Pearce, William (DNB00)

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PEARCE, Sir WILLIAM (1833–1888), naval architect, was born at Brompton, near Chatham, on 8 Jan. 1833. He served his apprenticeship in the dockyard at Chatham, under Oliver Lang, and, continuing in the government service, was, in 1861, charged with the superintendence of the building of the Achilles, the first ironclad built in any of the royal yards. In 1863 he was appointed surveyor of Lloyd's registry for the Clyde district, and in 1864 became general manager of the works of Robert Napier & Son [see Napier, Robert, 1791–1876], who then built most of the vessels for the Cunard line. The vessels, however, which established Pearce's reputation were built in 1865 for the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, and their speed excited much attention. In 1869, on the death of John Elder [q. v.], Pearce, in conjunction with Messrs. Ure & Jameson, carried on the business under the style of John Elder & Co. In 1878 his partners retired, and Pearce remained alone till, on his entering parliament in 1885, the business was turned into a limited company under the name of the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company, of which Pearce was chairman. During these years, by his skill, energy, and talent for organisation, the building of iron steamers was developed in an extraordinary degree. The Arizona, Alaska, the ill-fated Oregon, the Orient, Austral, Stirling Castle, and more especially the Etruria and Umbria, were among his best known ships; he built all the steamers for the North German Lloyd's and for the New Zealand Shipping Company, as well as several for the Dover and Calais line, reducing the time of crossing to less than an hour. It was his ambition to built a vessel which should cross the Atlantic within five days, and in the summer of 1888 he exhibited in Glasgow the model of one calculated to do so. The admirable organisation of his works enabled him, on occasion, to produce most remarkable results, as when, in 1884, he built eleven stern-wheel vessels for service on the Nile in twenty-eight days, delivering them at Alexandria within the contract time, for which he received the thanks of the secretary of state for war. In 1885, and again in 1886, he was returned to parliament, in the conservative interest, by the Govan division of Lanarkshire; he was also chairman of the Guion Steamship Company and of the Scottish Oriental Steamship Company. He was a deputy lieutenant and justice of the peace for Lanarkshire, and in 1887 was created a baronet. The excessive strain of his gigantic and complicated business affected his nervous system, and gave rise to or aggravated a disease of the heart of which he died in London on 18 Dec. 1888. He was buried at Gillingham, Kent, on the 22nd. He left a widow and one son, William George (1861–1907), the second and last baronet.

[Times, 18, 19, 24 Dec.; Engineer, 21 Dec.; Engineering, 21 Dec. 1888.]

J. K. L.