David Browne, a member of the Royal Life Saving Society UK, has been digging into the history of the Society’s founder, William Henry. Here he shares with us what he has found.

There are many pilgrimages undertaken by the devout – the Christian Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the Muslim Hajj, even the Elvis fan’s trip to Graceland.  But for the lifesaving faithful, there can surely be no more sacred destination than the final resting place of the Society’s founding father, William Henry. He was buried among the famous residents of Highgate Cemetery in London in 1928, perhaps a fitting place of repose considering that many of the Society’s early activities took place at Highgate bathing ponds, less than a mile away. His fine marble headstone, by the firm of Millward & Co. of Stoke Newington, was erected ‘by members and friends of the Society’ and bears a relief of the Society’s logo, and a touching tribute from his wife.

William Henry lived most of his life in the St. Pancras district of London. He was born Henry William Nawrocki, to Joseph and Elizabeth Nawrocki, at 75 Wakefield Street, in 1859. As a young man he worked as an upholsterer and lived just around the corner, at 42 Judd Street. In 1891, the year that he founded the Society, he was working as an upholsterer’s foreman. In 1883 he married a farmer’s daughter from Eversley, Hampshire, Elizabeth Spencer. The wedding took place at the New St. Pancras Parish Church. After the marriage, the couple moved into the house where Elizabeth had lived with her uncle, at 3 Clarendon Square, Somerstown. It was from here that The Life Saving Society operated from its foundation in 1891 until moving to larger offices at 8 Bayley Street by 1899.


No doubt he found his Polish surname to be a bit unwieldy, and so in 1896 he changed his name by deed poll to William Henry. He was a celebrated swimmer, at a time when swimming galas regularly attracted audiences of thousands. At the 1900 Olympics in Paris, he came eighth in the 200 metres obstacle event (it is not just a recent invention) and in 1908 for the London Olympics, he designed the swimming pool and a unique mobile diving platform, which was retracted below the pool for the swimming events. After a lifetime promoting the work of drowning prevention and lifesaving, during which he travelled the world and became a famous celebrity, William Henry died from heart failure at the age of 68 years, at 45 Tavistock Square, only a few hundred yards from his birthplace.

So next time you are in London, why not take some time to visit Highgate Cemetery and take a few moments to remember the founder of the RLSS.  In order to locate the grave among the 51,000 in Highgate Cemetery, please contact RLSS UK reception at River House, who will be able to provide you with a map. The grave reference is as follows – Plot 75, Grave Number 44309. Any visitors can ask at reception when they buy their admission ticket, and the staff on duty will be able to direct them to the correct area.