William Woodruff: Economic historian whose account of his childhood became a bestseller

"Human motivation is too intimate to yield itself to the technical processes of the historian," conceded the economic historian William Woodruff in Impact of Western Man: a study of Europe's role in the world economy 1750-1960. This wide-ranging, statistics-driven work, published in 1966, did not give any hint of the extraordinary determination that had gained a seemingly diffident Woodruff notable academic posts around the world. Thirty years on, he published a rather different work, the autobiographical Billy Boy (1993), which seven years later was republished as The Road to Nab End and became a surprise bestseller.

The privations described in this account of childhood in one corner of Europe – Blackburn, Lancashire – brought a new perspective on his earlier comment that "there is nothing fundamentally new about economic growth (or decline) except our present obsession with it". He grew up amidst decline, and so appreciated later stability that he always cautioned against the excitability – as distinct from innovation – which brings bust.

Born in 1916, prematurely while his mother was at work in a mill, William Woodruff was one of four children. His parents, who married in 1904, had emigrated to Massachusetts but his mother's homesickness brought them back to Blackburn in 1914 and to hard slog in the cotton industry. His father volunteered for the Army. The fourth child, and second son, William, was sired during a "second honeymoon" on leave, from which his father returned to the front and to a near-fatal gassing at Ypres in late 1917: "a great runner ... he was one of the last to fall, one of the first to be picked up".

Now, in even greater contrast to his lively Irish wife, Woodruff's father "came home disillusioned. His experiences had shattered any desire he might have had for change and adventure ... Both body and mind were affected. For years he had a racking cough from the gassing". The Nab End of the book's title was not salvation but rather the humiliating lodgings the family found themselves in after a decade's hardship caused by the slump of the textile industry. Woodruff described the collapse:

"Post-war speculators borrowed money to buy stocks and shares which they promptly sold at a profit. Shares sold at £10 one day could fetch £15 the next. The more speculation, the higher their inflated values became. Without contributing a single constructive idea to the industry's welfare, the manufacturers and the money-spinners enriched themselves... while madness reigned, some manufacturers sold out at inflated prices and became wealthy country gentlemen. Others hung on, buying up businesses with borrowed money they could not possibly repay. Much of this money came from the banks. No matter what gains the factory owners made, my family's wages stayed at rock bottom. When the crash came in March 1920, and the industry collapsed, the banks found themselves the owners of much of the Lancashire textile industry and refused to pour good money after bad."

In his memoir, Woodruff recreates a teeming world of damp walls and precarious lavatories, hunger frequent and unemployment scarcely leavened by stitching mailbags in the kitchen; his descriptions of the pubs – brawls and all – visited by his parents recall those described by Anthony Burgess in Manchester of the same period.

One aunt took to haunting funerals – anybody's – before being thrown from her home, while a much-loved grandmother ended up in the workhouse. A new-born brother's coffin was destined for a pauper's grave ("he was never mentioned again"). One sister's scholarship hopes were dashed because the one item not included – smart shoes – was beyond their means (she joined the Salvation Army, and was about to marry a fellow member when bigamy was prevented by his wife's arrival at the ceremony).

On his first day at school Woodruff was hideously bullied, and he often fell asleep there, such was the toll taken by jobs elsewhere, including lunchtime delivery of food to his working parents. Only being stuck in an open window, and pulled out by his brother, saved Woodruff from juvenile burglary.

He left school at 13 and became a delivery boy, but his innate resilience was fostered by delight in Chaplin films and continual immersion in an encyclopaedia from Lifebuoy soap. That autodidactic impulse was encouraged by eccentric, well-meaning people he encountered in the library. At one point he even wrote to the Russian Trade Delegation to volunteer to work in their homeland; no reply forthcoming, he set off in 1933 for London and employment in a Bow foundry.

He was to describe that work, the city and his political ambitions vividly in his second volume of memoirs, Beyond Nab End (2003). An underground train advert alerted him to night school where, to his astonishment, one teacher, Miss Hesselthwaite, suggested university. He gained, with an LCC scholarship, a place at Oxford, in the Catholic Workers' College (later Plater College): "One of the best decisions I ever made." He evokes superbly a place in which many, for all their social ease, were as insecure as himself when it came to writing essays and learning to bat ideas with such historians as A.L. Rowse, G.D.H. Cole, Alexander B. Rodger and G.N. Clark.

Woodruff's pacifism was altered by travels in Germany, from which he returned on the very eve of the Second World War (he saw a Hamburg vessel turned round in mid-Channel). On a staircase in Christ Church, he met Kay Wright, a graduate at the Oxford County Agricultural Board. They married in 1941, by which time he was in the Army: "In the first five years of our married life we had five weeks together", and it was in Tunisia, in June 1943, that he learnt about the birth of a son, whom he did not see until December 1945 – after Greece, Crete and Italy (described in his 1969 novel Vessel of Sadness).

By then he was "devoid of political ambitions... the war had taught me to distrust political myths and grand panaceas. The small things in life had taken on a new intimacy; so had the heart". Back in Oxford, he gained a Bank of England fellowship. He then won a Fulbright Scholarship which took him to Harvard while writing The Rise of the British Rubber Industry during the Nineteenth Century (1958) – a scholarly work, in which a footnote points out that he could find only one contemporary article about contraceptives, and this was titled "Questionable Rubber Goods". By now he was Head of Economic History at the University of Melbourne in Australia and caring for his wife as she succumbed to cancer.

Woodruff married again in 1960, and joined the University of Florida in 1966, when he published Impact of Western Man, his richly informed account of Europe's effect upon the world (which expresses particular sympathy for the Aborigines – "perhaps in terms of human misery that tragedy reached its deepest depth in Australia"). His marshalling of facts makes plain such matters as the bulk of British investment in 1911 being not in the empire but in America (especially railroads); the changing post-Great War situation was explored in America's Impact on the World (1975).

He also taught in Princeton, Berlin, Oxford and Tokyo while based in Florida, whence a return to Blackburn in the late 1980s prompted the remarkable memoirs that bring a new resonance to many of the observations in his academic work; it haunted him that, whichever power is in the ascendant, "the relatively poor of the world are certain to become relatively poorer".

Christopher Hawtree

William Woodruff, economic historian and writer: born Blackburn, Lancashire 12 September 1916; married 1941 Katherine Wright (died 1959; two sons), married 1960 Helga Gaertner (four sons, one daughter); died Gainesville, Florida 23 September 2008.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
Boxing promoter Kellie Maloney, formerly known as Frank Maloney, entered the 2014 Celebrity Big Brother house
people
Sport
Dwight Gayle (left) celebrates making it 1-1 with Crystal Palace captain Mile Jedinak
premier leagueReds falter to humbling defeat
Sport
Harry Kane
premier leagueLive minute-by-minute coverage
News
The letter, purported to be from the 1970s, offered a message of gender equality to parents

When it comes to promoting equality of the sexes, we tend to think that we’ve come a long way in the past 40 years.

News
video
Arts and Entertainment
Jerry Hall (Hand out press photograph provided by jackstanley@theambassadors.com)
theatre
News
peopleFormer civil rights activist who was jailed for smoking crack cocaine has died aged 78
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin