T. S. WILLAN became the Professor of Economic History at Manchester University in 1961, and in the succeeding years Manchester's reputation for economic history came to be identified with the study of industrial revolutions in Britain and Europe. Willan steered his colleagues through the university expansion of that period, letting them take on board such emergent dimensions of the past as social history, industrial archaeology; the department's expansion embraced the economic history of the Third World. He was always an unobtrusive administrator, and the story that he retired a few years early, in 1973, in order to protect his scholarly work from the burden of higher administrative office was in character.
Willan's scholarship was innovative, and was characterised by close attention to manuscript sources. He plunged into the voluminous complexities of national customs records, or investigated the pages of the tradesman's ledger; not for him the broad generalisation, nor the thrust of current debate. That is not to limit the scope of Willan's work: he explored the transport and credit infrastructures of pre-industrial England. He wrote about currants, or coquets, or probate inventories with a lucid and lively style. His River Navigation in England 1600- 1750 (1936), followed in 1938 by a study of the coastwise trade round England's shores, have remained the starting point for work in the field and both have been reprinted.
Willan published another three studies of river systems, but the 1950s saw a concentration on later 16th-century England and the appearance of three volumes on Marian and Elizabethan merchants and foreign trade; he continued to work on Elizabeth's reign into the 1980s. In the Manchester Common Room, Willan would recount his own first-hand experience of horse-drawn transport in Yorkshire and Westmorland, and the archives of an ancestor gave another personal link to his research in his study of An 18th-century Shopkeeper, Abraham Dent (1970). This was the first of two books on shopkeepers and their world; the second, The Inland Trade (1976), again broke new ground and was regarded by one authoritative reviewer as 'invaluable'.
Early retirement had already proved its worth, but in addition Willan brought out Elizabethan Manchester (1980), and some papers, the last in 1983. He was always ready to talk over research problems on his regular forays into the university common room, which continued well into the 1980s. Colleagues at Manchester, and at five other universities in Britain and Canada, produced a collection of essays in his honour, Trade and Transport, in 1977, and the British Academy recognised the import of his work by electing him a Fellow in 1991.
Willan, however, only boasted of two achievements in his academic life. One was his claim to have been the longest-serving assistant lecturer in the university system (he had been appointed at Manchester in 1935 but the Second World War ensured that he was not appointed lecturer until 1945). The other was that, under wartime pressures, he had taught every course in the history department. His students remember his ability to bring the substance of a lecture to life with his dry wit, and remark on his interest in their work. That, as a young lecturer appointed in 1969, was my experience: friendly interest and encouragement from an accomplished scholar.Reuse content