William Woodruff: Economic historian who received a wider audience for his memoirs of an impoverished childhood in Blackburn

Historians in the News

William Woodruff, who died on Tuesday aged 92, enjoyed a late celebrity in his eighties when his gritty two-volume memoir, The Road to Nab End (2000) and Beyond Nab End (2003), became surprise bestsellers.
Woodruff was brought up in penury among the cotton mills of Blackburn, and eventually made his mark in America as an economic historian. While his blunt description of the indignity of working-class life in the pre-welfare era was a telling corrective for those who like to harp on about the "good old days", Woodruff's favourite Shakespearian aphorism – "Security is mortals' chiefest enemy" – suggested that the system that had rescued so many from poverty had become an enemy to progress and ambition.

Woodruff, after all, had been brought up with no state safety net, yet he broke free of his impoverished roots through a combination of intelligence, ambition and self-reliance. His life story was not so much a tale of the evils of capitalism as a triumph of meritocracy – and, indirectly, an indictment of welfarist "dependency culture".

"I knew by experience how to take setbacks," Woodruff wrote. "I also knew that nobody owed me a living. I took it for granted that in life I'd have to shift for myself."

William Woodruff was born on September 12 1916 in the carding room of a Blackburn cotton mill. Two days later his mother was back working at the mill, and raising four children at home. At the time his father, a loom operator, was serving on the Western Front, an experience from which he never fully recovered.

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