A History of The Shipyard: Lady Margaret Pirrie

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In celebration of Local History Month we have been having a look at some of the key figures and locations which made Belfast, and in particular Queen’s Island, the place it is today!

After exploring the area's origins and the rich history of the famous Harland and Wolff Shipyard and what it looks like today, as well as met one of the shipyard’s notable character’s – Thomas Andrews, we now conclude our series by focusing on an important woman in the shipyard: Lady Margaret Pirrie.

“Behind every great man is a great woman.”

This adage rings especially true for Lady Margaret Pirrie, born Margaret Montgomery Carlisle in 1857. She emerged as a significant figure in Irish society, profoundly influencing Belfast's shipbuilding industry and leaving a lasting legacy on the city.

Margaret's early life was marked with a strong educational and entrepreneurial family background. Her father, John Carlisle, was an English master in Royal Belfast Academical Institution. Her brothers, Henry and John Carlisle, founded the shipping company Blue Star Line, while another brother, Alexander, became the general manager of Harland and Wolff.

On 17th April 1879, Margaret married William Jame Pirrie (Lord Pirrie), who in 1895 became chairman of Harland and Wolff. Margaret was deeply involved in her husband's business affairs, which was quite unusual for the time. She often accompanied him on business trips, made regular visits to the shipyard and showed a keen interest in the welfare of Harland and Wolff’s employees. She worked closely with Lord Pirrie on engineering designs and financial planning, initially from their home in Belfast, Ormiston and later from their office in London.

Margaret was also involved in various charities and public organisations. Between 1896 and 1897, she served as the Mayoress of Belfast alongside her husband, who was the Lord Mayor. Frederick Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, 1st Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, described her as "the most charming and most popular lady mayoress who ever sceptred a city or disciplined a husband."

One of Lady Pirrie’s greatest contributions was her work in fundraising for the new Royal Victoria Hospital. She was chiefly responsible for the successful campaign to raise £100,000 to build a 300-bed hospital and was recognised as the most important single benefactor of the hospital. Lady Pirrie served as president of the hospital from 1914 until her death, helping to raise over £200,000 for its construction, equipment and running costs. The hospital was state-of-the-art at the time, becoming the first air-conditioned public building in the world. Today, two of the original seventeen wards are named after the Pirries.

In 1904, Margaret Pirrie became the first woman to be made an honorary burgess of Belfast, in recognition of her numerous contributions to the city. She died on 19th June 1935 in London and is buried in Belfast City Cemetery. Her obituaries remembered her as a woman of significant influence across various fields, including industry, philanthropy, social service, learning and the arts.

Lady Pirrie's legacy lives on, notably a marble bust of Margaret is placed at the entrance to the Pirrie ward, symbolising her enduring impact on the city and its people.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our #LocalHistoryMonth journey! If you’ve missed any of the series read all about the shipyard from Queen’s Island to Titanic Quarter, learn about the historic graving docks and meet Lady Pirrie's nephew Thomas Andrews right here in our Titanic Stories.

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