Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement/White, William Henry

WHITE, Sir WILLIAM HENRY (1845–1913), naval architect, born at Devonport 2 February 1845, was the youngest child of Richard White, a currier, of Devonport, by his wife, Jane, daughter of W. Matthews, of Lostwithiel, Cornwall. He was educated at a private school at Devonport and apprenticed as a shipwright in the royal dockyard there. In 1864 he and seven fellow-apprentices were appointed by the Admiralty to the then newly-founded royal school of naval architecture at South Kensington to undergo a training in naval architecture, higher mathematics, physics, and chemistry; and in 1867 he passed out from this school, obtaining its highest honours. He and five others were at once appointed to the Admiralty staff by Sir Edward James Reed [q.v.], the chief constructor of the navy, White being engaged as a professional secretary to Sir Edward. Many warships with iron hulls were then building, in private yards as well as in the royal dockyards, in succession to vessels with wooden hulls. New methods of construction were therefore being devised, and numerous structural features were under discussion. It was desirable to collate and publish these. Reed did this in his book, Shipbuilding in Iron and Steel, published in 1869; in the preparation of this White was given a large share, as also in Reed's Our Iron Clad Ships (1869), and in the paper On the Stresses of Ships contributed by Reed to Philosophical Transactions (1871). In 1870 Reed retired from the position of chief constructor of the navy, when the office was put into commission with Mr. (afterwards Sir) Nathaniel Barnaby [q.v.] as president of the council of construction. This council appointed White as its secretary (1872).

Shortly after Reed's retirement, H.M.S. Captain, a fully-rigged, low-freeboard turret ship, designed by Captain Cowper Phipps Coles [q.v.] and built by a private firm, capsized, most of her crew being drowned. Amongst the ships then building from Reed's designs were the ‘all big gun’ battleships Devastation and Thunderer, of comparatively low freeboard but with no sail. The loss of the Captain drew especial attention to these vessels, and a committee was appointed to report on their safety. The council of construction proposed certain alterations, which were finally approved by the committee and adopted by the Admiralty, largely through White's advocacy. The first important design approved by the council of construction (Barnaby being the responsible designer) was that of the ‘all big gun’ Inflexible of 1876. She carried four muzzle-loading 16-inch 80 ton guns, mounted en échelon, two in each of two turrets on a central citadel. The side armour was limited to the central part of the vessel, and the ends, which had thin side plating, were fitted with high and thick cork belts and strong under-water decks. The design was attacked by Reed and was referred for report by the Admiralty to a naval and scientific committee. The committee was convinced of its merit by the defence, which was left largely to White. The Inflexible and four other vessels, of the same type but somewhat smaller, were built and passed into the fleet.

The breech-loading gun was now so far developed as to be adopted in the Collingwood, a vessel of Barnaby's design, laid down in 1880. Turrets were abandoned, and the main armament, of four 12-inch guns in pairs in two barbettes, was mounted on the middle line, one pair towards each end of the vessel. The weights of the revolving material and of the power to actuate it were much reduced, and a secondary armament of six 6-inch guns was carried between the barbettes of the main armament. The cost then considered permissible for a battleship, about £650,000, made it necessary to accept a comparatively narrow belt of armour of about half the length of the ship, leaving the sides at the ends unprotected with armour as in previous vessels. The lower portions of the ends were protected by strong under-water decks, but cork buoyancy was not provided. This design also was very adversely criticised by Reed, and by many naval officers, and others. The defence was again left largely to White; the Admiralty eventually accepted the design, and built the Collingwood and five similar vessels with somewhat more powerful armament—Rodney, Howe, Anson, Camperdown, and Benbow.

White gave much consideration to the design of cruisers, and particularly to that of the Iris, laid down in 1875—the first steel vessel built for the navy. He was also one of Barnaby's principal assistants in designing the cruisers Mersey, Severn, Thames, and Forth, commenced in 1883. These were by far the most powerful of the smaller cruisers then in the navy; they had a speed of 17 knots, a powerful armament, and were protected for their whole length by a strong deck, rising above the water at the middle line of the ship from well below water at the sides. For many years this remained the accepted type of Admiralty cruiser, culminating in 1894 (after White had become director of naval construction) in the Powerful and Terrible.

In 1883 White left the Admiralty to become designer and manager to Armstrong & Co. at their warship-yard then being constructed at Elswick-on-Tyne. There he did much good work, assisting in laying out the yard and organizing the staff, and designing and building several of the earlier Elswick vessels. He left Armstrong's in 1885 when, on Sir Nathaniel Barnaby's retirement, he was appointed director of naval construction. On his return to the Admiralty as the head of the construction department (1885) he made various improvements in each class of vessel, embodying advances made in machinery, gunnery, and quality of materials. He designed the Barfleur and Centurion, of 11,000 tons, for service in eastern waters. Step by step he progressed through the eight vessels of the Royal Sovereign class of 1889, and thirty-five additional battleships, to the King Edward VII class, the building of which began in 1902. This class was of 16,500 tons, with an armament of four 12-inch guns, four 9.2-inch guns, and ten 6-inch guns, and a speed of 18½ knots. The cost had risen from £650,000 in the Collingwood to £1,500,000 in the King Edward VII. Several of these vessels were employed in service during the European War. Much improvement was made in the large cruisers. In the ‘protected’ class (without side armour) these ranged from the Crescent of 7,700 tons and a speed of 19½ knots to the Powerful and Terrible of 14,200 tons and a speed of 22 knots. In all, twenty ‘protected’ cruisers were built for the royal navy to White's designs. Owing to improvements in the quality of armour the next design for large cruisers—that for the six vessels of the Cressy class—provided for 6-inch side armour, 12,000 tons displacement, and a speed of 21½ knots. A bigger design was that for the four vessels of the Drake class of 14,100 tons and a speed of 23½ knots. Twenty-eight large armoured cruisers were built to White's designs. Many smaller cruisers, torpedo boat destroyers, and miscellaneous vessels, were designed by White and built for the royal navy, but space is not available for their description. In 1902 White retired on account of ill-health. During his seventeen years' service as director of naval construction larger additions were made to the navy than in any preceding period of the same length.

In the early days (1870–1873) of his career White was appointed lecturer on naval design at the royal school, South Kensington, and he continued (until 1881) to act in this capacity on the transfer of the school to the Royal Naval College at Greenwich. While there he formulated a scheme of instruction in naval architecture for the executive officers of the royal navy which has been continued to the present time. In association with Sir Nathaniel Barnaby, Admiral Sir Houston Stewart [q.v.], and Sir Thomas Brassey (afterwards Earl Brassey) [q.v.] he devised the organization of the royal corps of naval constructors, dating from 1883. During his year of office as master of the Worshipful Company of Shipwrights, he, with the assistance of the first Lord Norton [q.v.], founded the educational trust fund, which during the past forty years has helped hundreds of young naval architects to obtain a technical education. He was for some years on the governing body of the National Physical Laboratory, during which time he took much interest in the installation of the William Froude tank. He had considerable literary ability: his Manual of Naval Architecture (first edition, 1877) is a model of clear, popular exposition of a difficult subject; it is enriched by many data that reached the Admiralty during his period of service, especially results of original scientific investigations obtained by William Froude [q.v.]. He contributed twenty papers, all of great merit, to the Transactions of the Institution of Naval Architects. He also wrote many important articles for leading magazines, and several pamphlets on special subjects connected with naval architecture.

Many honours were awarded White, among them his appointment in 1885 as assistant controller of the navy; he received the K.C.B. in 1895. He was of genial personality, much liked by his fellows, a ready debater, lucid in his statements and convincing to his opponents. He was a welcome guest at the dinners of many City companies, at which he frequently exercised his influence to obtain donations for assistance in educational matters.

White, who left three sons and one daughter, was twice married: first, in 1875 to Alice (died 1886), daughter of F. Martin, of Pembroke, chief constructor, R.N.; and secondly, in 1890 to Annie (who survived him), daughter of F. C. Marshall, J.P., of Tynemouth. He died suddenly in London 27 February 1913, leaving behind him a brilliant record of work and an example to the corps which he did much to inaugurate. During his lifetime the ‘wooden walls of old England’, wooden ships carrying what are now regarded as feeble armaments, were replaced by iron and steel armoured vessels carrying guns of very great power. In this revolution Sir William White played an important part.

[Admiralty records; Transactions of the Institution of Naval Architects; Proceedings of the Royal Society, vol. lxxxix, A, 1913–1914; personal knowledge.]

P. W.