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William Ernest Henley (1849-1903)

The Gloucester-born poet William Henley is perhaps best known as the inspiration behind the literary figure Long John Silver in Treasure Island. He was close friend of Robert Louis Stevenson, with whom he wrote three plays in the 1890s. While he was still a boy, Henley’s life was threatened after he developed tuberculosis of the bone. As the disease progressed, he had one of his legs amputated just below the knee. When physicians suggested his other leg be amputated, Henley sought alternative treatment. He was admitted to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, where he was treated by Joseph Lister, using his antiseptic surgical methods. Over the next few years, Lister eventually saved Henley’s leg, and possibly his life.

Henley's period of hospitalisation and his experiences as a patient in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary are recorded in his poem 'In Hospital' (1874). The poem describes the experience of hospitalisation from admission to discharge and, among other things, charts the rise of the Nightingale-style nurse in the second half of the1800s. Following his recovery in 1889, Henley became editor of the Scots Observer. Transferred to London and renamed the National Observer, the journal remained under Henley’s editorship until 1893. His literary connections led his daughter to be similarly immortalised, as Wendy in J M Barrie’s classic, Peter Pan. Unlike her father, she died while still a child, aged six. Both daughter and father were buried in the churchyard in Cockayne Hatley, Bedfordshire.

 

Related links

Bibliography

J H Buckley, William Ernest Henley: A Study in the Counter-Decadence of the Nineties (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1945)

Glossary:

Tuberculosis

An infectious disease that is caused by a bacterium first identified by Robert Koch in 1882. The disease usually affects the lungs first, and is accompanied by a chronic cough.