Henley, William Thomas (DNB00)


HENLEY, WILLIAM THOMAS (1813?–1882), telegraphic engineer, was born in humble circumstances at Midhurst, Sussex, about 1813. Abandoning the leather trade, to which he was brought up, he became about 1829 a light porter at a silk mercer's in Cheapside, and afterwards worked in the docks as a labourer. Meanwhile he taught himself the trade of a philosophical instrument maker, and about 1838 started in business, exhibiting during the same year an electro-magnet motive power machine at the London Institution. When Wheatstone brought out his first electric telegraph, Henley was employed to make the apparatus and assist in experiments. He made instruments for the first Electric Telegraph Company, formed in 1846, and afterwards, in conjunction with Mr. Forster, invented the magnetic needle telegraph. In 1852 he formed a powerful company, called the British and Irish Magnetic Telegraph Company, who purchased the patent for 68,000l. in cash and shares. The Electric Telegraph Company had possession of all the railways, and ridiculed the idea of his connecting the principal towns of the kingdom; but Henley laid his wires underground, digging a trench from London to Carlisle, and from Dublin to Belfast.

Henley was an exhibitor, and obtained a council medal for electricity and magnetism at the Great Exhibition of 1851. He was early in the field as a maker of electric light apparatus, having constructed machines for the Alliance Company of France in 1849, and was the patentee of improved methods of electric lighting.

In 1857 Henley began making submarine cables at Enderby's Wharf, East Greenwich, constructing in that year thirty miles for the straits between Ceylon and the mainland, and nine miles for Egypt, and in 1858 he made 240 miles at the same works for Bass Straits, between Tasmania and Australia. In 1859 he built a cable factory at North Woolwich, and in 1860 made the 365 miles of line for joining the Balearic Islands with Spain. He made several cables of shorter length in 1861, and in 1863 made 1,651 miles of heavy cable to the order of the Indian government for submergence in the Persian Gulf. From a very early date at these works he commenced to galvanise wire and other ironware, and soon after set up machinery for drawing his own wire. Later on he began rolling his own iron and making steel wire, and covered copper wire with indiarubber. Altogether he manufactured here close upon fourteen thousand miles of submarine cable. Besides these establishments, which covered some eighteen acres of ground, and where he at one time employed as many as two thousand men, Henley had ironworks in Wales and collieries. In the height of this work he employed three ships, all fitted for cable laying. For some six years he was making profits of 80,000l. a year. The Welsh ironworks were the beginning of misfortunes, and in 1874 Henley failed for about 500,000l. In 1876 a limited liability company was formed to carry on the work in London, under the title of W. T. Henley & Co. (Lim.), of which Henley was managing director, but this eventually was wound up, the bulk of the ground and works becoming the property of the Telegraph Construction Company. A portion of the works was reopened in 1880 as W. T. Henley's Telegraph Works Company (Limited), of which Henley was a director up to the time of his death. At these works he manufactured his ozokerited indiarubber core, which was one of his latest patents.

Henley died at Chesterton House, Plaistow, Essex, on 13 Dec. 1882, in the sixty-ninth year of his age (Times, 15 Dec. 1882, obit. col. and p. 5), and was buried on the 18th at Kensal Green cemetery. His early struggles enabled him to thoroughly understand his workmen, who were devoted to him. Even when making large profits he lived in great simplicity, and was constantly at his works. As soon as he made money he spent it on increase of plant.

[Engineer, 22 Dec. 1882, p. 471; Electrician, 23 Dec. 1882, p. 136.]

G. G.