J. M. Roberts

Influential historian with a taste for academic leadership

John Morris Roberts, historian: born Bath, Somerset 14 April 1928; Fellow and Tutor, Merton College, Oxford 1953-79, Honorary Fellow 1980-84, 1994-2003, Acting Warden 1969-70, 1977-79, Warden 1984- 94; Senior Proctor, Oxford University 1967-68; Vice-Chancellor, Southampton University 1979-85; Governor of the BBC 1988-93; CBE 1996; married 1964 Judith Armitage (one son, two daughters); died Roadwater, Somerset 30 May 2003.

J. M. Roberts was a leading British historian whose career spanned the second half of the 20th century.

He was the first historian since H.G. Wells to write a History of the World, published originally by Hutchinson in 1976 and then by Penguin, a book which has sold half a million copies worldwide. From it arose The Triumph of the West, a linked book and BBC television series in 1985, which offered the solace to post-colonial powers that Western ideas and institutions still shaped the world. Well before Schama and Starkey, John Roberts was a master of the on-location historical sweep, and was seen in one episode bobbing up and down in a boat on the Bosphorus.

As well as a prolific and ambitious writer, John Roberts was a vigorous and visionary manager of university institutions. He was Vice- Chancellor of Southampton University between 1979 and 1984, and Warden of Merton College, Oxford, between 1984 and 1994. In both capacities he was a moderniser, keen to support new disciplines and cutting-edge departments.

From 1953 to 1979 he was Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at Merton College, where he introduced generations of young historians not only to the history of Europe but to the history of America, India, China and Japan which at that stage featured much less than today on the syllabus. Among his undergraduate pupils was Sir Howard Davies, later Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, and among his graduate students Sir Colin Lucas, now Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University. Roberts campaigned energetically to introduce co-education at Merton and the first women were duly admitted in 1980.

John Morris Roberts was born in 1928 and educated at Taunton School. He won a scholarship to Keble College, Oxford, and gained first class honours in Modern History in 1948. After National Service he was elected a Prize Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1951. Fluent in French and Italian, he wrote his doctoral thesis on the Italian Republic set up under the auspices of the French revolutionaries and Napoleon Bonaparte.

The year 1953-54 was a turning point in his career. He went as a Commonwealth Fund Fellow to Princeton and Yale where his horizons broadened beyond European history to embrace much grander ambitions. His interest in the revolutionary era continued, and back in Oxford he edited with Richard Cobb a volume of French Revolution Documents (1966) that underpinned the specialist option they taught together. Two more different academics it would be hard to find, both in character and physique, and Cobb was wont to refer to Roberts irreverently as "Bonaparte".

In perhaps his most original book, The Mythology of the Secret societies (1972), Roberts explored the fear of masonic networks and plots that so troubled conservative circles in the 18th and 19th centuries and in 1973 published a study in what would now be called cultural history, The Paris Commune from the Right. Already, however, his American experience had generated an enthusiasm for large-scale, accessible histories written at a fast and punchy pace. In 1967 he published Europe 1880-1945, an influential textbook that went into a third edition in 2001. This led to the History of the World, which went into a third edition in 1997, to A History of Europe in 1996 and The Twentieth Century in 1999.

Two spells as Acting Warden of Merton in 1969-70 and 1977-79, and a year as University Proctor in 1967-68, when barricades noticeably did not go up in Oxford, gave Roberts the taste for academic leadership. He was courted by a number of universities to be their vice- chancellor, and accepted the post at Southampton in 1979. A small factor in his decision was his desire to remain close to his home county of Somerset where he had bought a beautiful and isolated house.

Southampton, where he was obliged to administer deep and unpopular cuts in order to balance the budget, in fact proved a short interlude as, in 1985, on the retirement of Sir Rex Richards, Roberts was elected Warden of his old college. There, as always, he had great visions: he introduced new disciplines such as Management Studies; launched a massive fund-raising appeal; and pushed through the large-scale building of new graduate accommodation. Outside the college, he served as a Trustee of Rhodes House and chaired a committee which in 1987 recommended improvements changes in the training of graduate students at Oxford University.

While writing his own works, he edited the prestigious if unflashy English Historical Review between 1967 and 1977 and served as general editor of two flagship series for Oxford University Press, cajoling colleagues into contributing volumes to the New Oxford History of England and the Short Oxford History of the Modern World. Outside the university he assumed a wide range of responsibilities, from Trustee of the National Portrait Gallery in 1984-98 to Governor of the BBC in 1988-93.

John Roberts was happily married for nearly 40 years to Judith Armitage, who brought both glamour and warmth to the household while pursuing her own painting and counselling interests. They were formidable entertainers and there was an endless succession of guests both in Oxford and in Somerset. Together they had three children, Mark, Susannah and Jessica. Judith nursed John during his long final illness and, to the last, visitors came to bring gossip and reminisce. Though clearly weak, John raised himself to the occasion, sitting in the sun on the verandah, catching up on old friends and telling anecdotes.

A charismatic, energetic and generous man, John Roberts grew from glamorous young don to academic father figure. He inspired loyalty and devotion in students and colleagues, though some were daunted by his powerful personality and commitment to achieving results. His reputed exploits included wrestling a Balliol student to the ground at a drinks party and conducting a tutorial from his bath. Undergraduates contributed to his mythic status by spreading the story that he had written the Ladybird history Henry II and Thomas Becket.

Though appointed CBE in 1996 and made a Cavalier of Italy's Order of Merit, he was never awarded the knighthood he so plainly deserved. His legacy will be more potent for being more popular. A final accolade was that his History of the World was the choice of the Radio 4 presenter Sue MacGregor to take with her to her desert island.

Robert Gildea