David Williams, who died at the age of 80 on 19 March 2021 following a severe stroke, was one of my oldest friends. Our friendship, like that between many other maritime historians, was first forged at conferences. We both participated in the St. John’s Newfoundland Maritime History Group conferences ‘Volumes not Values’ (197 ) and ‘Working Men Who Got Wet’ (197 ). I learned then that David was both an excellent scholar, and an extraordinarily warm and friendly person. Back in England, David was an obvious choice of speaker for the 1981 Charted and Uncharted Waters conference organised by Glyn Williams and myself at Queen Mary, University of London, where again he delivered an important paper. Indeed, looking at the list of David’s abundant publications since these early years, it is striking how many of these originated as conference presentations. It is, however, no surprise that he received many invitations. Not only could David be relied upon for a well-researched original piece (no ‘pot-boilers’ for him), but his rhetorical style of delivery, worthy of the stage, could be guaranteed to enliven proceedings. His fine strong voice may perhaps have owed something to welsh ancestry and Caernarvon up-bringing.
David’s student years at the University of Liverpool, where he was taught by Sheila Marriner and Francis Hyde, founders of the ‘Liverpool School of Maritime History’, stimulated an interest in the subject, although he always described himself as an economic historian. His 1963 MA on ‘The Function of the Merchant in Specific Liverpool Import Trades 1820-1850’ reflected the Liverpool focus on maritime business, but appointment as an assistant lecturer at the University of Leicester just a year later brought him into contact with the trade and shipping historian Ralph Davis, who influenced his subsequent research, encouraging a broader scope. In 2000, when David’s academic contribution was honoured by the IMEHA in Merchants and Mariners: Selected Maritime Writings of David M. Williams, compiler Lars Scholl identified these themes: ‘the economic (trades, deployment of the merchant fleet, and state regulation of shipping) and social (many aspects of the seaman’s condition)”.
More recently, David also investigated maritime tourism and, in a fruitful collaboration with the late John Armstrong, reconsidered the transition from sail to steam, challenging the conventional view that this was a drawn-out process. David’s expertise and judgement were also reflected in several skilful historiographical surveys.
Puzzlingly, despite his exceptional record of more than fifty scholarly publications, and the considerable esteem in which his scholarship was held by his peers, David evidently regretted that he had not undertaken research for a PhD in the early years of his career, and therefore lacked the title. In 2004, under the title ‘British Merchant Shipping and its Labour Force in an Era of Economic Expansion and Social change, 1790-1914’ he submitted a selection of his work for a doctorate by published work at the University of Leicester and unsurprisingly was awarded the degree.
David’s contribution to maritime history went well beyond his own research. A founding member of the Editorial Board of our predecessor organisation, the International Maritime Economic History Association, his stalwart service to the Journal included serving as Chair and a stint as Editor. The same exceptional organisational and administrative talents were put to use as the Secretary of the British Commission for Maritime History. It was David who in 1993 proposed an annual series of New Researchers in Maritime History conferences, which continues to prosper, and initiated prizes for undergraduate dissertations. Anyone who worked with David on these international and national organisations would become familiar with his gentle prompting and the “Can we have a quiet word?”, designed to ensure everything ran smoothly and amicably. There were indeed several occasions when, after a message from David encouraging me to attend a particular seminar because he feared a low turn-out, on arrival I found a packed room filled, no doubt, with those he had similarly persuaded.
All this activity and hard work went on against a background of family responsibilities, inspiring teaching at the University of Leicester and service as External Examiner. Yet, although it took its toll, seemingly David took everything in his stride, with undimmed enthusiasm and generosity with his time.
David burnished his world-wide friendships and there will be many like me who never went to an event without hoping he would be there, ready to share his great fund of stories, latest terrible jokes and, as an avid collector of historical postcards, news of recent acquisitions. A learned man, with learning lightly borne, he was a sharp commentator on the world and its ways. As maritime historians, we owe a great debt to David Williams for his role in laying the foundations of our discipline as a collaborative international endeavour. On a personal level, there will also be many who lament the passing of a good friend.
Emeritus Professor Sarah Palmer, University of Greenwich