Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 150,708 pages of information and 235,205 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

William Pearce

From Graces Guide

Sir William G. Pearce (1833–1888), engineer and shipbuilder

1833 Born at Brompton near Chatham in Kent on 8 January, the son of Joseph George Pearce.

Trained as a shipwright and naval architect at the Chatham Dockyard under Oliver Lang.

1861 Supervised the construction of HMS Achilles, the first iron-clad ship built in the naval dockyards.

1861 Birth of his son William George Pearce at Chatham

1863 Became Lloyd's surveyor on Clydeside, the centre of the new iron shipbuilding industry.

1864 William Pearce was appointed to a responsible post with Robert Napier and Sons to replace John Elder.

1870 Pearce became the shipbuilding partner in the firm of John Elder and Co.

Pearce developed business for the yard by emphasising speed, both for the transatlantic route and cross-Channel, as well as attracting naval orders to the yard.

1879 His partners in Elders retired, leaving Mr. Pearce as the sole partner.

In 1885/6 he renamed the business as the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Co.

He was a major shareholder in Pacific Steam Navigation Co and the New Zealand Shipping Co, two of the important customers of the yard.

1887 Knighted

1888 Retired

1889 Obituary [1]

Sir WILLIAM PEARCE, Bart, M.P. for the Govan district of Lanarkshire, and one of the most enterprising and successful shipbuilders of his time, died at his London residence in Piccadilly, on the 18th of December last.

Sir William Pearce was born at Brompton, in Kent, in the year 1833, and was thus in his fifty-sixth year. He learned practical shipbuilding in H.M. dockyard at Chatham, serving for a considerable time in the office of the late Mr. Oliver Lang, one of the most celebrated naval designers of that day.

In 1861, when the Government determined upon the construction of iron ships in the royal dockyards, Mr. Pearce was the first officer selected to engage in that work. With other officers he superintended the building of H.M.S. Achilles in the dockyard at Chatham.

He left the Government service in 1863 to become a surveyor under Lloyd's Register of Shipping, and was for a time employed in that capacity in the Glasgow district.

In 1864, however, he was appointed manager in the shipyard of Messrs. Robert Napier & Sons, Govan, and here, in 1865, his ability as a naval architect was first brought into prominence through the designing of the steamships Pereire and Ville de Paris, built for the Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, which vessels maintained for several years a foremost place among the fast steamships on the Atlantic.

Shortly after the death of Mr. John Elder, in 1869, Mr. Pearce joined Messrs. John Ure and John L. K. Jamieson in carrying on and extending the shipbuilding and engineering business at Fairfield, under the title of John Elder & Co.

In 1878, Mr. Ure and Mr. Jamieson retired from the firm, and Mr. Pearce became the sole partner, which position he occupied up till about two and a half years ago.

In 1885, some little time after Mr. Pearce was returned to Parliament, the firm was formed into a limited liability company, under the title of the Fairfield Shipbuilding, Engineering, and Ordnance Company, Limited, with Mr. Pearce as chief director. As was stated at the time, Mr. Pearce's primary object in taking this step was to place the firm on such a basis as to be able, notwithstanding his position in Parliament, to undertake work for the Government, and so maintain the prosperity of the district, just then suffering from great depression in trade.

During the period that Mr. Pearce was connected with the Fairfield Works, the tonnage of new shipping produced there amounted to over 450,000 tons. By far the greater portions of this total was made up of huge steamships, having powerful machinery, whose name and fame have long since become world-wide, including the Arizona, the Alaska, the ill-fated Oregon, the Orient, the Austral, the Stirling Castle, the Umbria, and the Etruria. The latter well-known ships had not been long in service before Mr. Pearce publicly maintained the possibility of producing a steamship capable of accomplishing the Atlantic voyage in five days, and intimated that he would not consider his life work done until this was realised. In the Glasgow Exhibition recently closed, the model of a steamship designed to accomplish this result was exhibited amongst the firm's other models.

Sir William Pearce constructed the entire Atlantic fleet of the North German Lloyd's, which includes seven of the ten fastest ocean-going steamers afloat, the whole of the New Zealand Shipping Company's fleet, which have brought the antipode§ within thirty-six days of the mother country, and the fastest of the Orient fleet, which have brought Sydney within thirty-eight days of Plymouth. In channel steamers he was no less successful, and to him is due the fact that the passage between Dover and Calais can now be accomplished in less than an hour.

His great capacity for work and his ceaseless energy, coupled with exceptional powers of organisation and judgment in the selection of men, resulted in the creation of a ship-producing establishment which, even as he lay on his deathbed, accomplished the extraordinary feat of constructing an Atlantic liner of 5000 tons in the short space of ninety-eight working days. It was owing to this admirable organisation that he was able, at the close of the Soudan war, to build in twenty-eight days eleven stern-wheel vessels for bringing the troops up the Nile, and to deliver them at Alexandria in two days less than the contract time. Concurrently with this contract, he built in twenty-one working days a hospital boat of larger dimensions than the other eleven, and he received the thanks of Lord Hartington, then Minister for War, for his services.

Several of the most modern vessels of Her Majesty's navy have emanated from the Fairfield stocks, amongst others the Marathon., which was named by H.R.H. Princess Beatrice in August 1888. Perhaps no other of Mr. Pearce's productions excited so much interest and curiosity as the memorable yacht Livadia, built for the late Emperor of Russia. This novel and extremely fantastic production was from the designs of Admiral Popoff, of the Russian navy, Mr. Pearce being responsible only so far as the construction and propulsion at a stipulated speed were concerned. With characteristic intrepidity, Mr. Pearce undertook to build and propel the ungainly craft at the desired speed, when many in the profession regarded its attainment as impracticable, if not impossible.

Sir William's death, technically ascribed to heart disease, is attributable to a complete collapse of the nervous system, the result of the severe strain of the work in which he has been engaged. He was elected the first member of the newly-created constituency of the Govan Division of Lanarkshire in 1885, and again in 1886, having previously contested Glasgow in the Conservative interest in 1880.

He was chairman of the Guinn Steamship Company and of the Scottish Oriental Steamship Company; he has been re-elected Deputy-Grand Master of the Province of Glasgow in the Masonic brotherhood since 1880; he was a Deputy-Lieutenant and Justice of the Peace for Lanarkshire, and he served on the Royal Commissions on Tonnage, on Loss of Life at Sea; and on the Depression of Trade. He was created a baronet in 1887, and is succeeded in the title by his only son, William George, who was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated M A., LL.B., and was called to the Bar of the Inner Temple in 1885.

Sir William was elected a member of the Institute in 1882.

1888 Obituary [2]

See Also


Sources of Information

  • Biography of William Pearce, ODNB [1]