The First Issue of History Today

First published in January 1951, Richard Cavendish pays tribute to History Today's founders and its remarkable continuity.

The magazine’s founder was Brendan Bracken, Conservative MP, resourceful publisher, charming gatecrasher and close ally of Winston Churchill. An excellent Minister of Information in 1941-45, he was detested by his civil servants, who cheered when he lost his seat in the 1945 general election, and is said to have inspired some aspects of Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984. Another seat was soon found for Bracken while he spent time running the Economist and merging the Financial News with the Financial Times. He discussed his idea for a new history magazine with ‘the Boss’, as he called Churchill, and the story goes that after a fierce session in the House of Commons they both retired to the smoking room, where Bracken told Churchill, We have made history today and Churchill told him that was the ideal title for the magazine.

Bracken agreed and, though paper rationing delayed matters, when the time came he chose Peter Quennell and Alan Hodge as his co-editors. Peter Quennell was much the more prominent of the two. The son of C.H.B., and Marjorie Quennell, authors of the histories of ‘everyday things’ in England, he knew everybody in London literary circles and had published books on Byron, Queen Caroline, Pope and Ruskin among others. He edited the Cornhill Magazine from 1944 and he knew how to make scholarship readable.

Alan Hodge, one of Bracken’s assistants at the ministry, was a researcher and co-writer who had worked with Robert Graves on The Long Weekend and apparently looked on benignly when his wife Beryl left him for Graves. After the war Hodge went to the Financial Times with Bracken and aided him with his weekly column on 'Men and Matters. He would later help to research Churchill’s histories.

History Today’s first monthly issue came out at a cover price of half a crown, equivalent to getting on for £2 today. On the front cover were black-and-white portraits of the Earl of Strafford, King Charles III of Naples and the philanthropist Earl of Shaftesbury. Inside were advertisements from Courtaulds, ICI, Guinness and others, slanted to be appropriate to a new history publication. The Guinness one said that for nearly 200 years ‘Guinness have concentrated on doing one thing and doing it well’.

The same might have been said about the new magazine itself. The foreword declared that ‘the main intention of the magazine is to interest the general reader’ and the message was reinforced in a special welcome note from English history’s grand old man, G.M. Trevelyan: ‘History, today, has a very large popular audience, eager for serious, scholarly exposition of the past, provided it is so written that he who is not a professional historian may read it.’

History Today was a product of the years after 1945. The world had experienced huge changes since 1900, an exhausted Britain was slowly recovering from the Second World War in an atmosphere that felt more like defeat than victory and, in an unfamiliar world, people wanted to know about the past, of how things had happened and of much still to be proud of. A similar impetus led to the Festival of Britain in the same year.

Quennell and Hodge went on to recruit contributions from the most celebrated historians of the day, academics cheek by jowl with non-academics, from Asa Briggs, Alan Bullock, C.V. Wedgwood, Lewis Namier and A.L. Rowse to A.J.P. Taylor, Michael Howard, Maurice Powicke, Michael Grant, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Christopher Hill, J. H. Plumb, Antonia Fraser and John Julius Norwich among many others. At the same time pieces were coaxed from the likes of Julian Huxley, Arthur Waley, Max Beloff, Jacquetta Hawkes, Kenneth Clark, Duff Cooper, Nancy Mitford, Quentin Bell and Freya Stark. The magazine was attractively illustrated and it successfully bridged the gap between the academic historian and the general reader.

Hodge died in 1979 and Quennell retired the same year. In 1981 the Pearson Group sold History Today to a small group of private investors. In 1998 they set up the History Today Trust to be the ultimate owner of the magazine. Editors from Juliet Gardiner (1981-85) Gordon Marsden (1985-97) and Peter Furtado (1997-2008) on to Paul Lay have continued the tradition of publishing material that combines accuracy, insight and readability. On a personal note, I started as a contributor in 1988 and have written the anniversary column (originally ‘Freeze Frame’) month by month since February 1998. It has been an enjoyable and enlightening experience.