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Obituary: Bill Williams

Manchester's 'honorary Jew' who pioneered oral history in Britain

    Bill Williams
    Bill Williams

    For over 40 years Bill Williams, who has died aged 86, imbued the Manchester Jewish community with his tremendous knowledge of its history. Although not Jewish himself, he was founder and Life President of the Manchester Jewish Museum and a pioneer of oral history in Britain. Bill was often described by his admirers as an ‘honorary Jew’.

    Brought up a Catholic by his father, Welsh Methodist socialist historian, Bill and his Catholic mother Dorothy, he grew up in Llandudno and Llangollen before being sent to Stonyhurst, a Catholic boarding school in Lancashire. He gained an Exhibition to Trinity College Cambridge, and read history. 

    After teacher training in Cardiff, he eventually became head of history at Manchester Polytechnic, having abandoned Catholicism and the idea of the priesthood. At the Polytechnic he was commisioned by a Jewish publication committee to write the history of the community. This culminated in The Making of Manchester Jewry, 1740-1875 (published 1976) and described by Rabbi Dr Michael Hilton as having “awakened the need for archival rescue and oral history.”

    The book boosted the establishment of the Manchester Studies Unit at the Polytechnic of which he was the director. The unit focused on Jewish working lives and Manchester’s working class history. 

    Bill became an advocate of life story interviews and after joining the Oral History Society in 1976 he became its secretary until 1982. With the help of oral historian and researcher Dr Rosalyn Livshin, hundreds of interviews were carried out with the Jewish children of immigrants who reached Manchester at the turn of the 20th century as refugees and survivors. 

    The unit initiated similar projects with mill workers, moneylenders and  the Wythenshawe housing estate, among others. Bill advised many on the need for oral history and archival retrieval, travelling to Northern Ireland and Birmingham, and guiding black and Asian groups. He and his colleagues rescued many official synagogue and Jewish committee archives as well as informal photographic, film and personal archives within the Jewish and wider Manchester communities. 

    He and his publications committee campaigned to save the Great Synagogue, but when this failed, he founded a Jewish Heritage Committee in 1978 to rescue Cheetham Hill’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. This resulted in the opening of the Museum in the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in 1984 and Bill became chairman of the Trustees. The MJM housed the Jewish oral history and photographic contact print collection after the demise of Manchester Studies, while its photographic, documentary and film archive were distributed elsewhere. As well as directing the MJM in its early years, Bill became an advisor to National Life Stories at the British Library, working on a major Holocaust survivors and oral history project. In 1993 he was appointed Research Fellow and Lecturer at the Centre for Jewish Studies at Manchester University, where he wrote and taught a course on Being Jewish in Manchester.  

    Bill also set up a Shoah project in the late 1990s and fundraised to open a Holocaust Museum in Manchester. This project failed to materialise, but the money funded a permanent Holocaust post at Manchester University. 

    In 2008, Bill  retired from his university post but continued to undertake research and supervise doctoral students, and develop his many publishing projects. 

    These include Jews and Other Foreigners: Manchester and the Reception of Refugees from European Fascism (2011) and Jewish Manchester, among a prolific output of books and articles on related subjects.

    He is survived by his brother Gerald and children William Williams, Christine Jeffrey and Marc Williams 


    Bill Williams: born August 21, 1931. Died January 28, 2018