Fresh from his victory on Celebrity Mastermind, the teacher, author, presenter, ambassador and Royal Holloway alumnus Bobby Seagull talks to journalist and alumna Jessica Jonzen about how he is using his profile to bring a love of learning to the masses.
Bobby Seagull, the former investment banker who became a teacher and went on to find fame on University Challenge is the ultimate polymath. As well as teaching part-time at a secondary school in his home borough of Newham, East London, Bobby is studying for a doctorate at Cambridge University, runs a money management course with Martin Lewis for the Open University, hosts a podcast, is a Financial Times columnist and is an ambassador for National Numeracy and is the Library and Information Association CILIP’s Libraries Champion. He has co-authored a book and presented a travel series with his University Challenge nemesis Eric Monkman, written his own book The Life-Changing Magic of Numbers and presented a TED Talk. He even recently advised the World Economic Forum on the mathematical spread of Covid-19. And that’s just to name a few of the different hats he wears.
“It’s getting more difficult to juggle it all!” Bobby says with a laugh. “My compromise is that I’m a single guy.” How does he stay motivated? “Everyone gets their moment in the spotlight and this is mine. I want to use my public profile to raise issues like the importance of getting good teachers in the state sector, and the importance of reading and libraries, maths and numeracy education,” he says. “So many people in the UK say they are ‘bad at maths’ and wear it like a badge of honour and I want to change that. I’m not trying to create a nation of maths geniuses – I just want people to feel confident so that they can deal with maths in their day to day lives.”
It was Bobby’s indefatigable enthusiasm, as well as his unusual surname, which saw him become an overnight star when he appeared on University Challenge in 2017 as the captain of Emmanuel College Cambridge team. “I thought it would benefit my teaching career, nothing more than that.” But the reaction to him and his opponent Eric Monkman on Twitter was something he never expected. “By my second round, #seagull was trending at number one on Twitter. We had people like Stephen Fry and Louis Theroux tweeting ‘are you Monkman or are you Seagull?’ The BBC even had cartoon characters tweeting about us!” he laughs.
The show made stars of both Bobby and Eric, and the pair have teamed up on a book, a radio show and a BBC TV show, with a second series of Monkman and Seagull’s Genius Guide to Britain out soon (pictured below). “University Challenge really captured who I am: my sense of congeniality, my camaraderie, my giddy excitement when I got things correct, a sense of my deep range of knowledge and how I support people,” says Bobby. He admits that his unusual surname certainly helped. “Of course it did, but as I always think with a lucky break it’s all about what you do with it.”
Bobby’s parents moved from Kerala in Sothern India to East Ham in London in the 1970s. Their surname is Jose, a result of Kerala’s past as a Portuguese colony, but Bobby’s father was keen to give his children a new name. “My dad had read Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach – a multi-million selling bestselling novella. It’s a story about finding out what it means to be who you truly are and teaching others and my dad was so inspired by the book that he wanted to give us kids the name ‘Seagull.’”
As a child, Bobby spent every Saturday afternoon at East Ham library with his father and brothers. “We would spend hours sprawled on the floor reading all kinds of books. They could be on Aztec civilisation, or Victorian engineering or the fiction of Roald Dahl and those hours on a Saturday really built up my knowledge and in a bizarre way prepared me for University Challenge.”
While at St Bonaventure’s School in Newham, Bobby spotted an advert for sixth form scholarships to Eton in the classroom copy of The Times. He applied and was awarded a place. “It was life-changing. I grew up on a council estate in East London and was incredibly excited to have that opportunity. I played football against Prince Harry. Although the other boys might have been posher than me and looked different to me, I have a breadth of interests and I’ve always found it easy to connect with people. Someone might be very posh and upper middle class but if you both listen to Eminem or you both love football then you’ve got a connection.”
After Eton, Bobby spent a couple of months volunteering with young drug addicts and children from very broken homes. “I loved working with young people and thought that education was something I could be drawn to one day.” He went on to Oxford but after a year, made the difficult decision to leave as his predicted 2:2 wasn’t going to get him the investment banking job he wanted. “I did too much outside of studying and so I decided to take a risk. Luckily, I got a place at Royal Holloway and got my work back on track. I enjoyed being able to do a joint honours degree of Maths and Economics, was President of the Investment Society and the Debating Society, was involved in the College’s volunteering strategy and even ran my own six-week investment course. This time I played hard and worked hard!”
After graduating in 2007, Bobby joined Lehman Brothers and had been working there as a trader for just a year when it collapsed. “All of my last few years had been geared up to working at this bank and it was all gone,” says Bobby. After a stint at Japanese bank Nomura, Bobby decided to retrain as a chartered accountant and joined PWC. While there, he took a two-month sabbatical teaching new graduates who had joined the firm. “I really loved it, and it reminded me of running the investment society course at Royal Holloway. I realised then I wanted to go into education.”
After forensically researching the schools in his local borough of Newham, Bobby got his first teaching job. In 2015, while teaching full-time as the acting maths faculty head, studying for his Masters at Cambridge and completing his National Teaching Qualification, he was accepted to captain his college on University Challenge. “Sometimes I’d turn up to school on an hour’s sleep but nobody knew because I have lots of energy. I couldn’t do that now.”
Bobby’s team went out in the semi-finals of University Challenge but the show launched him as an engaging and entertaining champion of knowledge. His recent victory on Celebrity Mastermind – where he went up against another Royal Holloway alumnus Daniel Lawrence Taylor, and triumphed over Paralympic gold medallist Kelly Gallagher in a tiebreak – has only cemented his status. “It was one of the most daunting things I’ve ever done,” he says of his time in the infamous black chair. “I was so relieved to leave with my dignity intact.”
So, what’s next? As well as hosting his ‘Maths with Bobby’ lessons on Facebook during lockdown and online pub quizzes to raise funds for the NHS, Bobby has started teaching a range of subjects for Strictly Come Dancing star Oti Mabuse’s online Home Festival, and is setting quizzes for The Sunday Times. “I’m really enjoying hosting and I love quizzes. It’s a long way away but when Jeremy Paxman retires I’ve got my eye on his job!” But if he could keep only one line of work, he doesn’t hesitate with his answer: “teaching. I will always be in the classroom in some capacity. Bobby the educator is how I’d like to be remembered.”
Discover more about Bobby's online maths lessons and family quizzes that he's running during this time here.