William Herbert Allen was born in London in September 1863. His father, William Henry Allen, had moved away from Alton in Hampshire to take charge of a depot at the Great Western Wharf in London, between Greenwich Street and the Thames. The young William Herbert spent his childhood watching the ships, barges and other craft along the river and developed an understanding of rigging and the details of construction that he was to put to good use in his paintings in later years. Proximity to the historic City of London with its surviving fragments of Roman and Norman buildings also inspired an interest in history, archaeology and architecture that was to remain with him for life.
In 1878 the family moved out to Forest Hill, so that “instead of bricks and mortar, railway stations, bridges and the sound of paddle-wheels on the Thames, there were trees and meadows, stately mansions and public parks”. Allen’s parents, however, continued to encourage and support his interest in the arts.