William James Pirrie – 30 James Street

William James Pirrie

William James Pirrie, or 1st Viscount Pirrie, was born on 31st May 1847 in Quebec, Canada. He went on to become Lord William James Pirrie and a well respected businessman and ship builder.


Both of Pirrie’s parents, James Alexander Pirrie and Eliza Swann, were Irish, and he was taken to live in their native country when he was two years old, after his father passed away.

He was brought up in Belfast and educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. It was in 1862 when he joined Harland and Wolff as a Gentleman Apprentice, at the age of 15.

After 12 years at the firm, and following the death of Sir Edward Harland, he was made chairman of the company; a position he would hold until his death.

A year after this, in 1896, Pirrie was elected to be Lord Mayor of Belfast and then made Irish Privy Councillor the following year. His titles didn’t stop there.

The same year he became Belfast’s first Honorary Freeman during the peak of Harland and Wolff’s great success.

In 1902, Pirrie worked with John Pierpont Morgan to create the International Mercantile Marine, a merger of transatlantic shipping lines, markedly the White Star Line, which was a client of Harland and Wolff.

In 1921, Pirrie was elected to the Northern Ireland Senate and was made Viscount Pirrie of the City of Belfast in that same year to honour his charity and war work.

During his time at Harland and Wolff, Pirrie contributed massively to the growth of the ship building industry and was prominent in the development of the diesel engine for marine propulsion.

In other aspects of his career, Pirrie was famously jeered in the streets after chairing a meeting with Winston Churchill. In this exact same year, he was due to board the RMS Titanic, but pulled out at the last minute due to ill health. This was part of the string of rumours and conspiracy theories that the sinking of the Titanic was planned.

Private life

On 17th April 1879, Lord Pirrie married Margaret Montgomery Carlisle. He had no children and died of pneumonia at sea at the age of 77. He was in Cuba on a business trip to South America when he passed away. His body was returned to Belfast City Cemetery from New York by the White Star Line’s very own RMS Olympic.