On 23rd March 1915, 17 year old William Douglass Horsley became the third young man from Tenth Avenue to be charged with an offence relating to national security. A few months earlier Leo and Aloysius Beers, who lived just five doors away, had been charged under the Official Secrets Act while William fell foul of the Defence of the Realm (Consolidation) Act of 1914. This wide-ranging act, known as DORA, governed many aspects of life during WW1. It forbade, for example, the purchase of binoculars, the flying of kites, the feeding of wild animals with bread and, understandably, communicating with the enemy.
As the Newcastle Journal reported the following day, William was accused of possessing wireless telegraphy apparatus Including ‘one complete receiving set of a fairly formidable type that could receive a message from a considerable distance, probably Paris or Berlin’. The apparatus was ‘home made but very powerful and much more than a mere toy’. Furthermore, its aerials were concealed. William pleaded guilty.
The chairman of the court said that while the equipment reflected great credit on the boy’s ability, the offence was a serious matter for the well being of the country. He ordered the equipment to be confiscated and fined William 20 shillings plus costs.
William Douglass Horsley was born on 3 January 1898 in North Shields, where his father, William Percy Horsley, was a wherry owner.
Engineering ran in the family. Young William’s grandfather was described as an ‘engine builder’ as far back as 1871 at which time he employed ’50 men and 31 boys’. And his father in turn, yet another William, was a ‘colliery and railway engineer’ in 1851, the earliest days of rail. According to William Douglass Horsley himself he was the latest of six generations of engineers. Thank you to Teresa Gilroy, a descendant of William’s grandfather, who provided the photographs, along with information about the family. One of her sons, continuing the family tradition, is an electrical engineer. Notice that the photograph below was taken at the studio of Edward George Brewis, another Heaton resident.
By 1911, William Senior, his wife Margaret, 13 year old William Douglass and his 8 year old sister, Phyllis, had moved to Newcastle. They were living in Jesmond and William Senior was employed as a pattern maker in an iron foundry, a skilled engineering job. By the beginning of World War 1, the family were at 8 Tenth Avenue, Heaton.
The engineering skills and inventiveness which impressed the chairman of the court would have made young William attractive to many Tyneside employers and in 1913, on leaving school, he had secured what would have been a highly-prized apprenticeship at Parsons. A year later war broke out and soon after that came William’s arrest.
Before he had a chance to complete his apprenticeship, William was conscripted into the armed forces. For most of the war, there were just two options for young men: to join either the Royal Navy or the Army. And it was the latter to which William signed up in February 1918. But William’s academic ability and technical aptitude made him the ideal recruit for a soon to be established service, the Royal Air Force.
The RAF was formally established on 1 April 1918. Some 20,000 aircraft and 300,000 men and women were transferred from the Army or the Royal Navy branches of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), William among them. The RAF was already a considerable force bearing in mind that it was less than 10 years after Louis Blerioz had become the first person to fly across the English Channel but it was still very much a place for pioneers. Aircraft were used for both combat and surveillance and in both areas the knowledge of telecommunications, which William had precociously demonstrated some three and a half years earlier, were indispensable. The painting below is by Howard Leigh, who illustrated the early Biggles books by W E Johns. (Leigh lived in High Heaton before his death in 1942 but that’s another story!)
William was never posted overseas partly because on 11 November 1918, just over eight months after he had enlisted, the war was over. He wasn’t discharged until March 1919 at which time he was designated an Honorary Second Lieutenant, a Junior Officer rank. William Horsley had clearly come a long way in the four years since he was branded a threat to his country’s security.
William returned to his parents’ home in Tenth Avenue, Heaton and resumed his position at C A Parsons and Co Ltd. Here too, he was soon promoted. On discharge from the RAF, William worked first of all in the drawing office before entering the design department. He became a senior designer and in 1938 was appointed chief electrical engineer. If you put his name into a search engine, you will find many patents in the UK, Canada and the USA, registered on behalf of Parsons under the name of William Douglass Horsley.
In 1949, William was appointed to the board of directors on which he served until 1967, when he was aged 69. During his career, he was an active member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, chairman of the NE Centre in 1937. He was also a longstanding member of the North East Coast Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders. The pinnacle of William’s career came in 1971 when he was awarded an Honorary Degree by Newcastle University. His misdemeanour 56 years earlier was well and truly behind him. During the award ceremony he recalled that the day after his appearance in court and heavy fine for making a powerful radio receiver, William was summoned by Sir Charles Parsons himself. Fearing for his job and indeed his career, he entered the great man’s office where to his surprise and relief, Sir Charles asked ‘Could you make one for me?’ (Thank you to Newcastle University for providing us with the citation read out at his degree ceremony.)
William Douglass Horsley died in 1989, aged 91.
Heaton Avenues in Wartime
Heaton History Group has been awarded Heritage Lottery Fund funding to enable it to research and recount the impact of World War One on a Tyneside neighbourhood. Children at Chillingham Road School have been involved in the project. Below is a collage based on W D Horsley’s wartime experiences made by a Year 6 pupil, who clearly shares William’s engineering aptitude.
If you would like to get involved by helping with research, illustrating the stories we uncover, mounting exhibitions or organising events – or if you have information relating to WW1, especially relating to Heaton, including First to Tenth Avenues, or to William Horsley, please contact: Chris Jackson, Secretary, Heaton History Group via firstname.lastname@example.org
There is a related exhibition of original documents and artworks in the lounge bar of the Chillingham pub on Chillingham Road. It is planned to run until May 2016. The display will change approximately every two months.