Walsh was born in 1916 and graduated from Cambridge in 1943, where he read English at Downing College under F.R. Leavis. He became a schoolmaster and from 1945 to 1951 was Senior English Master at Raynes Park Grammar School, working at the same time for the degree of MA in Education at London.
This he completed in 1951, whereupon he took up a lectureship in Education at the University College of North Staffordshire (later Keele University), two years later going to a lectureship at Edinburgh University, where he was concerned with the teaching of educational theory to higher degree and diploma students. In 1957 he moved to Leeds to take up a Chair in Education and to become Head of Department.
William Walsh's literary scholarship imbued his teaching in the field of education. In his first book, The Use of the Imagination, published in 1959, he effectively deployed his literary scholarship to assert the crucial role of the imagination in education. He developed those ideas further in A Human Idiom (1965), while the inspiration he drew from his interest in Coleridge found expression in Coleridge: The Work and the Relevance (1967). He held the Chair and Headship of the Department of Education until 1972 and during that time he revitalised it.
The department not only increased greatly in size but, more significantly, he succeeded in making it a centre for research in many areas within the field of education. Research into computer-aided learning and into science education among others received sustained support and by 1970 this led to the establishment of the Centre for Studies in Science Education.
During the later 1960s Walsh became increasingly interested in Commonwealth literature, and his first book on the subject, A Manifold Voice: studies in Commonwealth literature, was published in 1970. Two years later he moved to the Chair of Commonwealth Literature, newly established in the School of English, and for the next nine years he was to publish extensively on V.S. Naipaul, R.K. Narayan and on Commonwealth literature generally. Apart from writing and visiting Commonwealth countries, for six years he also served as Chairman of the School of English.
Just when retirement finally became due in September 1981, the death in office of the Vice-Chancellor, Lord Boyle, led the university to invite William Walsh to take over as Acting Vice-Chancellor for the next two years. His contribution to university-wide affairs had already been outstanding. He had been Pro-Vice-Chancellor in the 1960s and had served on almost every major committee. In committee he enjoyed a reputation for wide-ranging discussion coupled with incisive conclusions, and sought to bring committees to clear judgements rather than becoming "bogged down in the marmalade of indecision".
Nowadays cuts in university funding are unfortunately commonplace, but the extent of the 1981 reduction in funding remains a landmark in the history of UK universities. As Acting Vice-Chancellor William Walsh proved again his capacity for dealing with crisis situations. Leeds University owes a particular debt to him for the wisdom and skill he showed in handling its affairs during the difficult years from 1981 to 1983.
William Walsh, English scholar and educationalist: born 23 February 1916; Lecturer in Education, University College of North Staffordshire 1951- 53; Lecturer in Education, Edinburgh University 1953-57; Professor of Education and Head of Department, Leeds University 1957-72, Pro-Vice- Chancellor 1965-67, Professor of Commonwealth Literature 1972-84 (Emeritus), Acting Vice-Chancellor 1981-83; married 1945 May Watson (one son, one daughter); died Leeds 23 June 1996.