RLSS UK’s Ireland Branch Regional Ambassador, David Browne, looks into the history of RLSS founder, William Henry ahead of the RLSS 125th anniversary this year. 

Henry William Nawrocki was born on 28 June 1859, at 35 Wakefield Street, London. Not much is known about his early life, but he appears to have spent several years in Germany, his father’s homeland. In March 1883, the 24-year-old Henry Nawrocki married Elizabeth Spencer 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.

In 1879, Henry had joined the Zephyr Swimming Club and soon began winning trophies. In 1906 he became the oldest ever winner, aged 46-years-old, of an Olympic medal in swimming when he took bronze in the 4 x 250 metre relay in Athens. 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 problems 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.

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 lifesaving. On 3 January 1891 the group met at Anderton’s Hotel in London and scheduled the first General Meeting of the Swimmers’ Life Saving Society for 7 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 into 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. These classes were evidently effective, as in 1892 more than half of the cases of rescue and resuscitation recorded were attributed to members of the Society and others who had witnessed the demonstrations. The society continued to grow and, astonishingly, within a year of its formation had a membership of more than 50,000. In 1893, the Duke of York became honorary President of the new society.

In 1894 the Templemore Amateur Swimming Club in Belfast affiliated with 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 1904 Royalty was so satisfied with the work Henry and the Society were doing, that King Edward VII graciously allowed the Society to use the title Royal. However, it was not until 1924 that King George V granted the Royal Charter. A Supplemental Charter was then granted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1960 which brought into effect the new Commonwealth organisation, with five self-governing National Branches.

In October 1910 Henry visited Australia and New Zealand giving demonstrations and examining candidates for the Bronze Medallion. Henry’s zeal for promoting lifesaving took him to South Africa in November 1913, resulting in the formation of branches across the country.

His main promotional work was giving displays of lifesaving techniques at swimming galas. The year after its foundation, the Society hosted the National Life Saving Competition. The first winner was the Nottingham team. At the time, aquatic galas attracted huge crowds. For example, at the Society’s annual gala held at Highgate Ponds in London in 1911, a crowd of at least 50,000 watched the lifesaving events.

Nearly 18,000 proficiency awards were made in 1913. The outbreak of the First World War resulted in a diminution of the Society’s work but by the 1920s, awards taken reached around 10,000 per year. The first phase of the Society’s development was however coming to an end. On 20 March 1928, William Henry died having ‘unstintingly devoted the whole of his life to further the humanitarian work of saving life from drowning’. The words written in a letter at the time by his successor Sydney J. Monks. He 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’.

Alongside our members we have been saving lives since 1891, if you would like to support our great work by offering a donation, no matter how small, it would make a big difference. Thank you