Right from the fateful March 31 1909 when the keel of the Titanic was laid down at Harland and Wolff, the chairman of the company, former Lord Mayor of Belfast Lord William James Pirrie, was a regular visitor to his shipyard to watch the largest liner in the world, his brainchild, taking shape on its gantry.
But as the weeks turned into months and the great ship started to dominate the skyline, next to slightly smaller sister The Olympic, the 3,000 skilled workmen engaged on the mighty task were laying out wagers on whether His Lordship would actually sail on the maiden voyage of the White Star Line’s pride and joy.
For Pirrie had already been in session with his favourite palmist – there were a few of them around that year – Count Louis Hamon, soothsayer to author Mark Twain and other celebs, who advised the H&W boss on no account to board the Titanic on her first trip across the Atlantic. “Stay on dry land or face the consequences,” was the word from the man who predicted the deaths of King Edward VII and King Humbert of Italy.
So Pirrie, a sick man anyhow with prostrate problems, was content to massage his Titanic obsession on shore the following April when the Titanic sailed away without him. In fairness this Viscount never had inkling that his palmist, whose professional name was Cheiro, had, without realising it himself, foretold a terrible disaster with his advice not to board.
Dr Ian Adamson, like Pirrie a Conlig man, and Lord Mayor of Belfast exactly 100 years after His Lordship and now the city’s High Sheriff, has researched the shipyard boss’s face to face with the palmist who read his hand and arguably saved his life.
Adamson dismisses the theory that Pirrie stayed home because he feared that if he was too prominent at the launch and later among passengers on board he would invite criticism, some of which he had already suffered, over his support for the Home Rule campaign that was being proposed by the British Government at the time.
“After the launch of his wonder ship exactly 100 years ago today he became deeply engrossed in the preparation of the liner for the ocean, always aware that he would stay on the dockside when she left on her maiden voyage,” emphasises Dr Adamson. “His passionate faith in palmistry and the occult held good and he never doubted that it was written in his stars that he would not be on that first voyage of a liner he believed would revolutionise the shipping business.
He was aware that Count Hamon had also written to British journalist William Stead in June 1911, telling him it would be dangerous to travel on water the following April, especially during the middle of the month. It is a fact that Stead ignored the advice of Cheiro, took his cabin on the Titanic and went down with the ship on April 14 1912…”
Lord Pirrie never wavered from his decision to take heed of what turned out to be good advice from Cheiro his soothsayer, with whom he had several meetings. He did turn up in his Rolls Royce at Southampton to see the Titanic sail away – but that was as far as he was prepared to go.
“Pirrie was only a soft supporter of Home Rule,” says Dr Adamson. “It was his palmist and to some extent, too, his poor health at that time that kept him from that fateful final voyage. Afterwards His Lordship became a vital figure for the British Government, organising mercantile shipping during the Great War.”
But in the end Lord Pirrie did die at sea 12 years later.
One afternoon in the summer of 1924 he became ill on a liner whose name in English was The Carrier on which he was aboard during a business trip to South America and passed away, aged 71. His body was brought home in state from New York aboard the H&W super liner he loved best of all – the Olympic which had been built side by side with the Titanic.
The self-made tycoon, who turned the mediocre Belfast shipyard where he had started as an apprentice into a world beater, was buried in the City Cemetery.
William James, born in Quebec, was the son of James Alexander Pirrie who had moved to Canada with his wife in 1844 to seek his fortune. After his death from cholera at only 27 his widow returned home to Northern Ireland with her two children Eliza 4 and WJ who was only two.
They settled in Conlig House, near Bangor, Co. Down, and in his teens William became an apprentice in H&W at the beginning of a fairytale rise to the very top, winding up as the chairman.
Three great ships, the Olympic, the Titanic and the Britannic were his ultimate dream and after the Olympic rolled down the slipway with the Titanic ready to follow his only topic at the breakfast table in either East Belfast or Belgravia where he had homes was the dawning of the era of super-liners which would cross the Atlantic faster than any vessel had gone before. Speed he would emphasise had become the byword of the sea and the Titanic was built for speed.
Lord Pirrie was a familiar and constant figure at the Harland & Wolff yard in the 10 months it took to fit out Titanic and prepare her for her role as the largest luxury liner afloat. He watched carefully as his skilled workforce gave her grace and beauty and dreamed of the day she would win the Blue Riband for the ocean crossing for her P&O owners. He would even go on deck to challenge the colour of the decor in some of the state rooms and demand that it should be changed. He wanted the ship to be looking her best for the distinguished first class passengers who would be paying good money to sail in her.
Then on that frosty April day in 1912 on her only venture out to sea the Titanic brushed the iceberg and his dream became a nightmare.