Preece Family History

         & One Name Study
The website dedicated to the research of Preece individuals and families worldwide

                                                                                                      HOME              BACKGROUND              RECORDS            LOCATIONS           LINKS             NOTABLE PEOPLE            CONTACT ME

Sir William Henry Preece K.C.B., F.R.S. 15 February 1834 - 6 November 1913

William Henry Preece (15 February 1834 – 6 November 1913) was an electrical engineer and inventor, best known as the Chief Engineer to the Post Office. His work covered telegraphy (both wired and wireless), electrical engineering, railway signalling, he was a great supporter of Marconi and helped him greatly in his work. When he retired in 1899 he was knighted in Queen Victoria's Birthday Honours list. He was from Caernarvon in North Wales, becoming the town's first Freeman, and spent a large part of his life in London. He travelled abroad extensively, working on telegraphy projects in various countries. In many ways he is a forgotten name from the late nineteenth century, and this page will attempt to give an outline of a man, indeed a family, that achieved a huge amount.

              Henry Preece

1841 Census
Bron Y Gaer, Llanbeblig, Carnarvon, Wales
Richard M Preece Male 40 Cashier at a Bank No
Jane Preece Female 40   Yes
Jane Elizth Preece Female 20   Yes
Margaret Ellen Preece Female 12   Yes
Mary Catherine Preece Female 10   Yes
William Henry Preece Male 7   Yes
Gwen Ellen Preece Female 5   Yes
George Edward Preece Male 3   Yes
Llewelyn Preece Male 1   Yes
Mary Ann Holloway Female 20   No
Mary Prichard Female 20   Yes
Elizabeth Morton Female 25   Yes
Mary Thomas Female 20   Yes
William Henry had family links to both North and South Wales - his father Richard Matthias Preece was born around 1797 in Cowbridge, Glamorgan, and was the son of a school teacher. Richard Moved to Caernarvon when he was about 20, and started a school. Quite how he came to make this move at such a young age, and quite a distance from his home town, has been lost to history.

In 1817, Richard Matthias married Jane Hughes, the daughter of a local shipbuilder, at Llanbeblig, and they went on to have 12 children, though 4 sadly died in infancy. He was a Wesleyan Methodist, and in 1823, having been elected as a Burgess of the Borough, raised funds to build a Wesleyan Church. In 1825 he secured a post in the Caernarvon branch of the Chester and North Wales Bank. He was elected to the Harbour Trustees in 1831, and subsequently became their chairman and held that post from 1839 to 1843. A portrait of him hangs today in the Harbour Trust offices on the Slate Quay. Richard was then elected Mayor of the town in both 1843 and 1844, and was also the Town Bailiff.

During this time, the children were growing - William Henry had begun school in a room below the Ebenezer Chapel, and went on to attend Bransby's School. Richard was a politician, and ultimately hoped to enter Parliament, and moved his whole family down to London in 1845. He rented 24 Park Square, near Regents Park, and entered William Henry into Kings College School. The plan set out at that time was for Richard to then purchase a Commission in the Army for William, but fate had other ideas - Richard lost heavily in the crashes of 1848 and 1851, which had three effects - he did not have sufficient wealth to enter Parliament (vital at that time), he could not purchase a Commission, and he had to move the family to a smaller property (2 Southampton Street, Fitzroy Square), which he did in late 1851. In the following few years, Richard saw 4 of his daughters - Mary Catherine, Margaret Helen, Eliza Ann and Gwen Ellen - married, and William took his first steps on an unexpected journey into electrical engineering, having lost his chance of a military life.

William attended lectures at the Royal Institution by Faraday in the early 1850's, and in January 1853 he met with Josiah Latimer Clark - soon to become his brother-in-law - to discuss working at the Electric Telegraph Company. Josiah's brother Edwin was Chief Engineer at the company at this time. He gained a position of clerk at the company's offices at 448 West Street. However, he only stayed in this position for a few weeks, and on 14 May was appointed an Assistant to the Engineers staff, going on to work with the Astronomer Royal GB Airey, and Faraday.

Amongst his excitement though, William and his family had been facing their father battling a long illness, and sadly in 1854 he lost his fight. He was only 56.

In 1855 William rented his first house, in Bernard Street, off Regents Park Road. His sister and brother-in-law (Eliza Ann and Frederick Webb) lived opposite. He was continuing to develop telegraphy ideas, and in the same year took out the first of many patents, this one being for duplex telegraph systems, which doubled current capacity on wires.

He was promoted to Superintendent of the Southern Division in 1856, beginning on 15 March, and moved to Southampton, which would have a major influence on his future.
1851 Census
Park Square East, Marylebone, London & Middlesex, England
Richard M Preece Head M 53 Stock and share broker Cowbridge, Glamorgan, Wales
Jane Preece Wife M 52 - Caernarvonshire, Wales
Eliza A Preece Daughter U 26 - Caernarvonshire, Wales
Margaret H Preece Daughter U 22 - Caernarvonshire, Wales
Mary C Preece Daughter U 20 - Caernarvonshire, Wales
William H Preece Son U 17 - Caernarvonshire, Wales
Gwen Ellen Preece Daughter - 15 - Caernarvonshire, Wales
John Rd Preece Son - 7 - Caernarvonshire, Wales
Jane Eliza Preece Daughter U 31 - Caernarvonshire, Wales
Thomas Cox Servant U 31 Serv Buckinghamshire, England
Mary Owen Servant U 27 Serv Caernarvonshire, Wales
Sarah Lister Servant U 24 Serv Thetford, Cambridgeshire, England

1861 Census
Goodridges Hotel, 9 - 10 Queens Terrace, St Mary, Southampton, Hampshire
Thirza Bascombe Head W 45 Hotel keeper Weymouth, Dorset, England
Thirza E G Bascombe Daughter U 17 - Southampton, Hampshire, England
James W G Bascombe Son - 12 Scholar Southampton, Hampshire, England
John J H Bascombe Son - 10 Scholar Southampton, Hampshire, England
Eliza Hampton Assistant U 24 Barmaid Minsterworth, Gloucestershire, England
George E Preece Lodger U 23 Telegrapher engineer Carnarvon, North Wales
Robert B Daire Lodger U 30 Mariner Yarmouth, Norfolk, England
Edwin Bowcher Lodger U 32 Builder Morden, Surrey, England
William H Preece Lodger U 27 Civil engineer Carnarvon, North Wales
For the first time he joined the Institute of Civil Engineers in 1859 as an Associate, and the following year he was awarded the Telford Gold Medal for a paper regarding submarine telegraph cables. In the same year, his increasing interest in the use of telegraphy for railway signalling was rewarded with appointment as Superintendent for the London and South Western Railway.

Around 1861 William met Agnes Pocock, the daughter of Southampton solicitor George Pocock, and they eventually married towards the end of 1863. They went to Paris on honeymoon, and typically of William he brought back with him news of the new electric bells the Hotel were using! They returned to a new address in the town, 15 Park Terrace.

Over the next seven years, 7 children came along - Agnes, William, Arthur, Mary, Percy, Frank, and finally in 1874, Amy. Sadly Amy's birth came at the cost of Agnes' own life - she was just 31. In his grief, William went back to Caernarvon for a spell, leaving his children in the care of his eldest sister Jane Elizabeth.

Once he returned south, he decided to move back to London. He rented a terraced house at 10, Queens Road, on the edge of Primrose Hill, and not too far from his mother and sisters. However, having moved in, he quickly realised it was too inconvenient for him - it was quite a distance from his work with the London and South West Railway, and he began to look for an alternative. By October he had found and moved into Gothic Lodge, on Wimbledon Common, along with his sister Jane and his seven children. He took the property on a 12 year lease, but eventually purchased it outright.

William was a leading figure in the formation of the Society of Telegraph Engineers, which held it's inaugural meeting on 28 February 1874, and he was subsequently elected President for 1880. Further honour followed in 1881, when he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

In 1878 there were staff cuts within the Post Office, and William's brother George was one of those who lost his post. He then moved into cable design, eventually becoming a technical adviser to W.T.Glover's cable manufacturing company in Manchester.

Around the same time, the private telegraph companies were taken over by the Government, and because he was a civil servant William Henry was required to relinquish his post with the railway, much to his displeasure. After some discussion, his departure was allowed to be delayed until October 1879, and the railway directors then appointed him as an Honorary Consulting Telegraph Engineer. In 1884 the Company then appointed him as a Consulting Engineer, for which he received the salary of 50 guineas per annum.

The Crown Agents for the Colonies consulted with William on various schemes in the 1870's and 1880's, for example he recommended which type of cable to be used for a submarine line between Hong Kong and Luzon in 1879.

William Henry was elected a Fellow of his former college in 1885.

In 1886, Llewellyn, son of William Henry, had been given a post on the Midland Railway. He was due to be schooled in Dresden, along with his brother Arthur, but poor health had stopped that plan, and he completed his studies at an Electrical College in Hanover Square. Arthur had attended Kings College School, before attending Dresden and was then enrolled at Kings College.

1871 Census
Grosvenor Square Grosvenor House, All Saints, Southampton, Hampshire
William H Preece Head M 37 Civil Service Engineer Telegraph Branch Post Office
Caernarvonshire, Wales
Agnes M Preece Wife M 29 - Hampshire, England
Agnes G Preece Daughter - 6 Scholar
Hampshire, England
William G Preece Son - 5 Scholar
Hampshire, England
Arthur H Preece Son - 3 - Hampshire, England
Mary F Preece Daughter - 2 - Hampshire, England
Percy John Preece Son - 8m - Hampshire, England
Jane E Preece Sister U 51 Annuitant
Caernarvonshire, Wales
Martha M Hood Servant U 35 Cook
Hampshire, England
Maria Hasler Servant W 25 Parlour Maid
Hampshire, England
Ellen Mondey Servant U 26 Nurse Maid
Hampshire, England
Ellen Champion Servant U 24 Nurse Maid
Sussex, England
Rhoda C Leighton Servant U 20 House Maid
Hampshire, England

Ahead of his time?
Two comments made by William just after his retirement in 1899 show his thinking at that time, and indeed could have been made 100 years later!
He decided to postpone buying an "electric" car until a battery had been invented capable of driving a car for 100 miles without recharging. He ultimately thought that an electrically driven car would be favourite 'when a real battery appears in the twentieth century', for such cars were silent and odourless.
Acting as an advisor to Caernarvon Town Council in promoting electric lighting he recommended 'that the generating station should operate in conjunction with a refuse destructor, using household refuse as a fuel for steam boilers'.
In 1889, William Henry assembled a group of men at Coniston Water, in the Lake District, and succeeded in sending and receiving Morse radio signals across water over a distance of about 1 mile. Every year "William Henry Preece Day" is held at the Ruskin Museum on Coniston by a local amateur radio club (usually the August Bank Holiday weekend).

He continued to conduct various experiments across bodies of water, and in 1892 sent messages across the Bristol Channel, more than three miles distance.

By 1894, his son Arthur Henry was a consulting electrician, and became involved in a scheme to provide street lighting in Wimbledon. He followed his father by winning the Institution of Civil Engineers Telford gold medal for a paper on electricity supply.

In 1896 a young Italian walked into Preece's office - he was Guglielmo Marconi, 22 years old, and was working on wireless telegraphy but failing to find backers (including his own Government). William was impressed with him, and over the course of the next three years he supported him, providing assistants and equipment, and arranged meetings for him to demonstrate his ideas. Marconi found financial support to launch the Wireless Telegraphy Company, later to become 'Marconi'.

Sadly, relations between the two became strained - Marconi had taken advantage of Preece's generosity too much, he felt, and indeed had poached some of Williams best staff. Eventually, Marconi opened his first wireless station in Chelmsford in 1899, and retirement approached for William, which meant he became more involved with his sons.

1881 Census
Gothic Lodge, Wimbledon, Kingston, Surrey, England
William Henry Preece Head W 47 Electrician to g p o Caernarvon, Caernarvonshire, Wales
Jane Elizabeth Preece Sister S 61 Housekeeper Caernarvon, Caernarvonshire, Wales
Agnes Gwen Preece Daughter S 16 Scholar Southampton, Hampshire, England
William Llewellyn Preece Son - 15 Scholar Southampton, Hampshire, England
Mary Florence Preece Daughter - 12 Scholar Southampton, Hampshire, England
Percy John Preece Son - 10 Scholar Southampton, Hampshire, England
Frank Hugh Preece Son - 8 Scholar Southampton, Hampshire, England
Amy Preece Daughter - 7 Scholar Southampton, Hampshire, England
Elizabeth Povey Servant S 43 Cook
Berkshire, England
Ellen Champion Servant S 34 Nurse
Findon, Sussex, England
Marion Soundy Servant S 28 Housemaid
Welling, Kent, England
Caroline Hephes Servant S 20 Nursemaid
Swavesey, Cambridgeshire
Mary Penny Servant S 39 Dressmaker Leamington, Hampshire

1891 Census
Gothic Lodge, South Side Wimbledon Common, Wimbledon, Kingston, Surrey
William H Preece Head W 57 Electrician post office civil service Caernarvonshire, Wales
Jane E Preece Sister S 71 - Caernarvonshire, Wales
Agnes Preece Daughter S 26 - Southampton, Hampshire, England
Arthur Preece Son S 23 Electrical engineer Southampton, Hampshire, England
Mary F Preece Daughter S 22 - Southampton, Hampshire, England
Percy Preece Son S 20 Student in law Southampton, Hampshire, England
Frank Hugh Preece Son S 18 Student engineer Southampton, Hampshire, England
Amy Preece Daughter S 17 - Southampton, Hampshire, England
Harriet E Bedwell Servant S 38 Cook
Mansfield, Sussex
Charlotte Swan Servant S 25 Parlourmaid
Denham, Kent, England
Sarah A Brown Servant S 23 Housemaid
Basingstoke, Hampshire
Celia M Thornton Servant S 17 Kitchen maid
Lambeth, Surrey

In view of the immense calls on his time, William Henry decided to set up as a full-time consulting engineer around 1898, his two eldest sons Llewellyn and Arthur joining him, and his friend Major Philip Cardew would be his senior partner.

William Henry finally retired from the Post Office on 15 February 1899, and was subsequently made the first Freeman of Caernarvon, which he was presented with on 21 September that same year. He was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB) in the Queen's Birthday Honours list, an award that his son Arthur Henry also received in the 1932 Honours List.

His third son Frank was reported as working as an electrical engineer but no longer lived in the Home Counties. He was at Caernarvon with Arthur and Llewellyn when his father was inaugurated as a Freeman, having travelled from Liverpool. Percy, the youngest son, followed his maternal Grandfather's profession and became a solicitor.

Messrs Preece and Cardew leased offices in 1899 at 8 Queen Anne's Gate, overlooking St James Park. William Henry became a member of the Board at the London Electricity Supply Company, and chairman of the British Coalite Company. He also served as President of the Institution of Civil Engineers 1898-9.

In 1901, he was elected Chair of the Society of Arts, having been a member for over 20 years, and was re-elected in 1902.

1901 Census
Gothic Lodge, South Side Wimbledon Common, Wimbledon, Kingston, Surrey
William Henry Preece Head W 67 Civil engineer Caernarvonshire, Wales
Jane Elizth Preece Sister S 81 - Caernarvonshire, Wales
Agnes Ewen Preece Daughter S 36 - Southampton, Hampshire, England
Amy Preece Daughter S 27 - Southampton, Hampshire, England
Flora Jane Borley Servant S 27 Cook
Suffolk, England
Fanny Violette Clapton Servant S 36 Parlourmaid
Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire, England
Ada Ann Clapton Servant S 25 Parlourmaid
Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire, England
Fanny Johnson Servant S 31 Housemaid
Boreham, Essex, England
Ella Adela Wilson Servant S 16 Kitchenmaid
Gravesend, Kent, England

1911 Census
William Henry does not appear on the 1911 Census. He had travelled to South Africa in January, and stayed there for three months (there was a month's journey each way).
He left Southampton on board the Union Castle Mail Steamship Co ship Saxon" on 14 January 1911, and the voyage took 33 days, arriving in Cape Town on 16 February.

Some twenty years after being appointed an Honorary Consulting Engineer, his 48 years with the railway came to an abrupt end. In November 1904 he met General Manager Sir Charles Owen at Waterloo Station, who informed him his role would disappear under a series of economies. His reaction to this was not a good one, and provoked a rethink. He was told they would retain him on an Honorary basis, and he would also still; receive his free first-class travel pass!

His sister continued to live with the children at Wimbledon, although his two unmarried daughters , Mary ("Prissie") and Amy, preferred Penrhos, they were joined there by their now-widowed sister Agnes (wife of David Moseley) within a few years.

By 1909 William Henry was devoting less time to Preece & Cardew, and the business took on a new partner. His sons Llewellyn and Arthur continued to work for the firm, Llewellyn specialising in wireless, and Arthur with electricity undertakings, covering as far afield as the Empire, China and South America.

The winter of 1912/13 was spent in Egypt, with a trip to Bombay for good measure, despite his declining health. In mid-July he sent a donation to the Times for purchasing for the public the Sydenham Parkland on which the Crystal Palace had been re-erected, his covering letter mentioning being present at the original building's opening ceremony on 1 May 1851. However, his health continued to worsen, and by August he was back at Penrhos and confined to his room. Sadly this meant he was unable to move to sunnier climes as in the past, and he passed away on 6 November 1913.
The national, provincial and technical press published almost 200 obituaries. A correspondent summed up their general tenor – “the world has lost a good friend’. He wrote of walking into Preece’s room one day and telling him that machinery could be made to think, and I remember his genial and at the same time caustic reply, as he offered me a cigar and told me to ‘sit down and tell me about it’. He concluded: - ‘Society owes a great deal to Preece, more perhaps than it may ever realise’.

I have put together a family tree for William Henry, from his parents onwards (more recent generations not included) Click here to view (a new window will open)

Sources and further reading:-

"Sir William Preece F.R.S. Victorian engineer extraordinary" book published in 1976, written by Edward Cecil Baker