Our founder, William Henry

Without William Henry, the Royal Life Saving Society as we know it would not exist. Very few figures in history have done more to advance the cause of drowning prevention.

We are indebted to David Browne from RLSS UK, for the following profile of William Henry. Readers may also be interested in this ‘In Memoriam’ document, which was included in the conference programme for the Society’s 125th Anniversary events in London in February 2016.

Henry’s background and sporting success

Henry William Nawrocki was born on 28 June 1859, at 35 Wakefield Street, London. His father Joseph Nawrocki had served with distinction in the Crimean War, and his mother Elizabeth (nee Armour) had been a nurse with Florence Nightingale.

Not much is known about his early life, but he appears to have spent several years in Prussia, his father’s homeland. In March 1883, the 24-year-old Henry Nawrocki married Elizabeth Spencer, five years his senior, at the Parish Church of St. Pancras, London. The couple lived in Elizabeth’s house at 3 Clarendon Square, Somerstown. Soon afterwards he changed his name by Deed Poll to “William Henry” at the behest, family tradition has it, of Queen Victoria.

A certificate presented to William Henry by the New South Wales Amateur Swimming Association in 1907

In 1879, Henry had joined the Zephyr Swimming Club and soon began winning trophies. In 1882 he won the Clayton fifty guineas Challenge Cup; in 1889 the Salt Water Championship Cup; in 1890 the Long Distance Championship and several first prizes in international competitions in Belgium, Austria, Italy, Germany and Sweden. In 1906 he became the oldest-ever winner of an Olympic medal in swimming when he took bronze in the 4 x 250 metre relay in Athens. He is also credited with formalising the rules of water polo, at which he was also an expert practitioner. After early success in England, he was a member of the winning water polo team at the Olympics of 1900.

His involvement in swimming raised Henry’s awareness of the problem of drowning in Victorian times. Concerned at the huge loss of life from drowning (around 3,000 per year in 1880s in England and Wales alone) he petitioned the Royal Humane Society in 1887, asking them to undertake the training of life saving skills, but no action was taken.

The birth of the Society

Determined to address the issue of drowning prevention, Henry and a group of like-minded individuals, including Archibald Sinclair, resolved to set up an organisation to teach swimmers the skills of life-saving. On 3 January 1891 the group met at Anderton’s Hotel in London, and scheduled the first General Meeting of the Swimmer’s Life Saving Society for 7th February.

The Society was immediately popular, and was initially administered by William Henry and Archibald Sinclair from Henry’s home at 3 Clarendon Square. With the growth of the Society in the 1890s it soon became apparent that a larger premises would be required, and Henry moved in to 8 Bayley Street, Tottenham Court Road in 1897. This became the Society’s headquarters until his death in 1928.

Within a few months of its formation, the Society established an annual series of public lectures and demonstrations of the principles of lifesaving, no doubt similar to the Royal Institution’s renowned Christmas Lectures®. These classes must have been effective, for in 1892 more than half the cases of rescue and resuscitation recorded were attributed to members of the Society and others who had witnessed the demonstrations. William Henry was well connected in Victorian society, no doubt arising from his role as swimming teacher to the British Royal family, whom he taught at the Bath Club, Piccadilly in London. The society continued to grow, and astonishingly, within a year of its formation, had a membership of over 50,000. In 1893, the Duke of York became honorary President of the new Society.

Promoting drowning prevention around the world

In 1894, the Society’s Annual General Meeting discussed a proposal to form a Branch in New South Wales, Australia. Also that year, the Templemore Amateur Swimming Club in Belfast affiliated to the Society and gave a public exhibition of lifesaving, and in England the Manchester Branch was formed.

In 1897, William Henry undertook a tour of England, Scotland and Ireland, promoting the Society and giving public exhibitions of lifesaving techniques. In May 1897 he visited Belfast, and later that month gave an exhibition in Dublin. As a result of the tour, a branch was also established in Scotland. In 1898, representatives of the Society toured Sweden, resulting in the establishment of a Swedish life saving society, and the translation of the Society’s manual into Swedish. The manual was later translated into German, Italian and Finnish. In 1904, in recognition of the good work performed, King Edward VII granted the Society a royal charter and became its patron.

In August 1909 Henry toured Canada, visiting Montréal, Ottawa, Cobuorg, Toronto and Hamilton. A local newspaper reported that the found the Canadians very willing to learn the techniques of lifesaving, and no doubt impressed with Henry’s performances, dubbed him “the Human Fish”. In October 1910 Henry visited Australia and New Zealand. Local branches (or clubs) had already been established in Victoria and Queensland in Australia and at Auckland, Wanganui, Wellington, Dunedin and Christchurch in New Zealand). He toured both countries, giving demonstrations and examining candidates for the Bronze Medallion. His main promotional work was giving displays of lifesaving techniques at swimming galas.

William Henry’s grave at Highgate Cemetery, London.

The year after its foundation, the Society hosted the National Life Saving Competition, sponsored by Lever Brothers soap manufacturers. The first winners were the Nottingham team. At the time such galas attracted large crowds, similar to Premier League football games today. At its annual gala held at Highgate Ponds in London in 1911, a crowd of at least 50,000 watched the events.

Henry’s zeal for promoting life saving took him to South Africa in November 1913, resulting in the formation of branches in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban and Pietermaritzburg. Nearly 18,000 proficiency awards were made that year.

Not surprisingly, the outbreak of the First World War resulted in a diminution of the Society’s work, but by the 1920’s awards taken reached around 10,000 per annum. The first phase of the Society’s development was, however, coming to an end.

Archibald Sinclair died in 1922, aged 57 and, on 20 March 1928, William Henry died aged 68, having “unstintingly devoted the whole of his life to further the humanitarian work of saving life from drowning”. In a letter written at the time, his successor Sydney J. Monks expressed the hope that “the splendid result of Mr. Henry’s life’s work should be fostered and helped by swimmers all over the world, and this can best be accomplished by carrying out the aims and objectives of the society in perpetuation of the memory of its founder”.