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Running the Show: The Extraordinary Stories of the Men who Governed the British Empire [Hardcover]

Stephanie Williams
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
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Book Description

7 April 2011

From Sierra Leone to Fiji, Australia to Sri Lanka, Running the Show is a vivid portrait of empire and of men from another age, who formed so much of the world we live in today.

Running the Show is the story of ordinary men, who in their way, were heroes. Made up of episodes from the lives of governors serving around the British Empire, it presents a kaleidoscope of people, places and events - and stories of how, for better or worse, attempts were made to bring order to often chaotic situations.

Drawing on an astonishing cache of Colonial Office dispatches, private letters, diaries and memoirs, governors recall their strange experiences, parade their eccentricities and complain about dysentery as they plan new towns, build railways, create assemblies, draft laws, negotiate with tribesmen, set up schools and hospitals, and introduce sanitation systems in the farthest reaching corners of the world.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Viking (7 April 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780670918041
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670918041
  • ASIN: 0670918040
  • Product Dimensions: 4.5 x 15 x 23 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 178,574 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Stephanie Williams was born in Canada, the daughter of an army officer. Her mother was born in China, to an Englishman and a young Russian refugee who had escaped the brutality of the Bolshevik revolution. Stephanie grew up moving constantly across Canada, Europe and the United States, before taking a degree in history at Wellesley College, Massachusetts and becoming a London-based journalist. Out of a three-year stay in Hong Kong, came the commission to write 'Hongkong Bank', the story of the building of Norman Foster's masterpiece for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. This was followed by 'Docklands' in 1993. By this time, perestroika had come to Russia and it was possible to begin to investigate the truth of her Russian grandmother's tumultuous past. Researching and writing 'Olga's Story' took ten years. Stephanie's latest book is 'Running the Show: Governors of the British Empire'.

Product Description


Consistently surprising, frequently stirring and often very funny... Williams is never dull. She has a fluent, engaging style and a finely tuned ear for an anecdote. She also pays proper attention to her subjects' romantic entanglements - a combination of hot climates, plentiful supplies of booze and boredom sounding the death knell for numerous colonial marriages...a delight (Daily Mail )

The range and richness of Running the Show defies reviewers' analysis. It is a wonderful performance whose prime effect is to demonstrate the vastness of the British imperial enterprise in all its blacks, whites and exceptions (Jan Morris The Times )

An amusing and lively book, stuffed full of anecdotes and interesting titbits (Amanda Foreman New Statesman )

Williams' research is exhaustive; her descriptions of the colonial life splendidly evocative. What emerges is a valuable picture of what empire-building was like (David Evans The Financial Times )

Her portraits of these men sparkle (Christopher Sylvester The Daily Express )

Admirably a vivid picture of what it was like, in very varying circumstances and at different levels of responsibility, to be an instrument of that imperial endeavour in the heyday of Empire (David Goodall The Tablet )

About the Author

Stephanie Williams is the author of three books of non-fiction. Born in Canada, the daughter of an army officer, Stephanie moved constantly across Canada, to Germany, England and the United States, before taking a degree in History at Wellesley College, Massachusetts. Since then she has lived in Hong Kong and travelled widely. She lives in north London.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars When the sun never set... 13 July 2011
By T. Burkard VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Few subjects could be less fashionable than the British Empire, and Stephanie Williams deserves our thanks for this original and illuminating book. She has consulted reams of original material, and assembled the stories of some of the more memorable governors whose influence--for better or worse--shaped our former colonies at the height of Britain's global power. Sensibly, she eliminated India from her enquiries: the governance of the sub-continent occupied thousands of administrators, many of whom were specifically trained for the job at Haileybury College.

By contrast, the rest of the empire was administered by governors who lacked any noticeable qualifications for the job other than the right contacts and enough money to compensate for the meagre salaries on offer. In most cases, they had to accept that malaria went with the job, and that mortality rates were alarmingly high. This applied to your family, should they decide to accompany you (most of them did).

Many of the governors Williams writes about were capable administrators--until the telegraph linked most parts of the empire, they had to be. They had no choice but to make it up as they went along. Although some were dolts, and a few were bigots, most of them had a surprising amount of sympathy for the natives that Britain was dragging into the modern world. Some of them virtually went native, and many of them worked tirelessly to protect native populations from exploitation by white settlers and European commercial interests.

Williams doesn't do too much theorising, but she makes it clear that the Colonial secretaries that these governors answered to were very keen to protect the rights and even the cultures of subject peoples. Behind this was the belief in our civilising mission.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mad Dogs 11 Nov 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Stephanie Williams has succeeded in skilfully bringing out the flavour of the extraordinary day to day business of running the Empire. The examples she selects show the sheer breadth of what these men did and endured - living in a tin hut in tropical heat or a mansion depending where you were, working ceaselessly to bring some physical and psychological structure to a formless society,understanding the whims of hugely different cultures while establishing the British Way as the objective, battling daily with possibly fatal disease.
The wives and children played an essential part not just in bolstering the morale of the star of the show but in making their own contributions, like Tennyson's wife establishing the lying-in hospital in Adelaide. Different characters dealt with things differently which is what makes the book absorbing: in the end you cannot sum up the British Empire in a couple of sentences,but we are still living with its legacy. Did the flag follow trade or trade follow the flag? Were racist attitudes a permanent underlying fact or was it that Britons felt themselves unquestionably superior and born to lead without naming it racist or even thinking of race? Greed,corruption,ambition, ruthlessness are there just as kindness,justice,thirst for knowledge, improvement of conditions and plain enjoyment of other people are too.
Let's hope Stephanie Williams turns her meticulous attention next to a similar treatment of the governors of India. I can't wait.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating, disparate bunch 8 July 2011
By bookelephant TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
What sort of men ran the colonies? That was the question which brought me to read this book by Stephanie Williams - and amusingly enough it was that sort of question which prompted her to write it. Happening on a survey return in some old Colonial Office files while working on something else she was caught by what different people, and different lives were evidenced there. Her book doesn't try to be a full survey of the men who governed the colonies - it is a small sample drawn from the "Colonial Office" days. But the examples chosen give one a vivid impression of the very disparity (save possibly in eccentricity) of the governors -and their experience. Williams jokes with us at the start by quoting Rawdon Crawley's appointment to Coventry Island - but the analogy is made good in the experience of the young men who took "seasoning" doses of malaria in their stride, but ended up with broken health (one of them, Strahan, died from a severe cold after years of recurrent malaria - aged only forty nine) after being posted from one difficult climate to another - and often with barely enough money to cover the jobs which were imperatively necessary to do.
If there is a theme other than ecentricity it is a literary one: John Pope Henessay turns out of have been the inspiration for (to me) Troloppe's least believable character; Lord Tennyson was the son of the poet, Frederick Lugard was married to a famous journalist, Hugh Clifford was a best selling novelist (rising at 3am to write his books before commencing the work of the day!!) - as well as the inspiration (his later madness was attributed to his going out in the sun without a hat) for "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" ...
Another theme is the sheer energy which all these men (and many of their wives) evidenced.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Fashioning the World Around them 5 May 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This heavyweight ( physically I mean) book is worth the time and space - it should also be savoured. It takes us into a world long gone, no phones, faxes or social media, instead men appointed as Governors to run island and colonies. Taken from their familiar landscapes and placed in West Africa or the West Indies they were charged with running their mini empires. They were heroes and villains amongst them, some tragic and some awful and then of course there were there wives which needs another book ( try Britannia's Daughters for an insight). Very readable, sometimes shocking but always revealing about how machinery worked and was improvised.

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