In Memoriam: Dr William Herbert Cecil “Liam” Smith

Dr William Herbert Cecil “Liam” Smith
26th of September 1925 to 14th of September 2017

This is an obituary for an extraordinary man based completely in the words of Goldsmiths students who knew Liam Smith as a teacher, as head of Raymont Hall and as an inspirational friend.


Ann Arnold and Wendy Sim (Goldsmiths 1962-65)
Liam Smith was our history tutor at Goldsmiths College London. He was an inspirational lecturer, adept at passing on his considerable enthusiasm to all his students while helping them to develop their powers of critical thinking. He instilled in both of us a lifelong passion for the subject.

Merv Ainsworth (Goldsmiths 1965-69)
I worked closely with Liam when I was student chair of the staff/students committee. He was without doubt one of the best heads of hall and indeed a charming gentleman.

Ian Mcsporran (Goldsmiths 1966-70)
I just wanted to say that, in a very happy four years at of which the first three were spent studying for a history degree, I greatly enjoyed Dr Smith’s lectures and the occasions that he spent telling anecdotes. Dr Smith’s eye-witness accounts of Paris in 1968 have stayed in my memory.

Dave Swarbrick (Goldsmiths 1966-70)
I remember his brilliant explanation of England’s relationship with Ireland given at an open lecture in 1969. It was the only thing I heard at the time which made any sense of that tortured and troubled relationship. A great man.

David Mason (Goldsmiths 1965-69 and Raymont Hall 1965-68)
For those who were in Raymont Hall, when he was head, we will remember a generous, funny and kind man. We all knew about the gay bit, it was one of those great unspoken non-secrets, but he was our Liam, so a prejudiced world could go hang itself. For Goldsmiths to make him head of a men’s hall of residence at that time, and for him to accept the role, took a certain amount of courage on both sides.

Liam Smith’s obituary in the Guardian made no mention of his secondment to Paris in 1968 or of his brilliant speech to a packed Great Hall when he came back about the events he had observed first hand. For those who did History at Goldsmiths, we all remember a brilliant historian and lecturer – a commanding intellect worn lightly, passionate about his subject and the truth, all delivered with wit and humanity.

Pete Law (Goldsmiths 1965-70)
A great guy and a great gay, yet another of life’s giants passes on. His speech post-Sorbonne was a masterpiece. A wonderful teacher and bonne viveur who brought not only Napoleon III but also whole pre and post French Revolutionary era into vivid 3D. I particularly recall his hilarious account of Bonaparte screaming down an alpine shale slope on his bum to encourage his troops to attack a gun emplacement.

Greg Reeve (Goldsmiths 1967-70 and Raymont Hall 1967-69)
How can any of us forget that powerful and uplifting lecture on the Sorbonne. Liam had that ability to create the intense and violent Parisian situation into the lecture theatre with immense clarity, leaving us in no doubt of the brutality which, up until then we had only seen on TV footage, inflicted by the authorities and the CRS. Content and delivery aside one memory I have is that a small number of students produced some wastepaper bins and started a collection. Money was being thrown into the containers while the lecture was still going on to the point of making it difficult to hear. I was in Raymont ’67-69. Liam’s humour I had that light, gentle ‘camp’ touch which was teasing but never offensive. A lovely man.

Jim Chester (Goldsmiths 1967-71)
I knew Liam for almost exactly 50 years. We met in September 1967 when I became a student at Goldsmiths. As a naïve young man up from the country, Liam was quite simply the most amazingly impressive person I had ever met. As our friendship grew we would of course occasionally have differences of opinion. But he would never say I was wrong. But his oft-repeated expression “I think you need to think about that” will stay with me forever.

The following is the eulogy written and delivered by Jim Chester at Liam’s funeral.

We are here to remember, and celebrate, the life of William Herbert Cecil Smith. Who of course was known to all of us, simply, as Liam. And what a life it has been!

Born on the 26th of September 1925, in 2 weeks’ time, Liam would have been 92. He was born and raised in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, and was always proud to be Irish. Throughout his life he always carried an Irish passport. He was the son of a solicitor, and came from a long family line involved in the legal profession.

As a very young man, Liam was only just eligible for wartime military service, but towards the end of World War 2, he served as a radio operator in the navy, and saw active service, particularly in South Asia.

He was demobilised in 1946 and after the war, he entered Dominican novitiate training, to become a priest, but soon realised that that was not the life for him. He decided instead to pursue an academic career.

He read European History at Queen’s University, Belfast, graduating with a First in 1950, and subsequently embarked on his doctoral studies at King’s College London – his focus at this stage being on Anglo-Portuguese Relations in the mid-19th century. Liam was awarded his doctorate in 1965. He had done research in Lisbon and was asked to stay on by President Salazar but his liberal convictions meant he was unable to accept the idea of working for the authoritarian Portuguese government.

In the late 1950s, he moved to Singapore, where he taught at the university for a period of three years, before returning to the UK and a brief period as a schoolmaster at the Henry Thornton Grammar School in Clapham.

The turning point in his academic career though came in 1962, when he was appointed to a lectureship at Goldsmiths’ College, later becoming the Head of its History Department, a post he held until his retirement in 1985.

Along the way, he also taught at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, one of France’s most prestigious educational establishments, during a sabbatical period in 1979 to 1980.

His research work as an historian was extensive and lead to many publications – an early volume ‘Nicholas II – The Last Tsar’ was written as part of a series aimed at A-level students, but the most significant part of his work focussed on the French Second Empire and resulted in a radical re-appraisal of Napoléon III. His first study of Napoléon III was published in 1973 and he returned to the same subject ten years later with a completely new version, which he wrote in French for the publisher Hachette.

In 1989, he published a French biography of the Empress Eugénie for which he was awarded the prestigious Prix Napoléon in the same year. Though never formally honoured for his achievements in Britain, in France, he was highly acclaimed. He became a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques in 1991 and a further award came in 2001 when he was made an Officier de l’Ordres des Arts et des Lettres, (an honour bestowed on him by the Ambassador, at the French Embassy, here in London). He produced a final study, of the Bonaparte family, in 2005.

Throughout much of his working life, Liam was also a trustee at Farnborough Abbey (the final resting place of both Napoléon III and the Empress) and he also acted as an informal advisor to the Bonaparte family.

Indeed, Liam was a man of many talents – he was fluent in French and Portuguese and had more than a passable facility in Italian and Russian. He was incredibly widely-read, and by no means exclusively in his own sphere of academic expertise. He had a life-long love of music and took an active interest in both the theatre and the cinema. Above all, he was admired, and loved, by a wide circle of friends who will miss him greatly.

He had an amazing life, living and working all over the world and his address book is full of the most extraordinary people. But towards the end, he felt he was ready to meet his maker. As he said to me on many occasions: “it’s been a lovely party, but now, I’m ready to go home”.

Obituary compiled by David Mason (Goldsmiths 1965-69)