Edgbaston High old girl Kate Williams brings history to life on TV’s Restoration Home. She tells David Johns how it all started by making time machines from cardboard boxes! Photography by Paul Stuart
Kate Williams has become the go-to-girl for history on British television. The historian, author and presenter is best known for being buried under old books, manuscripts and parish records as the resident ‘brainbox’ on BBC’s popular Restoration Home programmes presented by Caroline Quentin. While it’s Caroline’s job to pick her way through the trials and tribulations of the various hopefuls who have bought and are trying to restore rundown country piles, it’s Kate’s mission to find out about the history hidden behind the bricks and mortar. And as you’ll know if you’re a fan of the show, she does the job beautifully, bringing to life the stories and intrigues from the past with a passion that sums up her love of all things historical.
“I’ve had a love of history pretty much from the word go,” she said. “As a child I visited lots of stately homes in the region with my parents, which I loved, and I just always seemed to be around and enjoying all things to do with history. I even used to make my own time machines out of old washing powder boxes and get my brother to go inside, whereupon I’d proceed to try and stop him getting out again!” Kate’s realisation that maybe history could become her future career really took hold when she attended Edgbaston High School. “I loved my time at the school and still meet up with many friends who I’ve stayed in touch with. I come from a little village outside Stourbridge and at first I used to catch the school bus to Edgbaston, but later I’d get the train into Birmingham which took around 30 minutes.” Though now living in London with her partner and three-year-old daughter, she comes back to the Midlands as often as she can – and only last month went back to talk to the current crop of pupils at Edgbaston High, where she has also presented prizes at the annual speech day.
Just a few days before we spoke, Kate had attended the Royal Television Society’s awards held at the National Motorcycle Museum. “Restoration Home was shortlisted for the Best Documentary Award,” she said. “We didn’t win, but it didn’t matter – the main thing was that I was back in Birmingham. Whenever people ask me where I’m from I never say London, I’m always very proud to say Birmingham.” Kate is teaming up with another well-known local personality when she becomes the resident historian on Frank Skinner’s new BBC Radio 4 show The Rest Is History starting this month. It’s the latest in an increasingly varied broadcasting CV. “I first got involved in TV through the books that I had written. One in particular about Queen Victoria seemed to attract a huge amount of attention. The whole thing has just grown from there really.” Kate has written six best-selling historical books and is currently working on her seventh with the working title The Lovers which looks at the 1920s and early 1930s. Her TV credits now include regular appearances discussing history, arts, politics and current affairs issues on BBC programmes such as Newsnight and The One Show, on Sky, Channel 4 and Channel 5. She has also featured heavily on major broadcasting events such as the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
Her dream is to have her own TV series to bring British history alive to more people. “I’m currently talking about a series on historical murders,” she said. “I’d also love to do a series looking at how history has affected our physical bodies and our home environment.” And she says that Birmingham would be the perfect example. “Birmingham is a historical multicultural melting pot with people coming to the city from across Britain and Ireland to work in places like the Custard Factory, and then from the whole world. The city has a USP that is very different from any other British city. It’s very exciting.” Somehow it’s difficult not to be equally enthusiastic about history when talking to Kate – as millions of TV viewers have already witnessed, she really does bring the past to life.
KATE’S TOP 5 KEY DATES IN BRITISH HISTORY
November 1558 – Accession of Elizabeth
1 June 1837 – Queen Victoria comes to the throne
March 1876 – Alexander Graham Bell tests the first telephone
August 1914 – The beginning of World War One
December 1918 – Women get the vote