Henry Benjamin Wheatley

Henry Benjamin Wheatley (1838–1917), the founder of the Index Society and author of seminal texts on indexing, is the man after whom the Wheatley Medal, given in recognition of quality and outstanding indexing, was named. He was an eminent bibliographer, author, editor and indexer with a strong interest in language and literature. A man of many parts, his other interests included London history, bookplates, fine book bindings, portraits, maps and much besides in the literary and historical spheres.

The son of an auctioneer/bookseller, Henry Wheatley was orphaned almost at birth and received comparatively little schooling, being educated mainly by his older brother Benjamin Robert Wheatley. Early in his career he helped his brother catalogue private libraries and ran the library of the Royal Society. His last post was as Assistant Secretary, for about thirty years, of the (now Royal) Society of Arts.

Wheatley was a man of great energy and was involved with the setting up of many organisations, some of which are still going strong today. In 1877 he founded the Index Society, whose existence was unfortunately short-lived and failed through lack of funds for its ambitious projects. With his brother he was involved with the foundation of the Library Association (now CILIP, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) and he was the founder and first secretary of the Early English Text Society which still exists today.

He founded the Samuel Pepys Club and served as its president from 1903 to 1916 and was also an active member of the New Shakespeare Society and the Shakespeare Association. A keen antiquary and topographer, he served as a vice-president of the London Topographical Society from 1906 to 1916.

Wheatley was always working on some project, on journals such as The Bibliographer, editing series such as the Book Lover’s Library, and writing his own works. He wrote at least twenty-eight books, twenty-two editions of others’ works, and over one hundred articles in journals. He was an accurate writer, and his work was never trivial. His great achievement, for which he was awarded an Honorary DCL by Durham University, was a new edition of Pepys’s diary which was published with extensive notes and an index. This remained the standard edition until that edited by Latham and Matthews in 1983.

As indexes were (and are) rarely signed or ascribed, precisely what Henry Wheatley did index is not known, but it can be assumed that most of his own books would have been indexed by him. Of particular interest to indexers are two of his books: What is an index?, published in 1879 and How to make an index published in 1902. Both of these are still practical and worthy of note and were republished by the Society of Indexers in facsimile format in 2002.

Wheatley was a handsome and gregarious man, married with five children, always lived in London, and is buried in Highgate Cemetery. His life is briefly recounted in the Oxford Dictionary of national biography, and dealt with more fully in J. D. Lee, ‘The father of British indexing’ (The Indexer 23(2), October 2002). Henry’s elder brother, who would himself have been worthy of commemoration as an indexer, receives treatment in J. D. Lee, ‘The other Wheatley’ (The Indexer 24(1), April 2004).
David Lee, May 2006

Some index entries from How to make an index:

Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Boswell’s own index, 109
—— Dr Birkbeck Hill’s admirable index to his edition, 105
Bromley’s (William) Travels, ill-natured index made to them by Dr King, 44
Bruce’s (John) edition of History of Edward IV., absurd filling up of initials J. C., 78
Coke (Lord Chief Justice), an inaccurate man, 101
Envelopes as safe receptables for index slips, 182, 189
Gum an unsatisfactory material for laying down slips, 189
Indexer, chief characteristics of a good indexer, 116; difference of opinion as to whether the indexer is “born, not made,” “not born, but made,” or “born and made,” 114; power in his hands, 93
Indices, objections to the use of this plural in English, 11
Jews generally wore red hats in Italy, but not at Leghorn, 51
Thrub-chandler, Bung of a, 73

Some examples of cross references from How to make an index, page 75

Cattle see Clergy
Chastity see Homicide
Death see Appeal
Election see Bribery