Each month, Herstory Club feature an interview with a woman currently working in History. For Women’s History Month 2021 we are expanding this feature! We are aiming to share the experiences women face in the industry (the good and the bad!) and to shine a light on the incredible work currently being undertaken by women across a wide range of specialist disciplines.
Herstory Club (HC): Thank you so much for taking the time to share you story with everyone. Firstly, tell us a bit about yourself and your work.
Alex Churchill (AC):
So I’m primarily a historian on the First World War and Royalty in the 19th-20th Centuries. I freelance, because well, what else is there when you don’t want to do academia? Most of my work right now revolves around building up the Great War Group, which I started with Herstory gal Beth Moore last June, and on History Hack, which Alina Nowobilska and I founded in March 2020 for lockdown. We hit half a million downloads in 50 weeks recently, which we couldn’t believe. I also do quite a bit of TV. The latest has been War Factories for Yesterday, but there are some more bits filmed and waiting to go out on Channel 5 about the Second World War.
HC: What period of history are you interested in?
AC: As I said, first half of the 20th Century mainly. I’ll happily waft back to the reign of Queen Victoria, but if I hit anything before that in a work capacity I start to get a nosebleed. I tend to get bored when we get to the Cold War too. My main bag is the First World War, and the British Royal Family, but really, it all started with maritime history. Hence the Titanic documentaries and the Lusitania anniversary doc. At heart, I am still a boaty nerd.
HC: Tell us about your favourite female figure in history.
AC: Urgh so many. I’m all about Queen Mary at the moment. So hard done by in historical literature. She was fierce, hard-working, and kind. She wore her heart on her sleeve and anyone that thinks that George V treated her badly needs to jog on. She wore the trousers at Buckingham Palace. Women that you haven’t heard of… Muriel Thompson. She was bonkers. She was into motor racing in a big way before the war. She drove a car called Pobble around Brooklands. She and her mates used to do the course blindfolded with silk scarves just for giggles. When war broke out she volunteered to go to war and the War Office turned her down. She went with the Belgians instead, ended up getting given a gallantry award by King Albert, and when finally the British approached her she ended up running the Calais Convoy, evacuating the wounded away from the battlefields.
HC: How did you get to where you are now?
AC: Luck, and a lot of hard work. This is the answer that nobody who wants to go into TV will want to hear. Television is fickle and mean. You are wasting your energy by setting your sights on being a television historian. The way to get noticed and get picked, is to keep your head down and work your tail off. Make yourself the go to person on your subject, and then if you’re lucky it will come. Any young historian sitting there and thinking “I want to be on TV” is almost certainly going to end up disappointed. My best advice is just work hard, hard, hard. And hopefully someone will notice and give you a media platform, but don’t make it the cornerstone of your career ambitions. Also, working in TV, I can tell you that the people trying to get “noticed” before they’ve created the output to stand behind gives the people you’re trying to impress completely the wrong impression of what they’re about.
HC: Can you tell us a bit about your journey to your current role/research interests?
AC: My grandad was a medal dealer, as well as stamps, coins. He also traded a massive postcard collection so I spent my childhood playing with old stuff. I’d spend my Saturday mornings with him at Merton Abbey Mills. Ostensibly it was so I didn’t have to walk around the nearby supermarket with my parents and because he’d buy me a sausage bap for breakfast, but it definitely fired my love of history.
Current research coming out of my ears. The big one is the relationship between George V and the Duke of Windsor and its contribution to the abdication. Also obsessing over self-inflicted wounds, translating the account of Gallipoli by a French artillery officer, working on some TV pitches and working on the third novel in the Will Stanley series. I’m sending him to Russia in the summer of 1917, so the reading is fun for that.
HC: Can you tell us a bit about your experiences within the wider historical field and your line of work – both positive and negative experiences are welcome!
AC: It’s been almost entirely positive, if I’m honest. I meet very few idiots. Maybe I give off a vibe that says “don’t mess with me?” Who knows. History Hack has been incredible. In the last year I have met so many amazing people working in fields going all the way back to the dinosaurs who have been so generous with their time and hard work.
HC: What are your thoughts on how women are treated in your sector/this field?
AC: Being completely honest, apart from the odd old fart on social media, I don’t have issues with men. I find it sad that the small amount of negativity I have experienced in this field has been from other women. Not only that, but women who claim to be feminists. You can’t on the one hand bleat about female solidarity while trashing other female historians. It just doesn’t wash. In the worst instance, the aggro is coming from someone I have never met, never had any personal contact with on or offline. But I don’t waste time or energy on it, I’ve got too much good stuff going on. I don’t believe in blanket supporting women over men as part of some misguided solidarity. Just be good to people, whatever private parts they’ve got, and the world will be a better place. If someone is mean, I’m liable to tell them, regardless of what sex they are. I don’t think being a woman or part of a minority group gives you a pass on being a decent human being.
HC: If you could give any advice to women in this sector/those wanting to get into history, what would it be?
AC: Don’t confuse being a historian with being a very minor celebrity. Work hard. If you work hard and make yourself indispensable, they can’t ignore you, and they can’t talk down to you. Make yourself formidable in your field. Everything else is just noise.