The Pirrie/Ismay Partnership
Part of the reason for the Titanic success story was the close allegiance between Belfast shipbuilders, Harland and Wolff and the White Star Line
. An exclusive contract existed whereby White Star could only go to Harland’s to have their ships built and Harland and Wolff would not build for White Star’s rivals. The shipyard chairman from 1895 was William Pirrie, later Viscount Pirrie of Belfast. Between them, these two men cooked up the idea for the Olympic class liners in order to compete with their rivals, Cunard
. The vision was for the world’s biggest and most luxurious liners with never before seen facilities such as swimming pools, Turkish baths and French a la carte restaurants. It is generally believed that the concept of the Olympic class liners was first aired in 1907 at a dinner at Pirrie’s London home, Downshire House. After dinner, the men began discussing the future of their two firms and Pirrie is believed to have drawn a rough sketch of his vision for Olympic and Titanic. But in fact, preparations for these gargantuan liners were underway as far back as 1902.
The Career of William Pirrie
William Pirrie had worked his way up from an office boy to chairman of the yard. He was born in Quebec but returned to the family home at Conlig, County Down at the age of 1 following the death of his father, James. The Pirrie family were already steeped in the industrial development of Belfast. William’s grandfather, Captain William Pirrie had overseen the development of the port. When Edward Harland died in 1895, Pirrie took over the running of the yard and set about a system of modernisation. From 1902, the yard was being reconfigured in preparation for building huge new liners. Slipways were strengthened, a new dry dock was begun in 1904 and channels within the port were deepened. The design which Pirrie is rumoured to have sketched was then brought to life by Pirrie’s brother in law, Alexander Carlisle who was chief naval architect and later by his nephew, Thomas Andrews
William Pirrie and the Titanic
Pirrie was very much a hands-on boss, who oversaw every step of construction and was fond of making unannounced tours of the yard to check everyone was working hard and towing the line. Carlisle had suggested that the ships should have a lifeboat compliment of 64 but that suggestion was overruled by the boss who feared that passengers would be alarmed to see so many lifeboats on a cluttered boat deck. When Titanic was launched, Pirrie hosted a luncheon for the great and the good of White Star before handing over the first ship, RMS Olympic. Pirrie did not sail on Titanic. He and his wife enjoyed the finer aspects of Edwardian life. They had a grand country home, Witley Park near Godalming in Surrey as well as Ormiston House in Belfast and Downshire House in Belgravia. Pirrie remained in control of the company until his death in 1924, while inspecting new business opportunities in South America. He is buried in the City Cemetery in Belfast and his headstone now stands in the grounds of Belfast City Hall. He was Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1896 and 1897.
If Pirrie was the visionary behind Titanic, Ismay was the business head. The Ismay family had taken White Star from an ailing concern to a firm whose stock was sold to International Mercantile Marine for a healthy profit in 1902.There was a close tie-in with Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast. Ismay’s father had been leant the money to grow the business by Gustav Wolff on the condition that the ships were built at the Belfast yard. The partnership extended to board level, with directors of White Star sitting on Harland’s board and vice versa. Bruce Ismay’s main role was to oversee the order for four big liners, Celtic, Cedric, Baltic and Adriatic which were testing the water for what was to come. A young naval architect called Thomas Andrews was also cutting his teeth on these “big four”. When the Olympic class project became a reality, Ismay was the man who would deliver the finance to make it happen. As chairman of Harland and Wolff, Lord Pirrie was inclined to keep financial details to himself, a practice which left his managers perplexed. Ismay had a much more practical approach.
The Launch of the Titanic
On 31st May 1911, Ismay witnessed Titanic’s launch from a specially constructed stand and then attended a lunch hosted by Lord Pirrie at Harland and Wolff’s Queens Island headquarters. This was also the day on which Olympic was completely finished and was handed over to her new owners. Nearly a year later, Ismay sailed on Titanic with his valet and his secretary and was rescued in Collapsible lifeboat C. His escape from Titanic led to his being pilloried in the press and criticised by the two inquiries into Titanic’s sinking. Much of his later life was lived in Connemara in the West of Ireland. He died in London in 1937.