William Pearce

Sir William Pearce Bart MP, 1833 – 1888

Govanites are familiar with ‘The Black Man’ statue and, equally so, The Pearce Institute. Both were bequeathed by Lady Dinah to the people of Govan, as a legacy of the Pearce name. But perhaps less familiar is the actual story of Sir William Pearce. So, who was ‘The Black Man’?

William Pearce was born on the 8th January 1833 in Brompton, Kent. He trained as a naval architect at the famous Chatham Naval Docks. It was here that his talent for shipbuilding was recognised when, at the age of only 27 years, he supervised the construction of the first ever iron-clad warship — HMS Achilles. This practical experience, and the knowledge of the Admiralty (Royal Navy) that he gained at Chatham, served him well throughout his professional life.

With a reputation as a young man in a hurry, Pearce’s meteoric rise came on the back of his proven business management and design skills. Drawn to Glasgow in 1863 as a surveyor with the Lloyd’s Register, his talents were quickly noticed by Robert Napier, the acknowledged ‘Father of Clyde Shipbuilding’. Within a year, Pearce had taken on the prestigious and highly responsible role of manager of Napier’s shipyard, and he immediately stamped his mark by designing and building the fastest steamships on the Atlantic.

Following the early death of John Elder, and at the request of Elder’s widow, Lady Isabella, Pearce, in 1870, became one of three partners who owned and managed the Fairfield Yard under the title of John

Sir William Pearce
Elder & Co. Again his influence was immediate. The tonnage of new shipping produced jumped from 74 tons to 493 tons during his time there, and the development of the triple expansion engine guaranteed the Yard’s, and the Clyde’s, supremacy in marine engineering for the next 30 years.
By 1878, only 15 years after arriving on Clydeside, Pearce became the sole proprietor of John Elder & Co by then “the most notable private shipbuilding and engineering establishment in the world”.

He had proven to be a shrewd and competitive business man. Pearce dominated the transatlantic market by designing fast passenger liners — his ‘Ocean Greyhounds’. He single-handedly cultivated the ‘Blue Riband’ accolade for the fastest transatlantic crossing time, a record that his Govan-built ships, such as the Alaska (1882/3), Umbria (1887) and Etruria (1885/8) repeatedly smashed in order to drive up orders from the major passenger lines of the world, including Cunard and Guion. He applied the same tactics to the cross channel market, whilst at the same time establishing his Govan shipyard as a naval builder, securing, amongst others, many contracts to build the German naval fleet. It was Pearce’s achievements in these three competitive markets that helped the Fairfield Yard of John Elder & Co ride out the great trade depression of 1873-79, a fact that established Pearce’s credibility, if not respect, amongst his 5000 strong Govan workforce.

View / download “Monument to Sir William Pearce”

Obitiuary, The Times

The death of Sir William Pearce which we briefly announced yesterday, closes a career of brilliant exploits in ocean steam navigation.

Trained in the Government services at Chatham, he was selected as a young man by the authorities to control the building of the Achilles, the first iron vessel built in Her Majesty’s dockyards. From the Government service he passed to the Clyde and assumed the management of Napier’s yard, but after a few years he took a position at Fairfield, where, in 1870, in conjunction with the relatives of the then deceased John Elder, he originated the firm of John Elder and Co; of which became the sole partner in 1878. It was just prior to this that he commenced the more noteworthy scheme of Ocean navigation with which his name has become associated, since when he has built upwards of 200,000 tons of shipping, of nearly 300,000 horse power and over £7,000,000 sterling in value.

The first runner of the present fast Atlantic steaming was the Arizona built for the Guion Company. This was succeeded by the Alaska and Oregon vessels that for speed have been surpassed only by his latest achievements, the Eturia and Umbria , which are modifications of the same models. Concurrently with this, he constructed the entire Atlantic fleet of the North German Lloyds, which included seven of the ten fastest ocean going steamers afloat, the whole of the New Zealand Shipping Company’s fleet, which have brought the antipodes within 36 days of the mother country, and the fastest of the Orient fleet, which have brought Sydney within 38 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, have resulted in the creation of a vast ship producing machine, which, even as he lay on his death bed, accomplished the extraordinary feat of
constructing an Atlantic liner of 5,000 tons in the incredibly short space of 98 working days. It was owing to this admirable organisation that he
was able , at the close of the Soudan war, to build in 28 days, 11 stern wheel vessels for bringing the troops up the Nile to deliver them at Alexandria in two days less than the contract terms. Concurrently with this he built in 21 working days a hospital boat of larger dimensions
than the other 11, and received the thanks of Lord Hartington, then Minister for War, for his remarkable expedition.

Sir William was born at Brompton, near Chatham, on the 8th of January 1833, so that he had scarcely his 56th year. His 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 Guion 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 Deputy Lieutenant and Justice of the Peace for Lanarkshire, and he served on the Royal Commission 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 and Lady Dinah Pearce

(This classical Sarcophagus style monument is about 7 feet high)










”Faithful unto death”

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