Obituary: Bill Henderson, English teacher and one of the leading Scottish publishers of his generation

William Gebbie Henderson, publisher and teacher. Born: 18 February, 1929 in Edinburgh. Died: 29 March, 2017 in Edinburgh, aged 88.
Bill Henderson has died at the age of 88Bill Henderson has died at the age of 88
Bill Henderson has died at the age of 88

Bill Henderson was one of the leading Scottish publishers of his generation following in a long tradition of those who have dedicated their lives and skills to the love of literature and books. This love and commitment also led him to devote part of his career to teaching.

Bill was the youngest of five children, his father a pharmacist in Edinburgh.

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After school at George Heriot’s, national service in the Education Corps and a degree from Edinburgh University, Bill started out at the age of 26 with the firm of Oliver & Boyd located in Tweeddale Court just off Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. He joined the firm after a stint with Simpkin Marshall, a book wholesaler in London. He rose quickly and took on new responsibilities with what were to become sister companies Churchill and Livingstone.

While at university, Bill met and fell in love with Jean Wagstaff, who was studying Spanish. They married in 1953, living initially in East Preston Street, then setting up home in Gilmour Road in Edinburgh where their three children Ann, Michael and Kate, grew up, and Bill and Jean lived for the rest of their lives. Alongside supporting a young family, Bill stood for election to Edinburgh City Council where he served as a Liberal from 1960 to 1963.

In 1962, Oliver & Boyd was acquired by the Financial Times and later sold on to the Longman group. In 1973 when the new owners proposed a move to the south of England, Bill chose to change direction, leaving publishing, re-training at Moray House as a teacher and joining the staff of Boroughmuir High School, as an English teacher, going on to become head of department. There he was known as Half Moon Hendo because of the way he wore his glasses and he inspired his pupils and instilled in them his love of literature and attention to detail.

In 1983, Bill was headhunted by Tony Chambers to come and take the important role as managing director of W & R Chambers, the renowned dictionary publishers.

This was a difficult time for independent publishers, but Bill steered the company successfully through the challenges, bringing in new staff, launching its first thesaurus and involving everyone in the development of the business, until the Chambers family sold the company to Hachette.

In retirement, Bill never slowed down. He served on the board of Edinburgh University Press and, in a particular labour of love, he researched, collected and published Merse Rhymes, the poems of his great-great-grandfather, Dr. George Henderson, of Chirnside.

Bill also became an active member of the Craigmillar Park Bowling Club, serving on the committee, encouraging new members, and becoming club champion in 1998.

Jean had retired from her post as a lecturer in the department of hispanic studies at Edinburgh University, and together they were able to travel to visit friends and colleagues in many different parts of Spain, a country which had become dear to them both.

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While at Oliver & Boyd, Bill had met the editor and publisher Robin Lorimer, who was later to ask Bill to join the Lorimer Trust. This was set up to publish the soon-to-be acclaimed New Testament in Scots which had been translated by Robin’s father, William Lorimer, former professor of Greek at St Andrews University.

Bill played a major role in achieving the success of the book, which sold out its first edition in three weeks and went on to be snapped up by Penguin Books. After Robin’s death, Bill guided the trust in publishing the poems of George Campbell Hay and an audio recording of the Gospels of the New Testament in Scots read by Tom Fleming.

Bill always had a wry smile on his face and brought energy and enthusiasm to whatever task was in hand, advising, encouraging and inspiring those around him. He is survived by his two daughters and son and by his grandchildren Katharine, John and Iain, and his great-grandaughter Lucia.

His wife Jean pre-deceased him in April 2011.