminster. Pirrie was created a viscount in 1921.
He helped to bring about the formation of the International Mercantile Marine (IMM) syndicate in 1902, which in turn owned White Star shipping company, and appointed Joseph Bruce Ismay as president. In 1907 the idea was to build a fleet of gigantic luxurious liners. Ismay, owner of the White Star, was keen to rival Cunard shipping line, which had just built Lusitania and Mauritania. Three new liners were ordered by White Star, and Pirrie’s yard had to be enlarged for them to be built. Olympic was delivered in 1912 and Titanic in 1912, at a cost of £3 million. The third to be built later was to be named Gigantic (renamed Britannic). Pirrie had a serious prostrate operation, and was forbidden by his doctor to travel on the Titanic. She sank on her maiden voyage with the loss of over 1,500 people in 1912.
Pirrie built the ‘Temple of the Four Winds’ near the Devil's Punchbowl, Hindhead. The Pirrie Hall in Brook dates from May 1923, and was built and given to the community by Pirrie “for the use and benefit of the inhabitants of the hamlets of Brook, Sandhills and adjoining district”.
Pirrie died of pneumonia on 7th June 1924, aged 77, while on board the liner, Ebro, in the Caribbean. The body was transferred to the Olympic, and taken by hearse from Southampton to Godalming, where it was received by the Witley Park tenants, and then to London, where a public funeral service was held, and finally taken for internment at Ormesby. He was buried in Belfast Cemetery overlooking his yard. Lady Pirrie died on the 19th June 1935 at No 7 Carlos Place, London.
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