By Kent Fedorowich
Phil joined the History staff at what was then Bristol Polytechnic from Ulster Polytechnic in January 1986. On arrival in Bristol, Phil and his wife, Hilary, settled in Downend and began to raise a family blessed by two daughters, Jennifer and Linda.
Educated at Leeds University, the London School of Economics and at Sheffield University, where he was supervised for his doctorate by the legendary Sydney Pollard, Phil explored the realms of Irish banking history between 1825 and 1914. He pioneered this genre of history and the monograph which resulted from his thesis Banking in Nineteenth-century Ireland: the Belfast Banks, 1825-1914 (1987) remains a beacon in the field. Ireland remained at the heart of his scholarly focus throughout his working life. The interplay between politics, business and finance was fundamental to his work which continued to be grounded in his systematic approach to archival research. This comparative approach using state archives, business archives and a raft of personal papers was the hallmark of his scholarship.
The dynamics of regional development were critical to his growing portfolio and reputation. So, too, was his collaboration with colleagues in Belfast and Bristol. In Belfast with Liam Kennedy, Brenda Collins and Trevor Parkhill, he co-edited four volumes of essays on Ulster’s economic development within Ireland and Europe. In Bristol, he co-edited The Making of Modern Bristol (1996) with Madge Dresser. In another landmark publication produced in 1991 and in collaboration with UWE colleagues, Peter Wardley and Jennifer Green, they produced Business in Avon and Somerset: A Survey of Archives. This detailed survey of regional business archives helped cement his growing reputation as a historian of regions.
For me, the pinnacle of his publishing career was his monograph Northern Ireland in the Second World War (2013). It brought together all his academic interests from which he was able to explore the intricacies of wartime mobilisation, labour relations, business, high finance and the social impact of war on Northern Ireland at a pivotal moment in world history. Using the local lens, Phil’s book allowed readers to get an insight into a region that played a vital role in Britain’s industrial and military response to totalitarianism. He was extremely proud of this book and what he had achieved. One day in our shared office, he quietly regaled to me that the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland wanted to launch the book (see below).* He was delighted and several weeks later he gleefully told me that 125 advance copies had already been sold!
But Phil was also a teacher, and a very enthusiastic one at that. When the School of History was revamping the degree in the mid-1990s, Phil asked me about offering a second year course in Irish History. Would it be of interest to students from England who had no grounding in or experience of Irish history, apart from what they saw on their television screens. He need not have asked for when he offered this course it was over-subscribed in the first year and for the next decade or so had over 40 students enrolled on it each successive year. Such was his success, that he always had final year students clamouring to undertake their dissertations now that they had been grounded by the second year provision. I remember one year in particular where all fifteen students he supervised went to Belfast and Dublin to undertake their archival work. Phil’s networks at these archives and the Linen Hall Library in Belfast proved invaluable. His inspiration for archival work became infectious, to the extent that in that same year a third of those students took one or both of their parents to Belfast or Dublin to assist in their children’s research!
He was always a glass more than half full, always there to help and offer advice, and above all could easily lighten the mood with a cheeky grin and a laugh. His scholarship was highly original, wide-ranging and of course embedded in the archives which foregrounded his research. His death due to a rare form of blood cancer that was diagnosed soon after he retired in summer 2017 was a huge blow to his family, friends and colleagues across the higher education sector. But, in typical fashion, Phil remained upbeat and resolute about his circumstances knowing that his condition would eventually take its toll. He was a great teacher, a sound scholar but most importantly a kind and loyal friend.
*Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) (21 November 2013) Northern Ireland in the Second World War: Politics, Economic Mobilisation and Society. YouTube [online video]. Available below and at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mFaTmI7HXQ0 (Dr Ollerenshaw’s talk begins at 48 minutes 26 seconds)
Thanks to Danielle Arkle, Olivia Barrett, and Erin Geraghty for the photos they provided.