Leonard Eric Cottrell was born on 21 May 1913 in the village of Tettenhall, Staffordshire, the son of William Cottrell and his wife Beatrice (nee Tootell), and was educated at King Edward’s Grammar School in Birmingham where his father worked as an engineer. It was his father who stirred his interest in antiquity. “I remember, when I was ten, reading the newspaper articles he brought home describing the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, and also a moment when, visiting Tewkesbury Abbey,” he later wrote. “He pointed to the roof and said, ‘Leonard, when those stories were laid men wore chain mail.’”
This was a revelation which bought the dull history books he had to read at school to life. “I realised for the first time that one could actually touch things which had been made some nine hundred or more years ago, that the people about whom I had been reading, such as William the Conqueror, were real people, as real as I was. I read prodigiously, and was totally uninterested in school activities such as football, cricket, athletics, etc. History and English were the only subjects which absorbed me. At the age of fifteen I determined to become a writer, although I had taken the scientific side at school and left without taking the examinations which might have led me to a University.”
Cottrell hoped to become a journalist but, because it would involve working on a provincial newspaper away from home, his mother forbade it. Instead he went into advertising as a copywriter. He detested the work but was able to read Dryden, Pope, Addison, Steele, Johnson and other eighteenth century writers in his spare time. “[I] was not attracted to novelists such as Dickens and Thackeray, or by the literature of the nineteenth century generally, except for some of the poetry, e.g. that of Browning, Keats and Shelley. I also read a great many Greek and Roman authors in translation.”
In the 1930s, Cottrell toured the English countryside on his motorcycle, visiting prehistoric stone circles, burial mounds of the Bronze Age, medieval and Renaissance monuments. On these journeys he was often accompanied by Doris Swain, whom he later married although the marriage was dissolved in 1962.
After gaining experience writing articles on historical subjects for motoring magazines, he wrote his first documentary for the BBC in 1937. This was followed by several others before the outbreak of the Second World War. Rejected by the R.A.F. on medical grounds, he joined the staff of the BBC in 1942 and reveled in meeting fellow writers, actors and producers. He went on to become a writer-producer himself, concentrating at first on documentaries about the war. In 1944 he became a war correspondent attached to the R.A.F. and wrote programmes about the war in Italy. “My interest in flying was such that when the war ended I persuaded the BBC to let me report on the expansion of civil aviation and this led me to many countries and about one and a half million miles of flying.” Cottrell used his experiences as the subject for his first book, All Men Are Neighbours (1947).
On one journey to Egypt around 1947 he saw the Pyramids, the Valley of the Kings and other Egyptian antiquities for the first time. He persuaded the BBC to let him write and produce a series of programmes about great archaeological discoveries and, during his research, he met many distinguished scholars for the first time. The broadcasts were very successful and Cottrell was persuaded by John Pudney, the poet, to undertake a book called The Lost Pharaohs. This was followed by The Bull of Minos, The Anvil of Civilisation, Life Under the Pharaohs and many others which were translated and published in nine countries. Cottrell’s experience as a writer for radio gave his books an informed style and immediacy welcomed by reviewers. E. B. Garside, reviewing The Bull of Minos, said that Cottrell was “at his best when communicating that fresh and fateful sense of life which must have prevailed in very ancient times when gods walked the earth like men. It is this feeling of epiphany … which makes Mr. Cottrell’s book a most worthwhile popularisation of its subject.”
“I have never pretended to be an archaeologist,” claimed Cottrell, “though nowadays I am often regarded as one. I am essentially a writer about archaeology and travel. My function, as I see it, is to act as a kind of middleman between the pure scholar and the educated layman or, in some cases, the child. Having much of the child in myself I find it easy and enjoyable to write for young people, and such books as The Warrior Pharaohs, The Secrets of Tutankhamun’s Tomb and Reading the Past have had considerable success in Britain and America.”
Between 1951 and 1953 Cottrell was assigned by the BBC to study and report on the work which UNESCO was doing in the Middle East. He produced a number of radio programmes on the subject and later described his eight-week tour of the region in One Man’s Journey.
In 1956 he joined the staff of BBC Television as a writer-director but was never allowed to produce programmes on his favourite topic, archaeology. Instead, he worked in the drama department but left in 1960, moving to Westmorland where he concentrated on writing although he continued to contribute occasional documentaries to the BBC. He was also a respected broadcaster and lecturer.
Part of the appeal of Cottrell’s books was the knowledge that Cottrell had steeped himself, as best he could, in the subject matter. Before writing his biography of Hannibal, for instance, he drove along the conqueror’s route, over the Alps from Spain to Italy, in a small bus. “He infects the reader with his own enthusiasm,” wrote critic Rex Warner, “and gives us the pleasure not only of learning something new but of finding the whole process as exciting as a detective story. He has the gift for infusing both the background and the details with life.”
He married Diana Bonakis, a gifted artist and musician, in 1965; much younger than Cottrell, the marriage broke up in 1968 after which Cottrell lived alone, continuing to write his books, articles and radio shows.
His house overlooked the estury to the River Kent in Westmorland and, from his study window, he could see the river. “From another I catch a glimpse of the Lakeland mountains, in the shadow of which lived Wordsworth and other Lakeland poets.” His hobbies included music, mainly classical though he also like traditional jazz, motoring in fast cars and fooling around with tape recorders. In 1973 Cottrell wrote “I reached my sixtieth birthday on May 21, 1973, but still feel young, am still enthusiastic about archaeology and antiquity generally, just as I was when a child. And that is why I enjoy writing for youngsters. But my golden rule is ‘never write down to young people.’” Cottrell had no children himself.
Cottrell died on 6 October 1974.
(* The article at the top of the page comes from Look and Learn issue 4, 1962, and is © Look and Learn Magazine Ltd. Cottrell was one of the most prolific early contributors to the magazine. Sadly, most of Leonard Cottrell's books are out of print, although a quick search of Amazon did turn up quite a few titles, both new and second-hand.)