William Pearce

Shipyard owner

In a publication of 1960 celebrating the centenary of Fairfield shipyard, Sir William Pearce was described as being 'several sizes larger than life, a flamboyant character with the nose of a pirate and a wonderful eye for an opportunity. He was no inventor. His strength lay in choosing objectives.' The publication continued that he was unafraid of taking risks and was skilled at convincing more cautious associates to support his ventures. During his business career he made an estimated personal fortune of over 1 million and succeeded in bringing Fairfield to the forefront of world shipbuilding. 1

William Pearce was born near Chatham, Kent in 1833. He trained as a shipwright and naval architect at Chatham Dockyards. In 1861, he was superintendent of the construction of HMS Achilles, the first iron-clad ship built there. In 1863 his experiences of working with this new material brought him to Glasgow, by then the centre of iron shipbuilding, as a surveyor for Lloyd's. 2

Pearce soon joined Robert Napier's shipyard as manager, replacing John Elder, who had departed to form a private company with Charles Randolph. At Napier's he designed many fast, transatlantic liners. John Elder died in 1869 and his widow, Isabella, her brother John Francis Ure, senior partner, and J. L. K. Jamieson, engineering partner, invited Pearce to join the company as business partner and manager for shipbuilding. The company was reformed in 1870 as John Elder & Co. Ure and Jamieson retired in 1878 leaving Pearce in sole charge. 3

Among the many innovative passenger, naval and cargo ships and yachts built at Fairfield shipyard under Pearce's management were in the late 1870s and early 1880s passenger ships for the Guion Line of Liverpool, which won several Blue Ribands for the fastest, west-bound, Atlantic crossing; vessels which dramatically cut times on Isle of Man services and English Channel packet routes; and perhaps the most famous yacht of the period, the Czar of Russia's circular yacht, Livadia (1880). 4

In 1886, Pearce reformed the company once again, with limited liability status, establishing Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Co. Ltd and served as chairman. From 1885 he was the first MP for Govan (Conservative). He was made an hereditory baronet in 1887. 5

Sir William Pearce died in 1888, aged 55. He was buried in Kent. 6 A monument to him, a life-size statue, paid for by public subscription, was unveiled at Govan Cross in 1894. 7 A family memorial was designed by John Honeyman & Keppie and constructed at Craigton Cemetery, Glasgow in 1891–2. In 1906, Lady Pearce gifted the Pearce Institute to the people of Govan in memory of her husband. The building, designed by Sir Robert Rowand Anderson, included facilities for religious, educational, social and moral welfare activites. 8

Freemason, Grand Master of Glasgow, GH 3 August 1888

Notes:

1: Fairfield 1860–1960, Glasgow: Barbour McLaren, 1960, unpaginated.

2: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/21692 [accessed 3 May 2013].

3: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/21692 [accessed 3 May 2013]; K. J. W. Alexander and C. L. Jenkins, Fairfields: A Study of Industrial Change London: Penguin, 1970, p. 11.

4: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/21692 [accessed 3 May 2013]; Fairfield 1860–1960, Glasgow: Barbour McLaren, 1960, unpaginated.

5: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/21692; Fairfield 1860–1960, Glasgow: Barbour McLaren, 1960, unpaginated; K. J. W. Alexander and C. L. Jenkins, Fairfields: A Study of Industrial Change London: Penguin, 1970, p. 11; London Gazette, 26 July 1887.

6: Glasgow Herald, 21 December 1888.

7: Ray McKenzie, Public Sculpture of GlasgowLiverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000, pp. 184–6.

8: www.pearceinstitute.org.uk/history.aspx [accessed 28 March 2011].