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Professor Robert Colls

Job: Professor of Cultural History

Faculty: Art, Design and Humanities

School/department: School of Humanities

Research group(s): International Centre for Sports History and Culture (ICSHC)

Address: De Montfort University, The Gateway, Leicester, UK, LE1 9BH

T: +44 (0)116 207 8316




Personal profile

Robert Colls is Professor of Cultural History in the International Centre for Sports History and Culture.  He has worked in university adult education at Vaughan College, and with the Workers’ Educational Association, and was Professor of English History at the University of Leicester before coming to De Montfort in 2012.  He was educated at South Shields Grammar Technical School for Boys and at the universities of Sussex and York.  He has held visiting fellowships at the universities of Oxford, Yale, and Dortmund.  In 2005-2007 he was a Leverhulme Senior Research Fellow.  Apart from his academic publications and reviews, he has written for the national press, including The Independent, The Guardian, and Prospect.  He has also written and broadcast for radio and television, most recently From Our Own Correspondent (BBC Radio 4, 2012), Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC 1, 2011), and The Life and Death of Methodism (BBC Radio 4, 2011).  His book Identity of England was Melvyn Bragg’s and Gordon Burn’s ‘Book of the Year’ in The Observer, and Paul Lay’s ‘Book of the Year’ in BBC History Magazine.  Simon Heffer described it as “one of the finest books on this complex and difficult subject it is possible to imagine” (Literary Review).

Publications and outputs 


Click here for a full listing of Robert Colls' publications and outputs.

Key research outputs

Selected publications since January 2011:

Robert Colls, ‘Letter from North Haven; or what The President should do next?’ The Political Quarterly, 82, 1, 2011

Robert Colls, ‘The Lion and the Eunuch. National Identity and the British Genius’ The Political Quarterly, 82, 3, 2011

Robert Colls, ‘The People’s Orwell’, in Griffiths, Nott, & Whyte, eds, Cultures, Classes and Politics. Essays on British History for Ross McKibbin (Oxford University Press 2011)

Robert Colls, ‘Gael and Northumbrian: regionalism and separatism in the United Kingdom 1890-1920’, in J Augusteijn & E Storm, eds, Region and State in 19th Century Europe (Palgrave Macmillan 2012)

Robert Colls, ‘What is British National Identity and how do we get it?’ Soundings, 52, Winter 2012

Research interests/expertise

My interests are broadly in 19th and 20th century British history.  I have written on a wide variety of topics including coalmining and trade unionism; working-class politics and popular movements; popular song and folk music; national and regional identities; Northumbria and Newcastle upon Tyne; Englishness; Methodism; Architecture; Sport; the sceptical philosopher John Gray; Victorian schooling; class, culture and community; constitutional questions; novels of the 1950s; documentaryfilms of the 1940s; steam railways; George Stephenson and George Orwell.

Areas of teaching

Professor Colls welcomes proposals for PhD supervision in his areas of research (see above).

Teaching areas include:

  • Modern British History
  • American race history 1865-1965
  • The Industrial Revolution
  • Marxism and other Socialisms
  • Labour movements
  • Sport and the British
  • British National Identities
  • Victorian Thinking
  • Victorian Society
  • George Orwell


  • BA in School of Social Science, University of Sussex
  • DPhil in History, University of York

Courses taught

Honours and awards

  • National Award for Innovation in the Humanities, DTI, October 1991
  • Honorary Fellow, Centre for Northern Studies, University of Northumbria, November 2000
  • Short list, Guardian / Pimlott Prize for Political Writing, July 2006

Membership of external committees

  • Member, Ministry of Defence, Experts’ Group 2001-02
  • Member, North East England Historical Institute, AHRB, 2001-06
  • Member, Bodleian Library / Pro Quest / John Johnson Collection Digitalization Project, 2007-10

Forthcoming events

Conference: The Scotland England Match: Football and National Identity, DMU, 15 May 2013.

Conference attendance

Conferences recently attended:

Liberal Unionism 1884-1914, Saturday 10 November 2012, Newman University College, Birmingham, ‘The Political Culture 1880-1920’, Robert Colls, keynote lecture.

Amateurism in Britain and Ireland, Friday 30 November 2012, Boston College, Dublin, ‘Amateurism in Britain’, Robert Colls, keynote lecture.

Cultural Encounters and Mixed Identities, 7-9 January 2013, University of Utrecht, ‘Sport and the English Gentleman. Re-defining a National Ideal 1860-1960’, with Richard Holt, also of ICSHC, DMU, seminar paper. 

Consultancy work

Consultant, Durham Miners’ Association and University of Sunderland, Heritage Lottery Fund successful bid for conservation of records, 2003: NEEMARC (North East England Mining Archive and Research Centre).

Consultant for wide variety of TV and radio programmes including Mapping the Town (BBC R 4, 2000), St George of England (BBC R 4, 2002), The Primitive Methodists (BBC R 4, 2003), J B Priestley (BBC R 4, 2003), World Tonight (BBC R 4, 2003), Analysis (BBC R 4, 2006), Twelve Books that Changed the World (LWT 2006), Sporting Lives (BBC R 4, 2007), Written Britain (Yorkshire TV 2008), Archive Hour (BBC R 4, 2009), South Bank Show (LWT 2009), Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC TV), Life and Death of Methodism (BBC R 4, 2011).

Consultant and assessor for history departments of universities of Central Lancashire (1992), De Montfort (ICSHC 1998), Newcastle upon Tyne (1998), and ESRC (1995, 1998, 2001, 2005, 2007, 2009), and Newport University College (2013).

Current research students

  • Janet Arthur
  • James MacPherson

Professional esteem indicators

Reading for a wide range of journals and publishers.

Case studies

Case study 1: private seminar with leader of Labour party on ‘left patriotism’ (3 February 2012); and submission to Labour Party Policy Review Committee on immigration and multiculturalism (25 June 2012).

Case study 2: it’s not often that one gets unsolicited impact feedback for public lectures (I gave five in 2010) but this is what appeared on the LSE Social Science Impact Blog for April 2011:  

“Making Impact with History: how policy makers have much to learn from historians.This was brought firmly home to me at the recent centenary celebrations of South Shields Town Hall. As part of these events, we arranged for the distinguished historian (and Shields native) Professor Robert Colls to give a talk on what the town hall was like in 1910. Brimming with illuminating insights he talked of the civic pride that had inspired the town hall’s construction, and the industrial innovation that created the town’s wealth. Without a whiff of nostalgia, he also explored what he called the ‘committees of public safety’, the informal but effective networks of women who ran a town where most of the men were either underground, in the pub, or away at sea.  It only occurred to me afterwards that our award winning Tyne Gateway Project is trying to recapture those networks and that sense of empowerment by recruiting parents in poverty to help their own neighbours. Perhaps we should have started with the history books instead of the policy briefings…” 

(Dr Dan Jackson, Strategic Communication Lead, Children and Families, South Tyneside).

Robert Colls

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