Professor Robert Colls

Job: Emeritus Professor

Faculty: Arts, Design and Humanities

School/department: School of Humanities and Performing Arts

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

I am Research Professor of  English History in the International Centre for Sports History and Culture (ICSHC), where I am working on two books – one on the origins of modern sport in England, Sport and the English Hero, and the other a history of Primitive Methodism, The People’s Church 1807-1932.  Before I came to DMU, I was Professor English History at the University of Leicester, and before that I worked in university adult education at Vaughan College in the city.  I joined the ICSHC in 2012.

I was educated at South Shields Grammar Technical School for Boys and at the universities of Sussex and York.  I have held visiting fellowships at the universities of Oxford, Dortmund and Yale.  In 1992-93 I was a Fulbright Scholar, and in 2005-07 I was a Leverhulme Senior Research Fellow.  

I write occasionally for the national press, including for The Guardian, The Independent, Prospect, the Times Higher Education, and The New Statesman.  I write regularly for The Literary Review, and pop up every now and again on radio and television, including, most recently, two episodes of From Our Own Correspondent (BBC Radio 4), The Ticket (Australian Broadcasting Corporation),  The Life and Death of Methodism (BBC Radio 4), The Verb (BBC Radio 3), Newsnight (BBC2) and Night Waves (BBC Radio 3). In 2011 I was consultant to The South Bank Show on Lee Hall and in 2016 to BBC Radio 4’s series on The North. In 2014 I appeared at the Gateshead Freethinking Festival organized by BBC Radio 3 and in that year generally gave over twenty public lectures on Orwell to literary festivals and societies right across the country ranging from The National Library of Ireland to Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge.

My book Identity of England (Oxford University Press 2003) was Melvyn Bragg 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”.  Both J M Roberts in the Oxford Magazine and Paul Lay in History Today thought it was the best book on the subject. Stephen Howe said it was a “great book” in The Independent and Bernard Crick in Politcal Quarterly called it “masterly and profound”.  My George Orwell English Rebel (Oxford University Press 2013) has received similar acclaim. It was one of The Independent on Sunday’s ‘Paperbacks of the Year’ (“Colls writes with an offbeat mixture of Isaiah Berlin and Clive James – which is to say like a dream”).  Simon Heffer in The Daily Telegraph thought that “If there exists a better book on Orwell I have yet to discover it” – a view reflected by John Gray in The Literary Review (“subtle and original”), A N Wilson in The Spectator (“the most sensible and systematic interpretation of Orwell I have ever read”), David Aaronovich in The New Statesman (“an Orwellian triumph”), Paul Anderson in Tribune (“stunning”} and D J Taylor in The Guardian (“prime ornament of Orwell studies”).  

Research group affiliations

International Centre for Sports History and Culture (ICSHC), convenor of School History Seminar programme 2014-16.

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 – any aspect.  In that field I have written on a wide variety of topics including coalmining, trade unionism, popular politics and labour movements, popular song and folk music, national and regional identities, Primitive Methodism, architecture and sites of memory, the English sceptical philosopher John Gray, The Anglo-Irish post-modern historian Patrick Joyce, Victorian schooling, local history, community history, Walter Bagehot and the British constitution, 1950s novels, documentary film, sport and sporting art, George Stephenson and George Orwell.

I welcome proposals for PhD supervision in any of these areas or none.

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

Honours and awards

  • Department of Trade and Industry, National Award for Innovation in the Humanities, 1991
  • Fulbright Senior Scholar 1992
  • Hon Fellow Centre for Northern Studies, University of Northumbria 2000-2005
  • Visiting Fellow, St John’s College, Oxford, 2004
  • The Guardian Pimlott Prize, runner up, 2006Mellon Fellow, Yale Centre for British Art 2007
  • Gambrinus Fellow, University of Dortmund 2008: public lecture on Orwell and the Europe
  • South Shields Town Hall Centenary celebrations 2010: public lecture on the Town Hall
  • Robert Spence Watson Memorial lecture, Newcastle upon Tyne 2104

Membership of external committees

  • Ministry of Defence Experts’ Group 2001-02
  • North England Historical Institute AHRB 2001-06
  • Bodleian Library/ProQuest/John Johnson Collection digitalization project 2007-10
  • Labour party policy review: private seminar with the leader of the party on national identity (February 2012) and submission to policy review committee on immigration (June 2012)
  • Labour England policy group, 2016

Forthcoming events

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

Conference attendance

Conferences recently attended:

  • Newman University College, 10 November 2012, ‘Liberal Unionism’: keynote lecture
  • Boston College Dublin, 30 November 2012, ‘Amateur Sport’: keynote
  • University of Utrecht, 7-9 January 2013, ‘Sport and the English Gentleman’
  • University of Northampton, 7 June 2014, ‘Masculinities’
  • De Montfort University, 26 October 2014, ‘National identity and Football: The Scotland England Match’
  • Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 4 June 2015, Chatham House rule: Strategic Security Defence Review
  • Englesea Brook Chapel and Museum, 4 July 2015, ‘Primitive Methodism’
  • St John’s College Cambridge, 27 November 2015, ‘The Politics of Englishness 1990-2015’
  • Portcullis House Westminster, 9 February 2016, ‘Labour England’

Consultancy work

I have acted as a consultant on a wide variety of programmes in history and the arts for television and radio, including World Tonight, Analysis, Twelve Books That Changed the World, Written Britain, Archive Hour, The South Bank Show, The Verb, Who Do You Think You Are? and The North.

I was consultant for the Durham Miners’ Association / Sunderland University’s joint Heritage Lottery Fund bid for conservation of mining records leading to the creation of NEEMARC (North East England Mining Archive and Research Centre).  I acted in a similar capacity for Englesea Brook’s HLF bid to augment its work as the museum of Primitive Methodism. 

I have worked as consultant and assessor for a number of university history departments including Central Lancashire, De Montfort, Newcastle upon Tyne, South Wales (Newport) and for the ESRC and the AHRC, and for Oxford UP, Cambridge UP, and Bloomsbury publishers.  In 2008, as Postgraduate Tutor at the University of Leicester, I founded New History Lab along with a number of postgraduates unhappy with conventional post-graduate training. The Lab continues to flourish. In 1990 I founded the BA Humanities at Vaughan College – the first and only part time evening degree in the city, which also goes on.

Current research students

  • Janet Arthur
  • Matt Simons
  • Tom Nolan
  • James Macpherson
  • Ethan Hosking

Professional esteem indicators

Reading for a wide range of journals and publishers.

Case studies

Impact case studies

1. The public lecture LSE Social Science Impact Blog, 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 rana 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)

2. From Our Own Correspondent BBC Radio 4
It is of course impossible to measure ‘impact’ through the mass media (although great sums are spent trying) but suffice to say all producers and directors are intent on making an immediate and contemporary ’impact’ and sometimes the academic’s duty is to remind them that the truth is more important.  Still, I like the media because it is essentially just another form of adult education (by-the-million).  Obviously I have to promise that this commendation was not sought and hope that it is true.
‘Dear Rob. Just heard your piece again in the studio as we prepare to put out this morning's Radio 4 FOOC and I thought it sounded fabulous! You gave us a lovely script with some great writing and description and it's a fascinating topic too: one we'd probably never get from a BBC correspondent. You sounded very good as well, a real story-teller so thank you very much for a memorable contribution and please, do something else for us soon’. (Tony Grant, producer of BBC Radio 4 ‘From Our Own Correspondent’)

Robert Colls