Dr David Williams

Bernard Attard writes:

David Malcolm Williams was an outstanding scholar, colleague, teacher and mentor who contributed enormously to the development of maritime history in the United Kingdom and internationally.

David spent his early years in Caernarvon, leaving as an eighteen-year old in 1958 to start a BA in Economics at the University of Liverpool. He joined an intake of 12 students, which included Peter Davies, later also an accomplished maritime historian, who became a lifetime friend and collaborator in national and international professional associations. The latter recalled David as coming from a ‘quite conventional and close-knit family’, yet also taking ‘full advantage’ of the extra-curricular opportunities offered to a new undergraduate in Liverpool.

David went up at a particularly auspicious time. The Department of Commerce and Economics included a group of gifted economic historians, led notably by the Chaddock Professor, Francis Hyde. Hyde amongst others formed what was known as the ‘Liverpool School of Maritime History’. Under their influence, David chose economic history options in his final year, graduating as the best student and winning the Gladstone Memorial Scholarship which allowed him to proceed to an MA in 1961. The topic he finally settled on for his dissertation was ‘The Function of the Merchant in Specific Liverpool Import Trades, 1820-1850’. Like all postgraduate economic historians, he was supervised by Hyde himself.

In 1963, after an unexpected vacancy, David was appointed Tutor in Economic History at Liverpool, a role in which he first displayed his talent for teaching. It also set him on his future path. The following year, he applied successfully for an assistant lecturership in Economic History at Leicester, joining Professor Ralph Davis in October 1964 as the nucleus of what would become one of the leading departments of Economic and Social History in the country. For the rest of his career, David was an immensely versatile teacher, a memorable and entertaining lecturer, the saviour of lost undergraduate causes, and an unfailingly helpful colleague and mentor. He was unflappable. Whether in Department meetings or as an external examiner, his judgement were trusted and reliable. He always got on with what he was asked to do.

Beyond the University, David’s growing international reputation as an original and innovative maritime historian led to his deepening involvement in scholarly networks and professional bodies at home and abroad, beginning notably with the Atlantic Canada Shipping Project and the associated Newfoundland seminar during the 1970s. He served as Secretary to the British Commission for Maritime History (1989–1998); as President of the International Maritime Economic History Association (2001-2004); and successively as chair of the editorial board (1990–95), editor (1995–98) and editorial board member (1999–2001) of the International Journal of Maritime History. Additionally, he was a review editor and editorial board member of the Journal of Transport History and an adviser to the Centres for Maritime Historical Studies at Exeter and Port and Maritime History at Liverpool. David excelled in all these capacities because of his human qualities, his scholarly standing and his considerable administrative skills. He actively promoted his discipline, created opportunities for new researchers, and acquired the most formidable network of contacts and friends.

As a scholar, David exemplified a new approach to maritime history which placed the subject in its broader economic and social settings, thus widening its scope and increasing its relevance. In the introduction to his PhD, awarded by the University in 2003, he described himself as ‘an economic historian specialising in the field of maritime history’. His key influences were Hyde, Davis and the subject’s other ‘founders and promoters’, and his training as an economic historian was evident in the analytical rigour of his work and his systematic use of statistical sources. His interests were wide-ranging. He made important and innovative contributions to the histories of merchants and shipping in the Atlantic commodity trades, the social history of seamen, the beginnings of state regulation of conditions at sea, the origins and development of pleasure cruising, and the early history of steam navigation, much of his work in the last two areas with his long-time collaborator, John Armstrong. Another distinguished colleague, Skip Fischer of Memorial University in Canada, who generously acknowledged his own intellectual debt to David, described his work on bulk passenger trades in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (‘bulk passengers’ including slaves, emigrants, convicts, indentured servants and contract labour) as ‘undeniably seminal’. Fischer also wrote on the occasion of David’s sixtieth birthday: "David’s place in maritime history far transcends his individual publications, for his vision of what this discipline ought to be has had a particularly significant impact on the way in which most of us think about what we do."

David’s preferred medium was the essay. He published some 50, either as book chapters or in scholarly journals, alongside five edited books and sundry other pieces. Two collections of essays were published as books. The first, Merchants and Mariners: Selected Maritime Writings of David M. Williams (2000), in which Fischer’s appraisal appeared, included a personal tribute by Peter Davies. The second, The Impact of Technological Change: The Early Steamship in Britain, co-written with John Armstrong, was published in 2011. One further collection, under the title British Merchant Shipping and its Labour Force in an Era of Economic Expansion and Social Change, 1790–1914, with a valuable introduction by David, was successfully submitted for the award of his Leicester doctorate in 2003.

The first of the collected volumes was presented to David as a token of appreciation and esteem at the Third International Maritime History Congress in Esbjerg, Denmark, in August 2000. David’s retirement as a senior lecturer in the School of History at Leicester in 2005 was marked by a similar gathering of friends and colleagues for a symposium and evening celebration, with both Davies and Fischer in attendance. The affection and regard for David on this occasion was palpable. To all who encountered him, whatever their background, age or circumstances, he was unfailingly humane, tolerant, kind and good humoured. He had a vast repertoire of stories and anecdotes, which enlivened his teaching and entertained his colleagues. His lectures to students and scholars were performances which might conclude with spontaneous applause. He was an indefatigable collector of postcards, travelling regularly to fairs in the Netherlands. His was a keen eye for a bargain, including the comforts of the members room at the Royal Academy which, for a modest subscription, he used as a base for working visits to London.

For all his many qualities, David was a deeply self-effacing person who avoided pretension, disliked the limelight and saw things for what they were. He died on 19 March leaving his wife Maureen, two children, Tristan and Penny, and three grandchildren, Benedict, Josephine and Carenza. He will be remembered with a smile and great affection.