William Woodruff

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For other people named William Woodruff, see William Woodruff (disambiguation).
William Woodruff
William Woodruff.jpg
Born (1916-09-12)12 September 1916
Blackburn, Lancashire, United Kingdom
Died 23 September 2008(2008-09-23) (aged 92)
Gainesville, Florida, United States
Occupation Professor, historian, writer
Nationality British
Citizenship British, United States (naturalised)
Alma mater St Catherine's College, University of Oxford
Harvard University (Fulbright Scholar)
Subject Economic and world history, autobiography, fiction
Notable works The Road To Nab End: A Lancashire Childhood
Beyond Nab End
Vessel of Sadness
Impact of Western Man – A Study of Europe's Role in the World Economy, 1750–1960
A Concise History of the Modern World – 1500 to the Present
Spouse Katharine (married 1940 – her death in 1959)
Helga (married 1960 – his death)

William Woodruff (12 September 1916 – 23 September 2008) was a professor of world history, but perhaps most noted for his two autobiographical works: The Road to Nab End and its sequel Beyond Nab End; both became bestsellers in the United Kingdom.[1] The memoirs, covering Woodruff's impoverished upbringing in an English weaving community during the Great Depression, contain significant amounts of social commentary about the conditions in which he lived.[2]

Early life[edit]

Woodruff was born on 12 September 1916, in Blackburn, Lancashire. His parents were cotton weavers by trade (although at the time of his birth his father was serving on the Western Front).[3] The Road to Nab End vividly describes his upbringing and his family's fight to survive the Lancashire cotton industry's initial downturn in 1920, through its decline in the 1920s, and the community's slide into the Great Depression that followed. Woodruff contributed to his family's income, initially as a newspaper delivery boy before and after school.[3] He entered the workforce as a "grocer's lad" (shop assistant) at the age of 14, and after several enforced changes of job decided to leave Lancashire for a promise of a job in London at the age of 16.

London and Oxford[edit]

Beyond Nab End describes his life after arriving in London. He worked for two years as a "sand rat" in an East End iron foundry (the sand being used to make moulds into which molten iron was poured).[3] He attended night school, discovering a love of learning (or perhaps re-discovering, as there are clear indications that his grandmother Bridget, and other adults, encouraged this love when he was younger).[4] In 1936, with the aid of a London County Council scholarship, he gained a place at the Catholic Workers College (later Plater College), Oxford. In 1938 he was then admitted as a fully accredited member of the University of Oxford, joining St Catherine's Society in St Aldates (now St Catherine's College). In a unique gesture, Oxford waived its entrance examination to admit him.[5] It was at Oxford that he met his first wife Katharine, whom he married in 1940.[3]

World War II[edit]

In 1939 he volunteered for the army and during the Second World War he fought with the 24th Guards Brigade of the British 1st Infantry Division in North Africa and the Mediterranean region.[3] His wartime experiences became the basis of his work Vessel of Sadness, which A. L. Rowse called one of the "most sensitive and moving books of the war, both authentic and poetic" in a review in the Times Literary Supplement.[3]

At the end of 1945 he returned to the wife he had seen for "five weeks in five years" and his eldest son, whom he had never met.[3] His first wife died of cancer in 1959, and Woodruff remarried in 1960.[2]

Academic career[edit]

In 1946 he renewed his studies in economic and world history at Oxford. In 1950 he became a Houblon-Norman research fellow supported by the Bank of England, and in 1952 he went as a Fulbright Scholar to Harvard University.[3] He then spent a period as a professor at the University of Illinois before moving in 1956 to head the Department of Economic History at the University of Melbourne, Australia, where he met his second wife Helga.[3] He followed this with various visiting professorships to Princeton, Berlin, Tokyo and Oxford. He was a Graduate Research Professor at the University of Florida from 1966 to his retirement in 1996, when he became a Professor Emeritus.[3]


He died in Gainesville, Florida on 23 September 2008.[6] He is survived by his wife Helga, their daughter and four sons, and by two sons from his first marriage.[3]


Academic history[edit]

  • Impact of Western Man – A Study of Europe's Role in the World Economy, 1750–1960, London, Macmillan, 1969. It was a path-breaking work which explored the extrusive aspect of European history.
  • America's Impact on the World: A Study of the Role of the United States in the World Economy – 1750–1970, London, Macmillan, 1975.

The interrelatedness of continents continued to be the focus of further studies.

Autobiographical works[edit]

  • The Road To Nab End: A Lancashire Childhood, Abacus (Eland Books), 2000 (first published as Billy Boy, Ryburn Publishing Ltd., 1993). ISBN 978-190601126-0
  • A stage adaptation of The Road to Nab End by Philip Goulding premiered at the Oldham Coliseum Theatre under the direction of Kevin Shaw in June 2010.
  • Beyond Nab End, Abacus (Little, Brown and Company), 2003 ISBN 0-316-72530-7



  1. ^ "UF professor William Woodruff dies". The Gainesville Sun. 23 September 2008. Retrieved 27 September 2008. 
  2. ^ a b "William Woodruff: economics historian". London: The Times. 25 September 2008. Retrieved 27 September 2008. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "News:Obituaries: William Woodruff". London: The Daily Telegraph. 24 September 2008. Retrieved 27 September 2008. 
  4. ^ "William Woodruff, a UF professor, author dies at 91". The Gainesville Sun. 24 September 2008. Retrieved 27 September 2008. 
  5. ^ "William Woodruff". The Daily Telegraph. London. 24 September 2008. 
  6. ^ "Troubled horizon". The Gainesville Sun. 24 September 2008. Retrieved 27 September 2008. 

External links[edit]