William Woodruff, 92, Dies; British Chronicler

Historians in the News

It was a Dickensian beginning, William Woodruff’s, to say the least. He was born on a heap of cotton in the mill where his parents worked and his grandfather died. Then, with a market crash in 1920, England’s mills themselves died.

His proud family sank into a poverty so profound that his grandmother starved to death rather than take welfare. His unemployed father sewed mailbags in a tiny kitchen — the same work inmates did in the local jail.

And Mr. Woodruff, who later became an eminent historian, was haunted until his death, on Tuesday, by the journey he took at 6 with his mother to the seaside resort of Blackpool. During the day, his mother would tell him to sit on a bench. From there he watched men, far better dressed than any he had known, enter the hotel. Some came out with his mother.

“You’re a grand lad,” some said, tossing him a coin or two. Billy Boy, as he was known, wondered why. And why did his mother jolt awake crying?

Almost eight decades later, Mr. Woodruff revisited these memories, or “ghosts,” he called them. He was by then a successful historian in the United States, but his late-in-life telling of the old tales in two best-selling books made him a celebrity in his native England and a living link to a vanished working-class Britain.

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