‘Maritime London was a completely forgotten world’: Wolfson Prize-shortlisted author Margarette Lincoln on her book Trading in War

By Rosemary Collins, 30 May 2019 - 9:54am

We talk to Margarette Lincoln, author of the Wolfson Prize-shortlisted Trading in War: London's Maritime World in the Age of Cook and Nelson

Margarette Lincoln with Trading in War
Margarette Lincoln with her Wolfson Prize-shortlisted book Trading in War

The Wolfson History Prize is the UK’s biggest history prize, with the judges awarding £40,000 to the winner and £4000 to each shortlisted author.

As chair of the judges and British Academy president David Carradine said, this year’s shortlist demonstrates “the great strength and depth of history writing in the UK”, with shortlisted titles ranging from a ground-breaking biography of Oscar Wilde to a history of the human impact of the Holocaust.

Enter our competition now for your chance to win the complete Wolfson Prize 2019 shortlist, worth £170

Margarette Lincoln, former deputy director of the National Maritime Museum, is on the shortlist for her book Trading in War: London’s Maritime World in the Age of Cook and Nelson.

She spoke to Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine about the lost world of our ancestors around London’s docks in the period from the American Revolution to the Battle of Trafalgar.


Why did you want to write this book?

I wanted to write the book because it seemed to me that maritime London was a completely forgotten world. You get books about the East End, which is really a Dickensian concept, it doesn’t really actually come into play until the mid-19th century. Maritime London wasn’t terribly poor at all, it was very mixed.

It seemed to me that the story of ordinary people just hadn’t been told and yet these people were very important for national events like defeating Napoleon or sending Captain Cook on his voyages of exploration or turning London into a global trading metropolis. It all depended on people working. It wasn’t just these heroes that you read about in books. I was trying to recover a kind of lifestyle of ordinary people – I know there’s no such thing, but middling sorts and poor sorts rather than just the elite – and to try and show what they contributed to the national story.


How did you find the records of ordinary people’s lives in this period?

It’s not too difficult to find this out now. As I say in the acknowledgements, I owe a huge debt to all those people who’ve been keying records into digital databases, because you can find out a lot more about ordinary life. You can see why in the past people just wrote about Nelson or Wellington, because those are the people who left their archives, but now you can go to the British Newspaper Archive, you can go to the Old Bailey Online, you can look up wills, you can even find things like workhouse records and church vestry records. You can see what was being doled out to the poor and what kind of lifestyle they had.

For example I never knew that in Well Close Square, which is still there, it’s in Whitechapel, they had a theatre that seated over a thousand people. You read about Covent Garden and Drury Lane and they were the two licensed theatres but maritime London had a theatre. It couldn’t do spoken drama like Shakespeare but it could do burlesque. You can see by looking at the plays they put on that they were for a multinational audience.


How does it feel to be shortlisted for the Wolfson?

Pretty amazing. I’ve met all the other authors now and their books are really very varied and they adopt very different approaches. It’s all fabulously interesting to find out how different people do things. It feels very good. I didn’t really expect it because you’re not really thinking of it, you’re onto the next book normally.


What’s your next book?

I’m working on a book about 17th century London. And not maritime London, the whole of London. It’s really a kind of validation process too because at least I can see that what I’ve said in the maritime London book wasn’t wrong because I’m kind of double-checking it and you can see how things led up to it.



The winner of the Wolfson History Prize 2019 will be announced at a ceremony at Claridge’s Hotel, London on 11 June. Trading in War is available now from the Yale University Press (304 pages, £25)

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