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William Wallace was born at Sunderland on 10 May 1891, the eldest son of shipping solicitor James Wallace and his wife Alice Donkin. Educated at Argyle House School, he left at the age of 16 to be articled to his father, qualifying as a solicitor in 1912.
He initially worked for a legal firm in London where his growing interest in social and economic problems led him to offer free legal advice to the poor at Mansfield House Settlement in Canning Town. It was at this time that he joined the Fabian Society and began corresponding with similarly minded individuals such as Ramsay Macdonald and H. G. Wells.
In February 1914 Wallace wrote to Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree, then Labour Director at the Cocoa Works in York, to ask his advice on becoming more actively involved in social reform. He had been inspired by reading Rowntree’s influential book ‘Poverty: A Study of Town Life’, the result of an in-depth study of poverty in York. As a result of the letter he was invited to visit Rowntree at his home, and in 1917 was invited to work for the new Reconstruction Committee, later the Ministry of Reconstruction, established by Rowntree’s friend, Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Wallace worked at the ministry until 1919. It was during this period that he met his wife, Nancie Hancox, and the couple married in June 1918.
The ministry closed in 1919 and later that same year Rowntree offered Wallace a job at the Cocoa Works, with responsibility for researching ‘co-partnership’ and the possibility of introducing a profit sharing scheme to the business. Wallace carried out a lengthy investigation into experiences of profit sharing in businesses in the British Empire and the USA. His favourable report was approved by the Rowntree Board in 1922 and a formal profit sharing scheme was launched the following year.
As personal assistant to Rowntree as Labour Director, Wallace oversaw a number of innovative schemes in the 1920s similarly aimed at improving the welfare and productivity of the workforce and democratising the business. These included a supplementary unemployment benefit scheme, a Works Psychologist, a Central Works Council on which both management and workforce were fully represented (Wallace was a member from 1919 until 1957), an appeals committee, and educational classes for staff. Wallace personally delivered classes on the ‘economics of industry’ when a suitable lecturer could not be found.
In 1923 Wallace was asked to run the Business and Economic Research Department and in 1924 he formed the Business Research and Management Association with friends, later the British Institute of Management. As a Rowntree representative he was also active in the informal Astor/Rowntree group - the ‘Committee on the Distribution of the Product of Industry,’ and the Management Research Group founded by Rowntree in 1927. In 1926 Wallace published ‘Business Forecasting and its Practical Application’.
His work with Rowntree frequently involved him directly in political life. At the request of Lloyd George, Wallace drafted a report on unemployment for the Liberal Industrial Enquiry which was used in the Liberal Party’s 1928 publication, ‘Britain’s Industrial Future.’ He was also instrumental in the development of the Party’s 1929 manifesto ‘We Can Conquer Unemployment,’ working as part of a group that included Rowntree, Maynard Keynes and Hubert Henderson, although it was Wallace himself who wrote the final draft. The finished pamphlet was published in March 1929 with a foreword by Lloyd George (who was widely assumed to be its author) and sold 340,000 copies.
In 1929 Wallace was appointed Company Secretary at Rowntree’s. In 1931 he was promoted to a new ‘York Board’ of directors created to run the York business, under the authority of the main Company Board. His work brought him into close contract with John Bowes Morrell, then Finance Director and Deputy Chairman of the company with responsibility for associated companies overseas. Wallace made a number of trips to the USA and Canada with Morrell, and in 1938 succeeded him in holding responsibility for all overseas companies.
In 1940 Wallace was asked to act as an Industrial Advisor to the Ministry of Food, then tasked with the adequate provision of food resources to wartime Britain. His title was soon changed to Director for Cocoa, Chocolate and Sugar Confectionary, and he remained in the post, and on leave from Rowntree’s, for four years.
In 1944 Wallace returned to Rowntree’s where he was promoted to Deputy Chairman with responsibility for all associated companies at home and overseas. In 1950 he was elected to the Grand Council of the Federation of British Industries and in 1951 he was elected President of the Cocoa/Chocolate and Confectionary Alliance.
The following year, George Harris retired through ill health and Wallace succeeded him as Chairman of Rowntrees. He remained in the post until 1957 when he retired and subsequently became a lay member of the new Restrictive Practices Court until 1960. He was also actively involved in the campaign to found a university in York as a member of the York Academic Trust and later the York University Promotion Committee, alongside his friend and ex-colleague John Bowes Morrell. The University of York opened in 1963 and included an Institute of Social and Economic Research personally championed by Wallace.
William Wallace died at York in 1976.