W. M. WALKER was a lecturer in the Department of Modern History at Dundee University from 1963 until 1984, and then Honorary Research Fellow from 1984 to 1991.
In one way William Walker's life took him far from his roots, in another, not at all. He was born in Dundee and scarcely left it, except for military service, ending his life within yards of his childhood home. But his intellectual development took him far from the constraints of his origins in a working-class community of Irish immigrant ancestry. Not seen as outstanding at school, he left at 15 to be apprenticed as a house painter. However he pursued his education in evening classes and after a year's residential course at the adult education college of Newbattle, near Edinburgh, he won entrance to university.
Walker took a degree in History and Political Science at Queen's College, Dundee, then part of St Andrews University, graduating with First Class honours in 1963. He was immediately appointed to the lecturing staff, an appointment more than justified by the way in which he combined great dedication to teaching with the arduous research that led to a Ph D and to his book Juteopolis: textile workers 1885-1923 (1979).
His gift of forceful exposition and the fact that he never lost his common touch, nor his strong local accent, meant that he was a popular and inspiring teacher to many generations of students. But the great achievement of his life was his account of working-class life in Dundee during the apogee of the jute industry, in Juteopolis. Although it took the records of the Dundee and District Union of Jute and Flax Workers as its point of departure, it was much more than a trade-union history, more than merely labour history. It used archives from Protestant and Catholic churches and the flourishing popular local press of the day and covered such topics as the Prohibition movement, very influential in Dundee at the time. Thus it became, as well as a political and institutional history of a trade union and of the growth of the Labour Party in Dundee, to some extent a history of popular culture. As the workforce of the jute industry was predominantly female, it also touched on women's history. In all these respects it was at the forefront of developments in the writing of history at the time.
It differed from a merely competent thesis in being written with all the passion and intellectual excitement characteristic of its author, and also in coming from inside the mentality of the community it described. Walker, born into that community and never cutting himself off from it, was able, as no one else could, to write its history from the grass roots. Although he achieved much in this pioneering work, it only hinted at the total picture of the life of the ordinary people of Dundee over the last century that he was so well equipped to write, and which he continued to work towards.
Sadly it was not to be, as ill-health forced him to take early retirement and limited his scholarly actively. Now the world which he described in Juteopolis, and which survived in its main elements until 20 years ago, has vanished. The jute mills have closed and have mostly been demolished, as have the tenements which housed their workforce. No subsequent historian could be in his position: feeling and knowing that world from within and yet able to set it in a wider context provided by his deep and wide-ranging knowledge of history, political theory and sociology.