Late bloomer makes a splash digging up tales of our past

A prizewinning historian began her academic career aged 40, and she's never looked back. Olga Wojtas reports

November 20, 2008

Catherine Horwood did not follow a traditional route into higher education.

The historian, an expert on clothes and consumerism in interwar Britain, married at 18 and worked as a secretary before moving into magazine journalism. But aged 40, with her three daughters in secondary school, she decided to take a degree.

The Open University was not an option. "In those days, there were a lot of rumours about summer schools, and my husband was very jealous and didn't want me to go," Dr Horwood said.

In 1990, she began a part-time history BA at the University of North London, which later merged with London Guildhall to form London Metropolitan University.

"I got there at a golden time for the history department. Denis Judd (now professor emeritus at London Met) was inspirational, and I signed up for every option I could. He encouraged me all the way along, and I got a first."

She had imagined a mutual support system, studying alongside her daughters as they prepared for their GCSEs and A levels. Despite her daughters' pride in her effort, the support was rather more one-sided than she had hoped. "My great reading room was the bath. I would lock myself in the bathroom so I didn't get disturbed."

But there was no question of giving up: studying proved addictive, even though she acknowledges that it eventually contributed to the ending of her marriage.

She took an MA with distinction at Royal Holloway, University of London, where she is now an honorary research fellow. In 1999, she won the Clare Evans National Academic Prize for best essay in women's history for her work on women and bathing from 1900 to 1939.

"We take mixed bathing so much for granted that we can't imagine that not so long ago municipal swimming pools and beaches were segregated," she said. "It was also a time when costumes were unisex. I've found a rather ghastly swimming costume owned and worn by a husband and wife."

Dr Horwood then won an award from the Arts and Humanities Research Board (now research council) for a PhD, taken at Royal Holloway under the eminent cultural historian Amanda Vickery, on clothes, class and culture in the interwar years. She later used her magazine sub-editing skills to turn the thesis into a book for the general public, Keeping Up Appearances: Fashion and Class between the Wars (2005).

She has no time for academic snobbery. "To get a wider audience than an academic one is a great thing. I'm afraid too many historians can't write well. There are a lot of narrow-minded academics who resent the fame of TV historians, but it's based on years of research. I'm all for getting it out there."

Last year saw the publication of her book Potted History: The Story of Plants in the Home (2007), the first research of its kind. People assume that houseplants date from the Victorian era, but Dr Horwood says they were used decoratively from the 17th century. There used to be a much wider choice of indoor plants, with good nurseries having thousands of specimens. But plants took a lot of care. In the 19th century, the Church gifted plants to poor families in slums to give them a sense of responsibility.

"We now treat houseplants like a bunch of flowers, which is a great shame. You can afford to buy an orchid in flower from the supermarket and then chuck it out rather than keeping it and getting it to flower again. People don't know how to look after things and want everything to be very easy."

Dr Horwood is now working on a history of women in gardening, to be published by Virago. Her research included a fellowship at Yale University's Yale Centre for British Art in Connecticut.

"They paid my airfare, gave me a little flat, and said: 'What can we do to help you?' These are not words you often hear in British libraries and archives. Obviously we have marvellous resources in the UK, but the financial support at Yale allows it to have more staff and to offer an excellent study environment."

Women have always been involved in gardening, but their contribution has often been overlooked, she said, notably during the 18th-century preoccupation with landscaping and parks.

"It's a very tough life being a professional gardener, but the figures are evening out, and more women are becoming head gardeners."

Dr Horwood is herself a keen gardener. In a recent issue of Amateur Gardening she proudly displayed her roof terrace in London's Primrose Hill, which includes clematis, fuchsia and Victorian varieties of pelargonium. "It's on the fifth floor, so absolutely everything has to be carried up: pots, bags of compost. But I don't get any squirrels digging up my bulbs," she said.

Physical labour is a good contrast to research, Dr Horwood said, although she admitted to feeling guilty when working on her garden rather than her book, and vice versa.

But she has no regrets about going to university as a mature student. "I feel a more complete person. I don't regret not having done it when I was young. I think I've got far more out of it now. If I had come to university at 18, I would have done my three years and gone out to work. I don't think I'd have chosen the same path and become a researcher."

olga.wojtas@tsleducation.com.

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