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Lord Pirrie was a pupil at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, where there is a house named after him, and entered Harland & Wolff as an apprentice in 1862. He rose quickly through the ranks, becoming a partner in 1874 and then chairman. He also served as Lord Mayor of Belfast from 1896-1897.

Pirrie was instrumental in the building of the Titanic, the decision coming about in 1907 during a dinner party discussion between Pirrie, his wife and J. Bruce Ismay, as to how the White Star Line, of which Ismay was managing director, could trounce their rivals Cunard.

It is highly likely that during Pirrie and Ismay’s many discussions throughout the 1098 days it took the men of Belfast to construct the ship, the pair often reached for a contemplative cigar from the embossed and stippled cigar box, pictured above, which took pride of place on Pirrie’s desk at Harland & Wolff. The box was assayed in London in 1901, was decorated in floral and foliate relief and bore an engraved crest. Upon his retirement, Pirrie presented the box to his secretary, Arthur Marshall, and it has passed by descent to his granddaughter, now living in South Africa.

Owing to the importance of Lord Pirrie to the citizens of Belfast, the box was shipped from South Africa to the Belfast auction rooms of John Ross & Co, where it was sold on April 17 – two days after the 91st anniversary of the notorious sinking. Auctioneer Daniel Clarke felt it would make upwards of £1000, but he was not prepared for the huge interest from across the globe, which drove the price up to £7000 plus 121/2 per cent premium, paid by a local lady who has since given the box as a present to her son.