‘If historians neglect to educate the public, if they fail to interest it intelligently in the past, then all their historical learning is useless except insofar as it educates themselves’. G. M. Trevelyan
A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to attend the first History Masterclass – a new lecture/seminar series launched by Dr Suzannah Lipscomb and Dr Sam Willis. Held within the gorgeously atmospheric Tallow Chandlers Hall, the inaugural session was led by Willis and focused on Nelson’s Navy.
Now, I know a little bit about the seventeenth century English navy (Anglo-Dutch Wars, anyone?), my knowledge of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, however, is fairly limited. Through a series of slides, Willis gently guided attendees into the world of Nelson and the late-eighteenth/early-nineteenth century Royal Navy, with valuable insight offered by Dr James Davey, the curator of naval history at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. The passion Willis has for his subject was palpable and during his highly engaging talk we discovered how navy language caused upset within port towns, how (despite his fancy-looking suit) it was unlikely that Nelson deliberately made himself a target during the Battle of Trafalgar, how the Royal Navy was surprisingly (for the times) accommodating when it came to disability and even how nautical imagery slipped into Parisian ladies’ fashion.
The size of the class was deliberately small to ensure the session had a seminar feel, which worked really well. Attendees chatted to the organisers as well as one another during the coffee break (‘coffee break’ doesn’t really do it justice, a spread of pastries, fruit, juice and hot drinks had been laid on). The atmosphere was convivial and alongside the central talk, attendees were encouraged to interrupt with questions, leading to several interesting tangents. There was also plenty to see: the seminar room was decked (sorry!) with books, maps, artefacts and curios, that attendees were allowed to explore.
History Masterclass is great fun. Taking the words of Trevelyan as their mantra, Lipscomb and Willis have tapped into an exciting new way of ‘doing’ public history. The line-up for the rest of this year is like a who’s who guide to the UK’s best public historians: From Dr Janina Ramirez and Dan Snow to Peter Frankopan and Kate Williams. Speakers of this calibre frequently give lectures and public talks, but it is very rare to have the opportunity to attend such a rich and focused seminar. Lipscomb takes the lead in the next class, with a fascinating-looking session on The Witch-Trials.
The classes aren’t cheap, but if history is your thing then these are the hot tickets you really should treat yourself to. Highly recommend.