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William Henry White

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Sir William Henry White (1845–1913), Naval Architect.

1845 Born at Devonport on 2 February 1845, was the youngest child of Richard White, a Currier, of Devonport, and 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.

White was largely responsible for collating technical matters, published in Reed's Shipbuilding in Iron and Steel (1869), and for contributing to Reed's Our Iron Clad Ships (1869), and his paper ‘On the stresses of ships’ contributed to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (1871).

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.

In 1883 White left the Admiralty to become designer and manager to Armstrong, Mitchell and Co at their warship yard, then being constructed at Elswick-on-Tyne.

He left Armstrongs in 1885 when, on Sir Nathaniel Barnaby's retirement, he was appointed director of naval construction.

1899-1900 President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers

White, who left three sons and one daughter, was twice married: first, in 1875 to Alice (d. 1886), daughter of F. Martin, of Pembroke, chief constructor, RN; and second, in 1890 to Annie (who survived him), daughter of F. C. Marshall JP, of Tynemouth.

1908 Founding member and President of the Institute of Metals.[1]

1913 February 27th. White died suddenly, in the Westminster Hospital, Westminster, London

1913 Obituary [2]

Sir WILLIAM HENRY WHITE, K.C.B., LL.D., D.Sc., F.R.S., was born at Devonport on 2nd February 1845, and, after education in the local schools, began work as an apprentice shipwright in the Royal Dockyard in his native town, attending meanwhile the dockyard school, in which he won an Admiralty scholarship in 1863.

At that time the Admiralty decided to establish the Royal School of Naval Architecture at South Kensington, in conjunction with the Science and Art Department — a school which was merged subsequently in the Royal Naval College at Greenwich; and at the earliest entrance examination he took first place, and continued during his three years' studentship to be first, graduating in 1867 with the Diploma of Fellow (first class).

In that year he entered the Admiralty, was promoted to the rank of Assistant Constructor in 1875, advanced to Chief Constructor in 1881, and, after about two years at Elswick, returned to the Admiralty as head of the Constructive Department, holding the offices of Director of Naval Construction and Assistant Controller of the Royal Navy from October 1885 to February 1902, when he retired owing to ill-health.

During his 35 years' career at the Admiralty he won high recognition for original and arduous work in connection with the development of the science of naval architecture generally.

When at Elswick Works, from 1883-85, he designed warships for Austria, Italy, Spain, China, and Japan, while his designs for two United States cruisers were bought by the authorities at Washington.

On his return to the Admiralty in 1885, the Navy was in an unsatisfactory condition, being made up of a great variety of types, but on Lord George Hamilton's scheme embodied in the Naval Defence Act of 1889 being passed, Sir William (then Mr.) White availed himself of the opportunity of achieving homogeneity of types. The result was the eight ships of the "Royal Sovereign" class. Under the Spencer programme of 1894 he produced nine "Majesties," and in these he was able to reduce the thickness of armour to 9 inches over the water-line, owing to the progress made in the supercarburization and chilling of the steel. The last ships designed were those of the King Edward VII class, of which eight were built.

During his seventeen years' tenure of office he was responsible for the design and construction of 43 battleships, 26 armoured cruisers, 21 first-class, 48 second-class, and 33 third- class protected cruisers, and 74 smaller vessels, exclusive of destroyers. These 245 vessels cost about £100,000,000. He was rewarded by being created a Companion of the Order of the Bath in 1891, a Knight Commander of the Bath in 1895, and by receiving a special grant from Parliament in recognition of "exceptional services to the Navy."

After he had regained his health, which had been so undermined by his strenuous work at the Admiralty, he gradually took up various appointments where his experience and ability were valuable. Thus, he was on the Cunard Commission which determined the type of machinery to be installed in the "Lusitania" and "Mauretania," and was a director of Messrs. Swan, Hunter and Wigham Richardson, the builders of the latter vessel. He was a director of Parsons Marine Turbine Co., and of the Grand Trunk Railway Co. from the time they entered upon the ownership of steamships, and lately was appointed a Commissioner by the Government to inquire into the question of load-lines of merchant ships.

His "Manual of Naval Architecture," first published in 1877, and since revised, is a standard work, and has been translated into German, Italian, Russian, and Spanish, and no less valuable is his "Treatise on Shipbuilding."

In his early days at the Admiralty he had been entrusted by Sir Edward Reed with the solutions of scientific problems in design and with the preparation of much data for Sir Edward's books on naval architecture, and for eleven years — 1870 to 1881 — he was lecturer at the Royal School of Naval Architecture, which in the interval was removed to Greenwich.

Numerous societies honoured him by electing him to offices of distinction. He was a Honorary Vice-President of the Institution of Naval Architects, and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was elected a Member of this Institution in 1888, was a Member of Council from 1890 to 1897, when he was elected Vice-President, and occupied the Presidential Chair in 1899 and 1900. From then onwards he still showed keen interest in the work of the Institution, and frequently attended the various Committee, Council, and General Meetings. For his Presidential Address he took the subject of "The Connection between Mechanical Engineering and modern Shipbuilding." Although he contributed numerous Papers to various technical societies, the only Paper he gave to this Institution was at the Summer Meeting in Portsmouth in 1892, entitled "Shipbuilding in Portsmouth Dockyard."

On the occasion of the Plymouth Meeting in 1899 under his Presidency, the opportunity was taken by his native Borough of Devonport to present him with the Freedom of the Borough; and in 1902 the Members of the Council presented an excellent portrait of Sir William to this Institution.

All through his career he had seen the necessity for the combination of theoretical and practical training, and had done much to foster research work; this was exemplified by the continuous interest he took in the work of the Alloys Research Committee of this Institution, of which he was Chairman from 1899 to the time of his death.

During 1903-4 he was President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and in 1909 he filled the Chair of the recently-formed Institute of Metals. He was President-Designate of the British Association for this year, of the Mechanical Science Section of which he was President is few years ago. To each Institution he delivered an Address which was worthy of him and characterized by breadth of view. He greatly encouraged all technical colleges and was frequently in request as a speaker at the distribution of prizes and other functions.

He received honours from several Universities. He was a D.Sc. of Cambridge, an LL.D. of Glasgow, a D.Eng. of Sheffield, and a D.Sc. of Durham and of Columbia, N.Y. He was a Past-Master of the Shipwrights' Company of London. Many foreign Institutions honoured him, and in 1911 the "John Fritz Medal" was awarded him for his "notable achievements in naval architecture," by a special Board of Award appointed by the four leading engineei societies in America; and the King of Denmark conferred upon him the dignity of Knight Commander of the Order of Dannebrog.

His death took place suddenly after a paralytic seizure at his office in Westminster, on 27th February 1913, at the age of sixty-eight.

1913 Obituary [3]

1913 Obituary [4]

SIR WILLIAM HENRY WHITE, K.C.B., F.R.S., formerly Director of Naval Construction and Assistant Controller of the Royal Navy, died suddenly on the 27th February, 1913, in Westminster Hospital, where he was brought, suffering from a paralytic seizure, from his office in Victoria Street, shortly after noon.

The extent and intensity of the regret which his untimely end awakened, and the universality of the tribute paid to his genius, are only just recognitions of the great services which Sir William White rendered in advancing naval architecture from both scientific and practical standpoints, and of the conscientious and most successful work he did in the responsible position he held for 7 years at the Admiralty....(more)

1913 Obituary [5]

Sir WILLIAM HENRY WHITE, K.C.B., F.R.S., died at Westminster Hospital on February 21, 1913, somewhat suddenly, as on the previous day he had been at his office in Victoria Street as usual. He was born at Devonport, on February 2, 1845. His father, Richard White, was a native of Devonport. From the days of his childhood he was greatly attracted to everything connected with naval life. After attending school he was apprenticed in March 1859 as a shipwright at the Royal Naval Dockyard. In 1863 he gained a Scholarship offered by the Admiralty, and a year later entered the Royal School of Naval Architecture, of which, in after years, he became a Professor.

After finishing his course at the School, he entered the Admiralty, first as Private Secretary to Mr. (afterwards Sir) Edward Reed, but on the resignation of Sir Edward Reed the new post of Chief Constructor of the Navy was instituted, and William White was appointed Secretary to the Commission over which the Constructor presided.

In 1881 White, who had acted as Assistant Constructor, was given the rank of Chief Constructor, a position he held for two years. In 1883 Sir William (afterwards Lord) Armstrong offered White the task of the organisation and erection of the establishments of Elswick, but, on the resignation of Sir Nathaniel Barnaby as Director of Naval Construction, he was invited to fill that position and return to the Admiralty. The title of his new post was Director of Naval Construction and Assistant Controller of the Navy.

Throughout his whole career he evinced the most scrupulous conscientiousness, and his orderly mind left its impress at the Admiralty during the time of his connection with it.

During this period water-tube boilers were introduced, and to Sir William is attributed the first use of oil fuel for' firing boilers in British warships. Owing to failing health, he retired in 1902, and was voted a special grant by Parliament in recognition of his services. He was at one time a Director of the firm of Swan, Hunter and Wigham Richardson, and was a member of numerous scientific bodies. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society, President-elect of the British Association, and had filled the Presidential Chair of the Institutions of Civil Engineers, Mechanical Engineers, Junior Engineers, and the Institute of Metals. He had been Chairman of the Council of the Society of Arts, he was an Honorary Vice-President of the Institution of Naval Architects and of various engineering societies at home and abroad. He was a Past-Master of the Shipwrights Company, and a Member of the governing body of the Imperial College of Science and Technology. He was the recipient of numerous Honorary Degrees, including that of LL.D., Glasgow, D.Sc. Cambridge, Durham, Columbia University, New York, and Dr. Eng. Sheffield University. He was made a Knight Commander of the Bath in 1895. In 1911 he was awarded the John Fritz Medal for his achievements in naval architecture.

He was elected a member of the Iron and Steel Institute in 1889, but owing to his multifarious activities he found himself compelled to resign his membership in 1896.

1913 Obituary [6]

By the death of Sir William Henry White on February 27, 1913, in his sixty-eighth year, the Institute of Metals lost one of its most striking and brilliant personalities. Sir William was foremost among those who were identified with the inception of the Institute. He became its first President in 1909 and was elected its first Fellow. Gifted with a facile pen and a trenchant and persuasive eloquence, his contributions to the Institute, as to other scientific and technical societies, were marked by a lucidity of expression and breadth of knowledge which placed them in the front rank of contemporary achievements; but Sir William's career as a Naval Architect necessarily makes the strongest appeal to all interested in technical pursuits.

He entered his Majesty's Dockyard, Devonport, by open competition in 1859, as a Dockyard apprentice, and if genius can be regarded as an infinite capacity for taking pains then he undoubtedly had genius. At a time when there were no technical schools, he as a youth culled information from all available sources. His industry and attainments won him an Admiralty Scholarship after serving as an apprentice for four years, and in 1864, after obtaining the first position in a competitive examination, he proceeded to the Royal School of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, South Kensington. Here he stood foremost amongst his contemporaries, his originality and capacity for work marking him as one whose probable destiny it was to have a prominent future in the profession of Naval Architecture.

On completion of his studies he was the recipient of the Diploma of Fellowship (first class) of the Royal School of Naval Architecture, and then proceeded (at the age of twenty-two) to the Admiralty, the Constructive Department of which was at this time under the direction of Sir Edward Reed.

During this period of his career White showed that he was no pedant, and was always seeking to put to practical use ideas springing from the work of his earlier training. He may be said to have first come prominently into notice in the Department by his detailed work in connection with the Committee on Designs in 1871 and onward when he assisted that body, and more particularly Sir Nathaniel Barnaby, in making the detailed calculations involved in new ship designs especially as regarded stability. This work was characterized by such thoroughness that the Department quickly recognized in him one whose energy, knowledge, and resource promised early distinction.

In the year 1877 he published his "Manual of Naval Architecture," which, by its wealth of principles and facts, and easy literary style, has become a classic among text books, and has done more to raise the study of this science to its present high level than any previous work on the subject. In this book (revised in later years) White gave unstintingly of his laboriously acquired knowledge, and for this it may be said that every student of Naval Architecture is his debtor.

White's intimate association with two naval architects of such repute as Sir Edward Reed and Si Nathaniel Barnaby was no doubt of great advantage to him, and promotion came rapidly, for at the early age of thirty-six he attained the rank of Chief Constructor. The recognition of his ability was not confined to Service circles, for two years later he entered upon a most important stage in his career, by accepting the invitation of Sir William Armstrong to organize and direct the now world famous shipbuilding establishment at Elswick which was just being formed. Here White had to contend with conditions which were largely different from those to which he was accustomed at the Admiralty, the demands of a private shipyard requiring the addition of commercial qualities to sound professional abilities.

At the Admiralty he would be judged chiefly by his designing ability and by his capacity to secure that the Crown obtained the best value possible, within the limits imposed by the Board of Admiralty, in the designs he initiated or assisted in completing.

At Elswick, in addition to being responsible for satisfactory designs, he would be required to make the building of ships a commercial success, and his abilities as an organizer would thereby be severely tested. That he rose to the height expected of him by Sir William Armstrong (afterwards Lord Armstrong) is evidenced by the strong reluctance of the latter to dispense with his services after he had been with the firm only two years and a half (from 1883 to 1885).

In 1885 Sir Nathaniel Barnaby was forced to relinquish his post of Director of Naval Construction at the Admiralty through continued ill- health ; Lord George Hamilton was then First Lord of the Admiralty, and big changes being contemplated in the Fleet, he, with a discernment which must be placed to his credit, considered White to be the man of the moment capable of performing what can be said to have been, in the light of later events, a Herculean task. All his aspirations at the time were centred in the advancement of Elswick Shipyard, and the remuneration offered by the Admiralty was on a much less generous scale than he could expect to attain at Elswick ; yet, when he found that his firm was willing, though reluctantly, to yield to the pressing inquiries of the First Lord of the Admiralty, he returned once more to the Public Service, this time as Director of Naval Construction, becoming in addition at a later period Assistant Controller of the Navy. From this time it can be truly said his personality and abilities became of high national importance.

Looking retrospectively at the sequence of events we see how first his youthful abilities attracted the notice of the chiefs of his profession at the Admiralty, how his ability and energy there placed his reputation on a surer footing, and attracted the notice of Sir William Armstrong, one of the pioneers of industry, and how he increased the range of his experience and duties at Elswick to finally give his acquirements to the nation through the Admiralty. Four years after his rejoining the Admiralty (in 1889) came the Naval Defence Act, involving an expenditure of 22i millions sterling, and providing for the construction of seventy vessels. It is on record that Lord George Hamilton would not have consented to the spending of such a large sum of money unless he had had the highest confidence in his Director of Naval Construction.

The years that followed were strenuous ones for both the Constructive and Engineering Departments, as many now serving at the Admiralty can remember. The strain in preparing the various designs, almost wholly new departures, was enormous, and Sir William was ever in the forefront inspiring both his superiors, colleagues, and subordinates with his unbounded faith and optimism, and by none was he more respected than by his colleagues in the engineering branch of the Admiralty.

It is unnecessary in this short appreciation to recapitulate the types of ships for which he was responsible both at this and at later stages. Some strong criticisms were levelled at certain of the designs, but these were only to be expected where new departures were made, and the brilliant Director of Naval Construction was a doughty champion who was ever ready to enter the lists of controversy and offer efficient defence of his proposals. There can be no doubt that the majority of his designs called forth the eulogy of naval constructors of all countries, and in many important features were largely copied by foreign nations. In 1891 be was awarded a C.B., and in 1895 a K.C.B. and a special grant by Parliament for his exceptional services to the Navy. Sir William's discernment was shown later on in the matter of the introduction of water-tube boilers in his Majesty's fleet, a course strongly supported by him. Much controversy followed the action of the Admiralty, and in this controversy Sir William joined and strenuously upheld the Admiralty Engineering Department.

Sir William's activities through his whole life were widely distributed, and were evidenced in many fields of mechanical science. For many years he was Instructor in Naval Architecture at South Kensington and. the Royal Naval College, and most of his professional papers he contributed to the Institution of Naval Architects, of which he was Honorary Vice-President (the highest position a professional member can attain in that body). Other Societies of which he was elected President were the Institute of Marine Engineers, the Junior Institution of Engineers, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and the Institution of Civil Engineers. He was also President-Elect of the British Association, of which he had already been President of the Mechanical Science Section. He was a Fellow of the Royal Societies of London and Edinburgh, the recipient of many honorary degrees from various Universities, including LL.D. (Glasgow and Bristol), Sc.D. (Cambridge), D.Sc. (Durham and Columbia), D.Eng. (Sheffield). He was an Honorary Member of many foreign scientific bodies, among which may be mentioned the Royal Academy of Science, Sweden ; the Assoc. Technique Maritime ; the American Societies of Civil Engineers ; Mechanical Engineers, and Naval Architects, and the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers. His literary abilities greatly added to his power of conveying technical principles and knowledge to his readers and audiences. He was keen in debate, and ever ready to stenuously maintain his opinions, but always courteous to his opponents.

Sir William's strenuous application to duty rendered it necessary for him on several occasions to take prolonged absences on sick leave, and in 1902 his health became so unsatisfactory that he deemed it his duty to retire from the public service. That he did so full of honours is admitted by all. On retirement he was given a special Parliamentary grant in recognition of his distinguished services, and in view of the fact that his health had broken down during an extended period of very severe pressure consequent on the enlarged shipbuilding programme of preceding years. After a period of rest when he regained his health, Sir William renewed his activities in his profession by becoming associated with prominent shipbuilding and engineering firms, and, from time to time, contributed many valuable papers on Naval Architecture and kindred subjects—notably one on the principles of Submarine Design. His special interest in the inauguration of the Institute of Metals is too well known to be specially dilated upon. He was its inspiration, and was respected and beloved by all its members. H. J. O.

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