Blackley is the second son of Travers Robert Blackley of Ashtown Lodge, County Dublin and Eliza, daughter of Colonel Lewery, who is taken prisoner by the French at Verdun. His maternal grandfather is Travers Hartley, MP for Dublin (1776-1790) and governor of the Bank of Ireland.
In boyhood Blackley is sent with his brother John to a school at Brussels kept by Dr. Carl Martin Friedlander, a Polish political refugee, whose daughter, Amelia Jeanne Josephine, he subsequently marries on July 24, 1855. There he acquires proficiency in French, German, and other foreign languages. In 1847 he returns to Ireland, entered Trinity College, Dublin, graduating B.A. in 1850, M.A. in 1854, and takes holy orders. In 1854 he becomes curate of St. Peter’s, Southwark, but an attack of cholera compels his retirement from London. From 1855 to 1867 he has charge of two churches at Frensham, near Farnham, Surrey. He is rector of North Waltham, Hampshire (1867-1883), and King’s Somborne (1883-1889). In 1883 he is made honorary canon of Winchester.
Blackley, who is an energetic parish priest and is keenly interested in social questions, carefully elaborates a scheme for the cure of pauperism by a statutory enforcement of thrift which has far-reaching results at home and abroad. In November 1878 he contributes to the Nineteenth Century an essay entitled National Insurance a Cheap, Practical, and Popular Way of Preventing Pauperism, and thenceforth strenuously advocates a scheme of compulsory insurance, which the National Providence League, with the Earl of Shaftesbury as president, is formed in 1880 to carry into effect. At the same time he recommends temperance as a means of social regeneration. His views reach a wide public through his writings, which include How to teach Domestic Economy (1879), Collected Essays on the Prevention of Pauperism (1880), Social Economy Reading Book, adapted to the New Code (1881), Thrift and Independence; a Word for Working-men (1884).
Blackley’s scheme provides that all persons between eighteen and twenty should subscribe to a national fund, and should receive in return a week in time of sickness, and a week after the age of seventy. The plan is urged on the House of Lords by the Earl of Carnarvon in 1880, and is the subject of inquiry by a select committee of the House of Commons from 1885 to 1887. The majority of the boards of guardians in England and Wales support the proposals, but the commons’ committee, while acknowledging Blackley’s ingenuity and knowledge, reports adversely on administrative and actuarial grounds. At the same time the friendly societies, which Blackley has censured in his Thrift and Independence, regards the principle of compulsion as a menace to their own growth, and their historian and champion, the Rev. John Frome Wilkinson, sharply criticises Blackley’s plan in The Blackley National Providence Insurance Scheme; a Protest and Appeal (1887). Blackley’s plan, although rejected for the time, stimulates kindred movements in the colonies and in foreign countries, and leads directly to the adoption of old age pensions in England by legislation in 1908, while the national insurance scheme which receives parliamentary sanction in 1911 bears some trace of Blackley’s persistent agitation.
In 1887 Blackley, who is director of the Clergy Mutual Insurance Company, makes proposals to the church congress which lead to the formation of the “Clergy Pension Scheme” and of a society for ecclesiastical fire insurance. In the autumn of 1889 Blackley, whose active propagandism brings him constantly to London, becomes vicar of St. James the Less, Vauxhall Bridge Road. There he enlarges the schools and builds a parish hall and a vicarage.
William Lewery Blackley dies after a brief illness at 79 St. George’s Square, on July 25, 1902. Brasses are put up in Blackley’s memory in the churches of St. James the Less, North Waltham, and Frensham.