Robert Lee, 1959-2010

March 25, 2010

A historian who transformed the study of the English rural poor, although he did not attend university until his mid-thirties, has died.

Robert Lee was born on 30 October 1959 and educated at Thorpe Grammar in Norwich before starting work as an administrator for British Gas. It was not until he was made redundant in 1995 that he reinvented himself as an academic.

After obtaining a first-class degree in English and history at Keele University, which he attended from 1995 to 1998, Dr Lee secured a British Academy scholarship to take a master's in English social history and then a PhD in 19th-century rural history, both at the University of Leicester. One of his examiners, Robert Colls, professor of English history at the university, described his doctorate as the best he had read, "a classic from the start".

In 2003, Dr Lee took up his first academic post as a postdoctoral researcher at Durham University's North East England History Centre. He moved to the University of Teesside as a lecturer in 2006.

Despite the brevity of his career, he published many papers and three major books in as many years, work that greatly illuminated 19th-century regional history, particularly the relationships between the Church of England, poverty and political resistance.

Unquiet Country: Voices of the Rural Poor 1820-1880 (2005) was admired for its wide-ranging scholarship, its vivid narrative style and its passionate determination to let the unheard poor speak for themselves.

Next came Rural Society and the Anglican Clergy, 1815-1914: Encountering and Managing the Poor (2006), described by the journal Victorian Studies as "a very stimulating book that anyone interested in the Victorian clergy or Victorian rural society must read".

Finally, in The Church of England and the Durham Coalfield, 1810-1926 (2007), Dr Lee provided fresh insights into the North East's social and political tensions.

Margaret Hems, head of history at Teesside, said: "It was impossible not to admire his intelligent wit, his fantastic sense of humour and his thoughtful sensitivity, all of which were evident even at the most routine section meetings and away days.

"Staff and students alike benefited from his uncompromising dedication and enthusiasm for what he called 'our great cause' - the study of history."

She added: "Everyone who was fortunate enough to cross paths with him, if only for a short time, was touched by his warmth and integrity."

Dr Lee died on 7 February 2010 after a period of illness with cancer. He is survived by his wife Bev and two sons.

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