Bob Burchell obituary

·2-min read

My friend and former colleague Robert Burchell, who has died aged 79, was a historian of the US whose career saw a huge growth in the subject’s popularity in the UK. He was professor of American history at the University of Manchester and the first director of the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library.

Born in Plymouth, Bob was the son of Lucy (nee Symons) and Arthur Burchell, an electrician at the Devonport submarine base. His earliest memories were of South Africa, where the family moved for a few years after being bombed out during the second world war. Returning home, he attended Plymouth college and won a place at Oxford to study modern history, graduating in 1963. He then spent a year at the University of California, Berkeley.

After two years as a senior scholar at Queen’s College, Oxford, in 1965 he became a lecturer at the University of Manchester, where he was eventually appointed professor in American history. For a decade from 1981 he supported the British Association for American Studies in efforts to expand the study of US history in the UK, becoming its chair in 1987. In 1991 he became the first director of the Eccles Centre, retiring in 2001.

Eventually Bob would visit all save two of the US states but California had a special allure: his most important book, The San Francisco Irish, 1848-1880 (1979), combined statistical data with personal accounts to reveal how Irish immigrants adapted surprisingly well to life on the Pacific coast. A master of statistical methods, he published a number of closely researched articles challenging standard interpretations of American elections and immigration patterns. He also worked with the US embassy and the Fulbright Commission to fund visiting academic fellowships in the UK and US and to improve resources for libraries.

A serious scholar and challenging, occasionally sardonic, teacher, Bob also excelled in administration. He was a tall man, and used his height, wit and political nous to commanding effect.

Bob collected china, glass and Penguin books, and was very private: layers of irony, affected detachment and gloriously ribald stories were a shield. He could appear forbidding, but his wide circle of friends appreciated his kindness and loyalty. His cultivated eccentricity left a vivid impression – as when, his car once having broken down on the open road, he left it there for good, to the relief of his passengers.

In 2006 Bob entered into a civil partnership with Stephen Torr.

He is survived by Stephen, his nephew, Mathew, niece, Becky, great-niece, Davey, and great-nephew, Jarrah. His brother, David, predeceased him.