Bill May obituary

Other lives: Educationist who moved from the Workers Educational Association to spend 30 years with the co-operative movement

My friend Bill May, who has died aged 94, devoted most of his life to adult education and passionately believed in lifelong learning. He spent 30 years working in different capacities for the co-operative movement and at the beginning of his career was an organiser for the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA).

Bill was born to Ethel (nee Stoddart) and William May at Aireyholme farm cottage in Great Ayton, North Yorkshire, once the home of Captain James Cook. A few years later the family moved to Whinstone View farm, also in Great Ayton, where their smallholding lacked basic comforts: there was no electricity or running water.

Bill and his brother, Basil, performed daily farm chores to support their father, who had lost an arm in the first world war. Before the boys went to school each day, cows had to be fed, watered and milked. It was a bleak existence.

After leaving Guisborough grammar school Bill joined the Royal Navy in 1944, serving on the battleship HMS Nelson, which sailed for south-east Asia a year later. He was shocked by the conditions he witnessed in the outposts of empire and by the casual acts of racism exhibited by some sailors when they stepped ashore. The experience turned him into an internationalist and a socialist.

He returned from the second world war to work with his parents on the farm, but in 1951, after marrying Madge Canwell, he quit the agricultural life to become a process operator for ICI Wilton in Redcar.

Joining the Transport and General Workers’ Union enabled him to enrol on its study programmes, which in turn led him to a politics, economics and international affairs course in Middlesbrough, then to a diploma course in politics, philosophy and economics at Ruskin College, Oxford.

On leaving Ruskin, Bill worked as an organiser for the WEA in Sheffield, then in 1962 the family moved to St Albans, where he began working as a staff trainer and education organiser for the local Co-operative Society. Three years later he took up the post of education officer for the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society. In 1978 he became an officer for the northern region of the Co-operative Union, and he and Madge returned to live in North Yorkshire in the early 1980s.

Retiring in 1991, Bill spent happy times with Madge, pursuing their shared interests in music, dancing, supporting Middlesbrough football club and holidaying abroad.

Madge died in 2010. Bill is survived by their son, Martin, and by Basil.

Beranice Semp

The GuardianTramp

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