Trafalgar to Piccadilly: The Best History of 2005

Peter Furtado reports on the awards for 2005 given by History Today.

The History Today awards celebrate the best of what’s new in history every year: what an excellent crop it is this year! From ancient Pompeii to Elizabethan England to the battle of Trafalgar to homosexual life in early twentieth-century London, the topics covered are as diverse as history itself, while the presentation of every one of the shortlisted books is exceptionally accessible. Whereas in previous years some of our recommended titles have had a dauntingly academic quality to them, all those listed this year are truly engaging for all readers of the magazine.

Book of the Year

This award, worth £1,000, is given by the Longman/History Today Trust, for an author’s first or second book.  The judges were professors Jeremy Black, Julian Jackson and Miri Rubin.


Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis 1918-57 (University of Chicago Press).
This example of modern ‘queer history’ is an account of how gay people lived in London, which everyone, gay or straight, can relate to. Not written (as it might have been) as a tale of suffering, it is a lucid, sane and jargon-free account of how gay people negotiated space for themselves, physically, socially and emotionally, and draws on police records, memoirs, letters and newspaper exposés, as well as the first queer guidebook ever written. It deals with issues of policing, housing, geography, identity and politics faced by gay men in this period. It is also a book that will make anyone who reads it look at London and its public spaces through new eyes.


Medina Lasansky, The Renaissance Perfected: Architecture, Spectacle and Tourism in Fascist Italy (Penn State University Press).
A beautiful book by an American architectural historian, which will make any reader think differently about Italian history. It explores the ways in which medieval and early Renaissance Italy beloved by so many of us are, to some extent, a self-conscious creation of the Fascist era; and how Mussolini sought to adapt the nation’s cultural heritage to fit his programme of national regeneration, showing how Siena’s Palio horse race, for example, reached its modern form at this period. This original book throws a new light on both the age of Mussolini and our assumptions about the Renaissance.

J.E. Lendon, Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity (Yale University Press).
An ambitious and interesting attempt at a cultural approach to military history. Ranging from the sixth century bc to the late Roman empire, the author, from the University of Virginia, looks at why some societies – such as Sparta, Macedon and Rome – tended to win and others lose in battle. He finds the explanation not in the onward march of technology but in their backward search for inspiration, in traditional cultural values, in attitudes to how war should be waged, and in particular in their attitudes to the heroic past.

Highly Commended

Maya Jasanoff, Edge of Empire: Conquest and Collecting in the East 1750-1850 (Fourth Estate).
A learned book, by an acclaimed young historian now also teaching at the University of Viriginia, on the way in which European attitudes to empire were shaped by collectors of cultural objects. By focusing on the imperial collisions between France and Britain in India and Egypt from the Seven Years’ War to the mid-nineteenth century, the author is able to explore the intimate but complex motivations of imperialism.

Nicholas Ostler, Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World (HarperCollins),
A lively account of how certain languages – such as Latin, Sanskrit or English – thrive and develop their own forms of empire, while others do not. This study of what Ostler, a linguist and chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages, calls language dynamics offers a rather different view of imperial history to the one we are used to, and allows him sharply to characterize the cultural outlooks embodied in each language. This is true ‘crossover history’, taking an approach that may be unfamiliar to those who read more conventional historians, but which will be challenging and exciting.

Nicholas Stargardt, Witnesses of War: Children's Lives under the Nazis (Jonathan Cape).
Stargardt, from Magdalen College Oxford, looks at how the Second World War affected the children who were caught up in it – whether as victims or as participants, smuggling food, plying the black market, joining the Hitler Youth, or suffering physical privations or emotional trauma from battlefield or bombing, or being sent to death camps. Taking evidence from medical and welfare records as well as diaries and memoirs, this book is the first to look at both German children and those of the occupied territories of Eastern Europe, and wrestles with the long-term psychological impact of the war on those who grew up in its shadow.

Matt Houlbrook, winner of the Book of the Year award, is a thirty-year-old lecturer in 20th-century cultural history at the University of Liverpool.  ‘This is extremely unexpected, and an incredible honour’, he said, on receiving his award. Coming from Scunthorpe, a town he considers to be an unlikely seedbed for historians, his PhD at Essex in the late 1990s formed the basis for his award-winning volume Queer London.

He explains: ‘The book was driven by the incredibly vivid stories of individual men's lives – stories that revealed a world that was never supposed to have existed.  It started with the letters I found in an Old Bailey file at the National Archives in Kew, written by a young man called Cyril in 1934, detailing all the exciting men he had met, the nightclubs he had visited, and how he was enjoying life in the big city.   He wrote, “I have only been queer since I came to London about two years ago, before then I knew nothing about it.” Arriving in London opened his eyes to a life he never knew was possible; being in the city meant he could explore his sexuality.  He soon realized however, that new opportunities came at a price; he was later arrested for being in a club frequented by gay men.

‘The archives are full of stories like this and it was evident that these early accounts of gay cultures could redefine our common perceptions of urban life and sexual liberation.  Politically this was also a very interesting time; as the authorities tried to control men’s sexual behaviour, London men were struggling to define and make sense of their desires and needs.  Somewhere in this fight for control, we see London emerge as a city of cultural diversity and intrigue.’

The book describes how gay men negotiated a ‘space’ for themselves in a city that didn’t always understand or accept them.  Dr Houlbrook revisits the restaurants, clubs, hotels and parks where gay cultures emerged and explores the policing, housing and politics in these areas.

He teaches twentieth-century social and cutural history, and his current research is on interwar Britain, on sexuality in this period, and on the large numbers of chancers, conmen and ‘wannabees’ who appeared to flourish, and he asks what these men and women can tell us about the values of the era in which they lived.


The prime mover behind all this was the man who wins our prize this year: ‘Mr Nelson’ himself, Dr Colin White, of the National Maritime Museum and newly appointed director of the Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth. Colin contributed greatly to Nelson scholarship with his discovery of many new letters from the great man, and wrote innovative articles for many publications. He also masterminded the NMM’s exhibition ‘Nelson and Napoleon’; and more widely he was the driving force behind the whole Trafalgar 200 programme.

Colin White, recipient of the Trustees Award

Colin White has been an executive director of the National Maritime Museum since 2001, where he had responsibility for developing the Trafalgar 200 project; but he is shortly to become Director of the Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth. He has written and contributed to several books on Trafalgar, including Nelson: The New Letters (Boydell, 2005) in which he published many of the hundreds of letters he discovered.

He commented that no one associated with the Trafalgar festival ever dared hope it would take off in the way it did.


Anna Mason of Wadham College Oxford, The English Reformation and the Visual Arts Reconsidered:  An original, authoritative and absolutely compelling work looking at the National Portrait Gallery’s memorial of Sir Henry Unton, and placing this strange image in the context of contemporary historical understanding of the visual and religious culture of the late Elizabethan period.

Matthew Greenhall, of the University of Durham, From Cattle to Claret: Scottish economic influence in northeast England 1660-1750. Greenhall shows, in a quietly persuasive manner, the  importance of the Scottish presence in Newcastle, Durham and the region in this rather unconsidered period. A real tour de force, especially considering its scope and sources, many of which have not been used for economic analysis before.

John Price, of Roehampton University, Likely to be Forgotten Heroes; 19th-century attitudes to the heroic, embodied in the Watts memorial of Heroic Sacrifice.
An original, quirky piece on a monument in Postman's Park, London, that commemorates ordinary men and women who had done extraordinary things. It makes great use of an unusual source and tracks down supporting evidence from a wide range of material.


Given for a book that will stimulate enthusiasm for, and involvement with history, among secondary school children. In this wide-ranging category which can include school textbooks, historical fiction and illustrated titles, the judges Chris Wrigley, Don Henson and Sean Lang put emphasis on books that adopted an innovative approach to conveying historical information and ideas with flair and imagination.


Daniel Mersey Arthur, King of the Britons: From Celtic Times to Cinema Icon (Summerdale Press).
This deals with an important topic too often left to fantasists and cranks. Mersey makes Arthur accessible as proper history in a readable and good way, especially for the younger age group, and makes a brave attempt to separate fact from fiction without forgetting the irresistible imaginative pull of the Arthurian stories themselves.


A. Roger Ekirch, At Day's Close: A History of Nighttime (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
A fascinating book which takes an odd slant: a history of the 'forgotten half’ of history, how humans coped with, imagined and lived in darkness, in Early Modern Europe. Perhaps rather too large a volume for our young readers to cope with, but this book is full of fascinating information about everyday life, and contains a large number of strands that truly bring the past to life. It is also a book that can be enjoyably dipped into almost at random.


This award is for a person who has done most to enhance and beautify a book through finding and acquiring an imaginative, wide and appropriate range of photographs, paintings and prints  – a tricky and complicated task that is not always appreciated by others.


Heather Vickers for Anna Pavord’s The Naming of Names, the Search for Order in the World of Plants (Bloomsbury). The pictures in this beautifully presented book come from a wide range of herbals and other collections of botanical drawings, and are assembled from institutions all over the world.


Georgina Bruckner for Pat Thane’s edited collection The Long History of Old Age (Thames & Hudson). She started her task on this book with what she described as a proverbial blank sheet of paper, but its 250 pictures, as the reviewer in our February issue said, make the book ‘look at first glance like a coffee-table book, but do not be fooled by the plethora of illustrations. With their fulsome captions these entice and engage the reader’: they are varied, witty and moving.

Bronagh Woods for Brunel by Stephen Brindle (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). This book includes an attractive and solid collection of paintings, photographs, technical drawings and other illustrations,  many of them previously unpublished.