Book Prize Winners 2021

The Social History Society’s Book Prize recognises innovative scholarship the fields of social and cultural history. Each autumn we look for the best original work of historical research published by an established author in the preceding calendar year. This year’s prize recognises books published in 2019.

Our judging committee was chaired by Professor Pat Thane (our Honorary President) and included Professor Sasha Handley (the inaugural prize winner in 2018), Professor Lucy Noakes and Professor Phillipp Schofield.

The winner of the 2021 Social History Society Book Prize is:

Lucy Bland, Britain’s Brown Babies: The stories of children born to black GIs and white women in the Second World War (Manchester University Press, 2019).

This book explores the history of the estimated 2,000 babies born to black GIs and white British women in the Second World War (nicknamed ‘brown babies’ by the African American press). It uses testimony gained through oral history interviews to tell the stories of forty five of these children, carefully contextualising their experience through memoirs, archival evidence and imaginative, carefully reconstructed historical contextualisation.

The judges said that Britain’s Brown Babies was a ‘vivid, readable, and very moving book’ that ‘draws together the personal voice with broad historical concerns’.

They noted that the book:

Is especially revealing in exploring race relations and gender norms in wartime and post-war Britain and their diverse and often complex manifestations. As the narratives reveal, parents who would have liked to marry were all too often held back by hostility in Britain and in Black and White communities in the USA.”

Professor Lucy Bland, on accepting the prize, explained that the importance of the personal stories included:

A lot of people often hadn’t even told their children or their husbands or their wives about their childhoods … It could be quite difficult for them, but here I was: a very sympathetic stranger who wanted to hear what they had to say. So it poured out. And many have said that it was so important: at last, their story was being told; at last, someone was hearing about their lives.”

The full interview between Lucy Bland and Professor Naomi Tadmor (chair of the Social History Society) is available to watch here. Some of the stories included in the book are also explored in this special online exhibition hosted by the Mixed Museum. 

In light of the strength of this year’s competition, the judges decided to award two special commendations in place of a single runner-up.

These are:

John Henderson, Florence under Siege: Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City (Yale University Press, 2019)

Suzannah Lipscomb, The Voices of Nimes: Women, Sex and Marriage in Reformation Languedoc (Oxford University Press, 2019)

The judges praised both books for transforming understanding of the social worlds of early modern Europe. They admired the careful research and accessibility of each book, and appreciated the links with contemporary concerns.

John Henderson’s book is a vivid study of the way seventeenth-century Florence reacted to a major epidemic of plague. Going beyond traditional oppositions between rich and poor, this book provides a nuanced and more compassionate interpretation of government policies in practice, by recreating the very human reactions and survival strategies of families and individuals. You can read a sample chapter here.

The judges described the book as ‘a very valuable addition to early modern social, cultural and medical history’ and noted the striking striking parallels with our recent experiences, though then the citizens of Florence said prayers from their windows and balconies, now they sing.

Suzannah Lipscomb uses evidence from 1,200 cases considered by the moral courts of the Huguenot church of Languedoc to give access to ordinary women’s lives between 1561 and 1615. It offers a series of new findings on women’s agency and power by providing unique accounts of women’s attitudes to their lives, faith and intimate relationships.

The judges said this was a ‘fascinating, and very readable, study’ that recreated ‘life experiences including of sexual violence and adultery and also of happier times in their married lives’.