William Pearce: Philanthropist?

William Pearce was born in Brompton, Kent on the 8th January 1833, his parents were Joseph George Pearce and Louisa Lee. He is best remembered as the owner of Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company who built many record breaking transatlantic liners and brought Govan & Glasgow great shipbuilding fame.

William Pearce has also often been described in publications as a philanthropist and a "generous benefactor to the town of Govan"1 and evidently the impressive life-size bronze statue of William Pearce built in Govan by public subscription would appear to be testament to this. One such surviving legacy of Pearce's benevolence can be seen today in the form of the present Govan Parish Church for which Pearce was a major benefactor to the building fund.2 There is also an indirect connection to the Pearce Institute which has served the community of Govan for many years, however this is due to the philanthropy of Pearce's widow and not William Pearce himself.

On closer investigation of William Pearce's relations with his employees, we get a different picture of Pearce and we find an employer who is opposed to the growing labour movement, employer liability and workers rights,2 all of which Pearce seen as being a danger to Britain's competitive edge within the shipbuilding industry.

In the late 1870s and throughout the 1880s relations between employees and Pearce were very strained with industrial disputes a common occurrence, which saw Pearce employ "scab" labour to break strikes, the disputes were exasperated due to the fact that in that period Britain was experiencing a general economic downturn, and shipbuilding on the Clyde was in a state of severe depression, however William Pearce saw this economic downturn as an opportunity and proposed to the workers that if they were prepared to work for reduced wages that he would commission the building of a steamer himself and at his own risk, this opportunism of getting a ship built cheaper at the expense of workers was delivered under the guise of "giving work to the unemployed in the locality" This did not go down well with the labour movement who seen it as a step to a permanent wage reduction.3

In 1880 two years after becoming sole owner of John Elder & Co. we find Pearce undoing the philanthropic work of his predecessor John Elder by withdrawing the company's subscription to the accident fund which Elder had set up, the reason given by Pearce was the introduction of the Employer's Liability Act (which he strongly opposed) and as a result had made up his mind to join the Employer's Liability Insurance Corporation and could not afford to contribute to both.4

William Pearce was also a Burgh Commissioner representing one of the wards within Govan,5 however in 1880 it became apparent that William Pearce had greater political ambitions when he decided to run as a Conservative candidate for the Glasgow constituency in the General Election, doing so in spectacular fashion by disrupting a planned Liberal meeting with Pearce elbowing his way through crowds with a group of followers, at the meeting Pearce was heckled and booed and fights broke out between workers.6 Unfortunately for Pearce he did not win the seat in the 1880 General Election.7 However in 1885 Pearce was to get another opportunity when he ran again as a Conservative candidate this time for the newly created Govan constituency winning the seat by a narrow margin.8

Despite his poor previous employee relations Pearce ironically championed the cause of the working class during the 1885 campaign and later, resulting in a complete u-turn on his earlier opinions on worker's rights.2 Pearce was now of the opinion that Britain could have the competitive edge through superior skills and workmanship unlike some foreign competitors whose workforce worked for longer hours and for less pay.9 The irony of Pearce now supporting workers rights, did not go unnoticed by the Liberal opposition Robert Cunningham Grahame M.P. a founder of the Scottish Labour Party, who referred to Pearce as "a wolf in sheep's clothing".10 In this later period of Pearce's life he also made donations of £500 to the relief fund in Govan11 as well as contributing to the building of the new church mentioned earlier. Perhaps this new found social responsibility was unselfish, however taking into account Pearce's industrial relations prior to the 1885 election it could be fair to surmise that this may have just been another opportunity to be taken advantage of. Dalglish and Driscoll also question Pearce's motives in running for parliament stating that he was "partly motivated by the prospect of new contacts and influence in pursuit of admiralty business."2

Pearce's motives were further publicly questioned during his time as an M.P. both in the press and in the House of Commons.12 During the 1880s many people including Pearce had felt that a disproportionate amount of Admiralty contracts were being given to Thames shipbuilders despite Scottish and Irish shipbuilders bids being lower in many cases. In 1886 a Committee of Inquiry into the system of Purchase and Contract in the Navy was set up to investigate and William Pearce was appointed a member of the committee,13 many felt that there was a conflict of interest in Pearce's appointment and one M.P. in particular raised the matter in the House of Commons in March 1887, William Caine M.P. for Barrow-in-Furness stated that William Pearce's appointment was unfair as "he himself is a disappointed tenderer for many contracts" he further goes on to say that Pearce as a "disappointed tenderer" should not have access to all the confidential documents and plans which have been submitted to the inquiry by his competitors.14 William Pearce replied that he was "not a disappointed tenderer" as he had long realised that he would never get any Navy contracts due to existing impartiality and was merely bidding to remain on the Admiralty list which enabled him to bid in foreign countries.15

William Pearce died in 1888 leaving over £1,000,000 in his will,16 approximately equivalent to £1 Billion today, a huge sum of money by any standards. Given the evidence above we would maybe find it difficult today to see the justification of the people of Govan in subscribing to such an impressive tribute as is the Pearce statue at Govan Cross, however perhaps the statue reflects a very astute businessman who built some of the fastest ships in the world giving Fairfield and Govan international prominence in the shipbuilding industry.

The Bailie, Vol 14, No. 350, July 1879
(The Bailie, Vol 14, No. 350, July 1879)
Personal Information
Full Name William Pearce
Date of Birth 8th January 1835
Place of Birth Brompton, Kent, England
Date of Death 18th December 1888
Place of Death Piccadilly, London, England
Career Shipwright & Naval Architect

Other Information
Govan Burgh Commissioner
Member of Parliament for Govan (1885-88)
1st Baronet of Cardell, Renfrewshire (1887)

Eponyms & Memorials
Pearce Memorial Statue (Black Man)
Pearce Institute, Govan Road
Pearce Lodge (Glasgow University

William Pearce 1880
William Pearce in 1880
(The Bailie, Vol 15, No. 388, March 1880)
William Pearce Statue
William Pearce Statue
(Brotchie's History of Govan)
Black Man Statue
William Pearce Statue (Black Man)
(Photo: Thomas Nugent)

William Pearce: Philanthropist?, © Colin Quigley 2012.

Sources & References

  • 1. The North-Eastern Daily Gazette, December 18, 1888
  • 2. Dalglish, C., Driscoll, S.T. 2009. Historic Govan. Council for British Archaeology
  • 3. The Scotsman, December 3, 1884, pg. 9
  • 4. The Scotsman, December 15, 1880, pg. 7
  • 5. The Scotsman, December 22, 1888, pg. 7
  • 6. The Scotsman, March 31, 1880, pg. 8
  • 7. Glasgow Herald, April 3, 1880
  • 8. Glasgow Herald, December 19, 1885
  • 9. The Scotsman, November 12, 1887, pg. 8
  • 10. Glasgow Herald, March 8, 1887
  • 11. The Scotsman, January 21, 1886, pg. 7
  • 12. Glasgow Herald, March 11, 1887
  • 13. Fairplay: Mr.William Pearce And Navy Contracts, October 15, 1886, pg. 581
  • 14. UK, Commons Sitting, House of Commons, 17 March 1887, 662 (William Caine M.P.)
  • 15. UK, Commons Sitting, House of Commons, 17 March 1887, 688 (William Pearce M.P.)
  • 16. Slaven, A. Sir William Pearce. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.