Obituary of W. A. Speck

The IHR records with great sadness the recent death of Professor W. A. ('Bill') Speck whose work on seventeenth and eighteenth century British History will be known to many. Below we publish a personal appreciation by Tony Claydon, Professor of Early Modern History at Bangor University.

Lawrence Goldman

Anyone who has been interested in the late Stuart, or Georgian, periods of British history, will have been saddened to learn of the death of W.A. (Bill) Speck in February 2017. Bill was a political historian of great erudition, rigour, scholarship, and reliability. To those who did not know him or his work, this may suggest he was a little stodgy. But nothing could be further from the truth.

First, and perhaps foremost (for academics value the personal too little), there was his huge charm. This not only made attending any seminar or conference in which he was involved a great pleasure, but had a hugely positive impact on the future of the profession. This was  because Bill so often deployed his charm to encourage and enthuse young researchers. This current writer was certainly not the only graduate student to have been bowled over by his interest and engagement when I nervously outlined my first research project to one of the most respected scholars of my field.

Bill also raised the profile of his chosen period, through his great clarity of exposition. This made him a master of survey texts that laid the groundwork for many people’s understanding of Britain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Underlying both these services to history, was a passionate interest in the past, that led him into enquiries that pioneered whole new subjects of research. Frequently the waves of scholarly fashion broke on shores that Bill had already discovered and explored, following the logic of his sources and questions.  For the late Stuart period alone, his work on the division between whigs and tories led him to a deep conception of the social dimension of politics, that more than prefigured the wider shift in interest from elite manoeuvrings to a wider political culture.

His work on the press and the electorate described a vigorous and participatory ‘public sphere’, well before that term became a crucial and ubiquitous tool of analysis. His work on Queen Mary II – invaluable to my own writings, as a biographer of William III – opened questions of monarchical influence, court culture, and the gendered structuring of power: but as always with Bill, these stimulating enquiries arose from his basic curiosity about how Britain worked rather than being led by modish theory. 

Other commentators are better placed to reflect on his impact on study of the Georgian decades. Yet for the late Stuart era, Bill was key to rescuing it from an overshadowing by the pre-civil-war era; and its recognition as a potential crucible in which the modern world was formed. For this, though perhaps even more for that sparkling conviviality, he will be remembered with great respect and affection.

Published on: 
7 Mar 2017