Prolific author of popular social histories based on witness testimony, notably How We Lived Then
NORMAN LONGMATE, who has died aged 90, was a popular historian best known for his 1971 book How We Lived
Then, which used the recollections, diaries and letters of more than a thousand people to document everyday life in Britain during the Second World War.
His intention was “to show the impact of extraordinary events on ordinary people”. History “from the bottom up” was a novel approach at the time, and while Longmate always wanted his work to be accessible, his method was scholarly and based on primary sources where possible. How
We Lived Then was highly praised by critics. Cyril Connolly hailed it as “a landmine of information” covering everything from the “grandeurs of the Blitz to the miseries of dried eggs and the six-inch bath”.
Longmate was, by his own description, an “all day Saturday” historian, since for 20 years he worked Monday to Friday in an administrative post at the BBC. On Saturday he expected “peace and quiet” from his family while he bashed away at the typewriter, but at five o’clock he would break off to play games of his own devising, such as “submarines”, with his small daughter.
How We Lived Then was followed in 1972 by If Britain Had Fallen, a chilling “counterfactual” history for which he studied Nazi occupation plans as well as analysing the German occupation of the Channel Islands.
The son of Ernest, a photographer, Norman Longmate was born on December 15 1925 at Newbury in Berkshire, the third of four siblings. His mother, Margaret (née Rowden), was a farmer’s daughter from Somerset; though she had left school at 13, she was a voracious reader and Norman considered that he had inherited some of his flair for writing from her.
The family was reduced to poverty when his father’s business collapsed but Norman won a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital, where a brilliant teacher, DS Roberts, inspired him to become a historian.
Aged 17, Longmate – in borrowed uniform and steel helmet, both too big for him – joined his school Home Guard, and in 1944 he was called up, joining the Royal Army Service Corps. He spent the last year of the war in London and after VE Day travelled to Denmark as part of the British military mission, stopping in Hamburg, where he was shocked by the extent of the devastation caused by Allied bombing. When his truck was on the move again, he and his colleagues were shot at by rogue bands of Nazis still roaming the countryside.
Aged 22, he went up as an exhibitioner to Worcester College, Oxford, to read Modern History. He narrowly missed a First and stayed on for two years as a research student.
He began his first job as a leader writer on the London Evening
Standard. He soon moved to the Daily Mirror as a feature writer, staying there for three years. But, feeling that he needed to do something more demanding, he applied for and got a post at the Central Electricity Authority.
He was also briefly taken on as Labour parliamentary candidate for Newbury, but he was not in sympathy with the unilateral disarmers who dominated the party, so he quickly gave up his political ambitions.
A chance meeting with an old school contemporary who worked for BBC Schools Television led to a commission for a script. More were commissioned, and by 1963 Longmate had been hired as producer of a new history and current affairs series on BBC Schools Radio. From there he moved to a job in the Secretariat, the BBC’s “civil service”.
Meanwhile, Longmate had already embarked on his parallel career as an author, publishing his first book, A
Socialist Anthology, in 1953, and a second, Oxford Triumphant, on undergraduate life, a year later. The chapter about sex caused particular controversy. His third book was a detective novel called Death Won’t
Wash. It was the first in a series of five featuring Detective Superintendent Herbert Bradbury; all included the word “death” in the title to distinguish them from any straight novels he might write, but they never materialised. His first work of social history was
King Cholera, published in 1966. It was followed by The Waterdrinkers: A History of Temperance in 1968. After
How We Lived Then he turned out roughly a book a year until slowing down in his mid-seventies.
He also wrote freelance documentaries for radio and acted as a historical adviser on various television projects, including the Yorkshire TV series How We Used to Live.
The Real Dad’s Army (1974) was written to accompany an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, and the seventh series of the popular television sitcom. It recorded the morale-boosting effect of the Home Guard as well as moments of comedy, such as the occasion when troops mistook a hedgehog for the head of “a cunningly camouflaged” German paratrooper. Anthony Eden (Lord Avon), who as war secretary had founded the Local Volunteer Force, attended the launch.
Longmate’s other titles included The GIs: The Americans in Britain 19421945 (1976); When We Won the War
(1977); Air Raid: The Bombing of Coventry 1940 (1978); and The Doodlebugs: The Story of the Flying Bombs (1981).
Longmate was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1981 and in 1983 took early retirement from the BBC. He began work on a new project, a two-volume history of all the attempts to invade the British Isles, which was first published in 1989. An autobiography, The Shaping Season, was published in 2000.
Norman Longmate was good company and had many friends, whom he would often entertain at Elm Tree in Hampshire, a thatched cottage he bought as a retreat with the proceeds from his books.
In 1953 he married Elizabeth (Betty) Taylor. Later they lived apart and she died in 2011. In recent years he found happiness with a new partner, Pam, who survives him with the daughter from his marriage, Jill.
Longmate in his study where he worked as a ‘Saturday historian’