Bob Ashton: Norfolk historian established UEA as national centre and added American Studies to the campus

Prof Robert Ashton, late of the UEA

Prof Robert Ashton, late of the UEA - Credit: submitted

A charismatic lecturer and influential professor, Bob Ashton, who has died aged 88, established the University of East Anglia as a national centre for study of early modern history.

He was persuaded to return to England from the University of California, Berkeley, and take the first chair of English history.

Apparently, to save the cost of the trans-Atlantic flight, he was interviewed in the convivial surroundings of New York's Travellers Club.

He played a crucial part in establishing the new university and its reputation for history, said UEA professor and historian John Charmley. When the original Dean of the School of English Studies, Ian Watt, resigned after a year, he had to run the new school.

He had an eye for talent.

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His first appointments included a future Labour minister, Patricia (now Lady) Hollis, and Geoff Searle, a future Fellow of the British Academy, as well as a young Lorna Sage, an author and also UEA professor of English literature.

Instrumental in adding American Studies to the mix, he brought Malcolm Bradbury and Chris Bigsby, who dominated American Studies in the UK, to Norwich.

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He also talent-spotted the young Paul Kennedy, who went on to greater fame at Yale in the 1980s.

Bob Ashton, as he was known, was born on July 21, 1924. He served in the Royal Air Force between 1943 and 1946 when he went to University College, Southampton, and was awarded first class honours. Then, he went to the London School of Economics, where he was encouraged by RH Tawney to write his first book, the Crown and its borrowing under the first two Stuart Monarchs, published in 1960.

He spent a decade lecturing in economic history at Nottingham and in 1962 was awarded a visiting professorship at the University of California, Berkeley.

A charismatic teacher, with commanding presence on the lecture stage and in the classroom, his passion for his subject was evident to all. He firmly believed there was no economy of effort between teaching and writing – something he showed in his six books and more than 20 articles, said Prof Charmley.

UEA became one of the places in the UK for the study of early modern history. He encouraged the foundation of the Centre for East Anglian Studies.

His Norfolk home, Manor House, Brundall, became a social centre, presided over by his wife Peggy. The accident of the house having been the childhood home of Robert (later Lord) Blake, laid the foundations of a most enduring friendship.

A staunch Anglican and defender of the Book of Common Prayer, he ensured it was used at his parish church in Braydeston, where Lord Blake and later Peggy were buried.

His scholarly reputation twice won him a visiting fellowship at All Souls and he gave the Ford Lectures at Oxford in 1982.

A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society from 1960, he was a council member and a vice-president. A keen supporter of the Historical Association, he was president of the Norfolk and Norwich Branch for nearly a decade. After his retirement in 1989, his last book, on the second Civil War, was published in 1994.

His wife died in 2010 but he is survived by two daughters, Rosalind and Celia, and grandchildren.

A funeral service will be held at St Michael's Church, Braydeston, today, at 1pm.

Michael Pollitt

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