A globe-spanning narrative history of the 1850s - a time of electrifying change - seen through the eyes of the men and women who embraced the adventurous spirit of the times
HEYDAY brings to life one of the most extraordinary periods in modern history. Over the course of the 1850s, the world was reshaped by technology, trade, mass migration and war. The global economy expanded fivefold, millions of families emigrated to the ends of the earth to carve out new lives, technology revolutionised communications, while steamships and railways cut across vast continents and oceans, shrinking the world and creating the first global age.
It was a decade of breathtaking transformation, with striking parallels for our own times. The 1850s saw the laying of the first undersea cable in 1851, the rush for gold from California to Australia, while fleets of pirate vessels docked in Hong Kong harbour, eager to take advantage of booming trade. The West's insatiable hunger for land, natural resources and new markets encouraged free trade, bold exploration and colonisation as never before.
In a fast-paced, kaleidoscopic narrative, the acclaimed historian Ben Wilson recreates this time of explosive energy and dizzying change, a rollercoaster ride of booms and bust, focusing on the lives of the men and women reshaping its frontiers. At the centre stands Great Britain. The country was the peak of its power as it attempted to determine the destinies of hundreds of millions of people.
A dazzling history of a tumultuous decade, HEYDAY reclaims an often overlooked decade that was fundamental not only in in the making of Britain but of the modern world.
Ben Wilson is the author of four critically acclaimed books including WHAT PRICE LIBERTY?, for which he received a Somerset Maugham Award, and the bestselling EMPIRE OF THE DEEP. He was born in 1980 and educated at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he graduated with a first-class degree and an MPhil in history. He lives in Suffolk.
'Wilson's account of the 1850s is a wonderfully engrossing and intelligent read . . . He has clever and entertaining things to say about even the most banal topics, tracing the Victorian enthusiasm for beards, for instance, to the impact of the Crimean War . . . He even manages to make the history of Minnesota exciting' — Dominic Sandbrook, THE SUNDAY TIMES
'With a rip-roaring style to match his subject . . . excellent . . . His grasp of the interplay between politics, economics and individuals is admirable. This is narrative history of the highest quality' — Andrew Lycett, DAILY TELEGRAPH
'Engrossing study of the explosion of the new technology that reshaped the world in the 1850s, and Britain's role in it' — THE SUNDAY TIMES 'Must Reads'
'In this rollercoaster of a book, Ben Wilson describes the 1850s as the most explosive period in history, a decade that gave birth to modernity and trampled those who resisted it . . . So much of current transnational history is, quite frankly, perishingly dull, with arcane analysis smothering the wonderful stories the past provides. Heyday stands in refreshing contrast: the scholarship is certainly impressive but the drama is what delights. Wilson's knack for detail brings this history alive . . . Heyday is a lot like its subject; it's a big-bearded book of enormous scope and unstoppable momentum. However, it's also a sobering tale of greed gone wrong' — Gerard De Groot, THE TIMES
'This is a scholarly, intelligent and readable book. This book is an original prism through which to view the mid-19th century and, essentially, about the invention not so much of modernity as of globalisation' — Simon Heffer, THE SPECTATOR
'I finished Ben Wilson's immensely enjoyable new book, Heyday: Britain & the Birth of the Modern World. Highly recommended' — Tom Holland
'Ben Wilson argues that the 1850s should be seen as a distinct period within the Victorian era because its developments shaped the world for decades. Key among these are the 1851 Great Exhibition; the "gold rushes", migration to area with newly discovered deposits of gold; and the first underwater transmission of a telegraph message, from London to Paris in 1851 - which, in theory, meant that the whole world could be linked in such a away. The Crimean War (1853-56), meanwhile pitted Russia against the UK, France, Sardinia and the Ottoman empire in a conflict that altered global alliances' — BBC HISTORY MAGAZINE
'A fascinating and sweeping account of one of the most eventful decades in world history, a period when the nation was fast-tracked into the modern age . . . compellingly written and intricately researched . . . Wilson skilfully examines how a series of intertwined events gave birth to today's society . . . readers of this excellent book will undoubtedly find that the events of more than 150 years ago have a great deal of light to shine on our own supposedly more advanced civilisation' — Alexander Larman, DAILY EXPRESS
'Heyday brings to life one of the most extraordinary periods in modern history. Over the course of the 1850s, the world was reshaped by technology, trade, mass migration and war. The global economy expanded fivefold, millions of families emigrated to the ends of the earth to carve out new lives, technology revolutionised communications, while steamships and railways cut across vast continents and oceans, shrinking the worlds and creating the first global age. In a fast-paced, kaleidoscopic narrative, the acclaimed historian Ben Wilson recreates this time of explosive energy and dizzying change, a rollercoaster ride of booms and bust, focusing on the lives of the men and women reshaping its frontiers' — DISCOVER YOUR ANCESTORS
'The world began speeding up in the 1850s and hasn't stopped since. Electricity and steam were the crucial technologies: railways, steamships, telegraphs and submarine cables shrank the world in space and time. Now that information, commodities and people could move faster than ever before a genuinely global economy emerged, hungry for growth, labour and new markets . . . Ben Wilson's richly detailed and compelling narrative of this whirlwind period catches its exhilaration' — Ian Irvine, PROSPECT
'The tale is told on a global scale. Snapshots, or perhaps picture postcards, colourfully depict events on every continent except Africa, which offered little hope or profit to the moderniser. Thousands of people moved west of the Mississippi or from Britain to the Australian goldfields; British soldiers looted the palaces of Oudh and joined with the French to burn the Summer Palace in Beijing. There are plentiful sketches of inspired inventors and determined engineers. This book abounds in good stories too. Wilson recounts, for example, the rumour that Australian miners ate sandwiches with £10 as a filling . . . without doubt this is a book that has sweep and panache. It is crammed with interesting facts and the general reader will be painlessly transported across oceans . . . engaging' — Leslie Mitchell, LITERARY REVIEW
'What was it about the 1850s that led to it becoming a period of such remarkable economic, technological and social change? Seen through the eyes of the key players, Ben Wilson's book traverses the globe in search of answers, producing a fresh, compelling take on what was arguably the pivotal decade in the entire Victorian era' — HISTORY REVEALED
'This decade [the 1850s] saw major global events - the Australian Gold Rush, the Crimean War, the Indian Rebellion and the start of the American Civil War - but also revolutions in transport and communications, bringing that global empire much nearer home . . . All of these subjects, and many more - right down to the mid-Victorian craze for impressive beards - are covered with aplomb in Wilson's dramatic and stirring narrative . . . A rollercoaster ride through the 1850s, guided by an expert historian' — YOUR FAMILY HISTORY
'In the 1850s, Britain was not merely the first superpower; British innovation, invention and energy were shaping the modern world in ways that we can still easily recognize today. Ben Wilson eloquently argues that this is when "the forces that define our age first swept across the world" . . . This is a book written with great verve and with a sharp eye for the obscure fact or the telling details . . . Reading it is rather like immersing oneself in an invigorating shower, a cascade that shifts between hot and cold, and leaves a feeling of being both enriched and stimulated, as well as a touch exhausted' — Denis Judd, TLS
'A highly readable account' — EVERGREEN
'The 1850s, as Ben Wilson shows, was not a time of peace. This was a turbulent decade that gave birth to modernity. Wilson rattles through the decade, jumping from the Indian Mutiny, the Crimean War, the Australian gold rush, Commodore Perry's arrival in Japan, Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) and the Great Exhibition. Lively, intelligent, popular history' — THE TIMES 'Summer Books'
'Wilson's book is a persuasive example of a newish turn in writing about the 19th century: the expansive survey of a globalised Victorian world, powered by a new battery of online resources . . . It's an exhilarating time to be a Victorianist . . . Heyday is a book that contains plenty of wonders. It scopes the globe, looking for the telltale marks of modernity. It finds them on the discharge of gunpowder, the slather of industrial grease, the shiver of the telegraph wire' — Matthew Sweet, THE GUARDIAN
'This is an engaging history of the capitalist world in the 1850s, which stitches together vivid stories of entrepreneurs and adventurers from the United States to New Zealand. Heyday: Britain and the Birth of the Modern World sometimes feels like an exciting Phileas Fogg travelogue, with Ben Wilson's finger spinning round a mahogany globe in his study and us with it . . . The strength of this magnificent book is Wilson's awareness of "modernity's close connection with barbarism". To acknowledge that progress came at a high price for most people is not to belittle British achievements; it merely puts them into a proper historical perspective' — Richard Weight, HISTORY TODAY