Illustrated history magazines are a feature of the post-war world. Probably the first to be published was American Heritage, which appeared in 1950, quickly followed by History Today, then magazines in France and some other European countries. History Today was the brainchild of publisher and Conservative politician Brendan Bracken, close associate of Winston Churchill since the 1920s and Minister of Information during the Second World War, as well as Chairman of the Financial Times and part-owner of The Economist. The story goes that the magazine acquired its title late one evening in the smoking room of the Commons, when, after a long evening arguing against the coal nationalisation bill, Bracken remarked to Churchill, 'We have made history, today', and Churchill suggested this phrase would make an ideal title of the proposed magazine. The launch was delayed on account of paper rationing; the first issue appeared in January 1951.
The joint founding Editors were Peter Quennell, belle lettriste and man-about-town, and Alan Hodge, journalist and historian, who had previously been working on the Financial Times. Among the advisers to the editors on launch was Asa Briggs (who remains a valued adviser to the current Editor in 2008). Through the 1950s the magazine retained its Churchillian links as both Briggs and Hodge assisted the former Prime Minister in preparing the final text of his History of the English Speaking Peoples.(1)
In the first issue the Editors described their aim as, 'like open-cast miners', to bring Britain's wealth of historical treasure into the light of the mid 20th century, at a time when bewilderingly swift changes had 'sharpened our sense of historical perspective and heightened our appreciation of the national heritage'.(2) Contributors to that issue included G. M Trevelyan, G. M. Young and C. V. Wedgwood, while February 1951 boasted Alan Bullock, A. J. P. Taylor, D. W. Brogan, G. D. H. Cole and Max Beloff. The roll-call of great names continued through the decade, as the magazine quickly caught the zeitgeist, offering illustrated history and culture from Mesopotamia to the mid 20th century through serious scholarship and higher journalism.
Some important debates took place in its pages – among them Trevor-Roper's interventions on the decline of the gentry – and the magazine proved an important opportunity for young authors to try their hand: one such was Antonia Fraser, writing in 1965 on the murder of Rizzio. History Today continues to be proud of how many young contributors are still 'head-hunted' by talent-scouts in Britain's publishing houses.
Quennell and Hodge remained as joint Editors until the late 1970s (27 and 28 years respectively) by which time the overheads of Pearson, the publishing conglomerate under which it existed, were proving too much for a title that was apparently losing its way. Rather than close the title, in 1981 Pearson sold it to a group of investors who remain its owners today, though in the mid 1990s they began the ongoing process of transferring ownership to the History Today Trust to ensure its independence.
In 1980, while still in the Longman building in Bentinck Street and under the Pearson umbrella, the magazine saw a dramatic change with new editor, Africanist Michael Crowder, who introduced a new larger format, colour printing and a strong emphasis on third world history, notably black Africa. Although he moved on in 1982, to be replaced by Juliet Gardiner (1982–5), the emphasis was now much more clearly on the interests and activities of a new wave of university historians, and also on the possibilities presented by the launch of Channel 4 television, a station that sought to broadcast the kind of serious but popular history of the kind the magazine was publishing.
With the arrival of Editor Gordon Marsden in 1985, it continued to build its circulation in the UK and US to levels of readership that far exceeded those of any but the most successful historian in book form. History Today remained the only magazine in the English-speaking world that attempted to bring serious history to the mass-market, and as such began to attract a substantial readership in the US and in Australia, and also many contributors from overseas – benefits it very much still enjoys.
Under Marsden, the magazine also explored the possibilities of international historical collaborations. Two important links developed by him were with Rodina, a Moscow-based magazine part-funded by the Russian government, and Damals, a German history magazine. In May 1995 they together produced a joint issue, published in three languages, on May 1945, which presented a unique tri-national viewpoint on a pivotal moment in modern history. This issue sold better than any other on the newsstand. An attempt, two years later, to repeat the trick on the theme of the upcoming millennium was less successful.
Marsden left in 1997 to be elected to the Commons as a Labour MP, and Peter Furtado became editor. The following years saw two significant developments. The first was the development of an online presence for the magazine, including a vast archive of virtually all articles published since 1980, and some earlier ones as well. By the mid 2000s, this contained well over ten million words and formed probably the largest archive of general historical writing available anywhere; it also ensured worldwide recognition of the title.
The second development involved both challenge and opportunity. The 'history wave' which saw a huge outpouring of books and TV programmes on history in the early years of the millennium produced a new market for historical writing of all sorts, and saw History Today's subscription figures reaching their highest-ever levels. It also saw the arrival of the first serious competition, in the form of the BBC History Magazine, launched in May 1999. While the two were clearly distinguished in terms of the length and depth of article, and of graphic style, there was competition for both newsstand customers and for advertisers. In general, although the BBC magazine has consistently sold about twice as many copies monthly as History Today, its publication has increased the size of the market overall rather than threatened History Today's position.
One consistent feature of History Today since 1951 has been the quality of its illustrations. The magazine has always seen visuals as far more than decoration, but as part of argument, or even part of the course material itself. Through Jackie Guy, picture editor from 1964 to 1998, and thereafter Sheila Corr, the picture research has been detailed, painstaking and carefully matched to both the letter and the spirit of the texts.
Since the 1990s History Today has also had connections with several publishing companies, producing the History Today Companion (3) and Who's Who in British History (4) (both edited by one-time Editor Juliet Gardiner), and several themed collections of essays first published in the magazine. Probably the most successful have been Victorian Values (5) and Life in the Third Reich.(6) To coincide with the magazine's 50th anniversary in 2001, Sutton Publishing produced an anthology – The Past Masters: a History Today Anthology, edited by Daniel Snowman.(7)
To commemorate the long and happy relationship between the magazine and Longman, in 1992 the Longman-History Today Trust was set up which awards a range of prizes, including the Book of the Year prize. This goes to a first- or second-time author, and so is aimed at up-and-coming scholars. The list of former winners includes Orlando Figes, Eamon Duffy, Amanda Vickery and David Armitage. In 2000 History Today linked up with the Royal Historical Society (RHS) to award a prize for the best undergraduate dissertation, giving young scholars recognition for their work and – by adapting the dissertation for the magazine – a platform. Other prizes are awarded, including a Film of the Year award, and a Trustees award for the person or institution that has done most to promote history in the preceding year. Winners of this last have included Antony Beevor, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB), and most recently William Hague. These prizes are given at a well-attended ceremony each January.
History Today's motto is 'what happened then matters now', and the challenge remains the same: to investigate history and show what it contributes to the world we live in, politically, educationally, culturally, recreationally. We have never sought a particular editorial line, seeing history as an arena in which to challenge certainties rather than assert them. While we might not still see ourselves as open-cast miners, we might prefer to see ourselves as explorers, peering with torches into sometimes obscure nooks and crannies that, we hope, allow us to throw a new light on much wider historical topics. We hope that what we publish is new, interesting and relevant, that it appeals to young and old, to professional historian and 'lover of the past' alike. The range of styles, approaches (and ages) of our contributors reflect the diversity of history in western life today, and the continuities and changes in the content and appearance of the magazine present their own object lesson in the complex and vital place in British life of history, today.
Peter Furtado is a former Editor of History Today.