I had the good fortune to edit two collections of essays with Phil. The first was An Economic History of Ulster, 1820-1939 (actually an inside page gave the periodization as 1820-1940 but we reassured ourselves that a year one way or the other was of little import to historians). This was in 1985, in the early stages of his career. A generation later, Ulster Since 1600 appeared. Phil brought a business-like approach to joint-work (much needed in my case) but also a hugely co-operative spirit as well as a sense of fun. Much of the work for the later collection was plotted in Scalini’s Italian restaurant on Botanic Avenue, Belfast, usually followed by a few pints in the nearby Duke’s Hotel.
Philip Gordon Ollerenshaw, born in 1953, came from a business background in the north of England. His father owned and directed the family firm that dated back to the 1920s. Phil’s choice of career lay in scholarship and teaching rather than business but there were connections. Growing up in the market town of Hyde, Cheshire, less than ten miles from Manchester and the cradle of the industrial revolution, it is not hard to see how this background and setting helped fire Phil’s developing interest in industry, business and banking.
An undergraduate degree in economics and history, completed at the University of Leeds in 1975, was followed by a master’s in economic history at the London School of Economics. Then, in an inspired choice, Phil registered for a PhD under the supervision of the great Sidney Pollard at the University of Sheffield. This proved to be fortuitous in more ways than one. Banking history beckoned and supervisor and student recognised that the subject was in its infancy in Ireland. Ireland had rich banking archives, though these were still in private ownership. Negotiating access meant the researcher had to be seen as both knowledgeable and trustworthy. Phil was the ideal person.
A fellowship in 1978 at the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University Belfast, opened the way to intensive research in the archives of the Belfast banks. We shared a room in the crumbling ruin of 55 University Street. I knew it was an ‘archives day’ when Phil arrived back in the late afternoon dressed in pinstriped suit, white shirt and tie. Normally we wore the uniform of the times, sweater, t-shirt and jeans.
The northern banks, which were fundamental to the precocious industrialisation of Ulster, opened up vistas on Irish economic development that allowed Phil to produce what must be the definitive account of the interaction between banking and business success in Ireland. The misleading question of why Ireland failed to industrialize shrivelled in the face of Phil’s fruitful explorations of the linen, shipbuilding and engineering industries of the northeast of Ireland. Perhaps the old question might have been re-phrased more sharply: why did Catholic Ireland fail to industrialize?
Belfast was good in other respects, if one pushed to the background the bombings, the shootings and the security checks. Phil met Hilary not long after his arrival in Belfast and they have been together ever since. In 1979, Phil secured a lectureship at the Ulster Polytechnic, later the New University of Ulster. Six years later, he and Hilary moved to Bristol, another region whose history he would come to illuminate. Now employed at the University of the West of England, he published a monograph Banking in Nineteenth-century Ireland: the Belfast Banks, 1825-1914 (1987), based on his PhD thesis. The arrival of Phil and Hilary’s daughters, Jennifer (1986) and Linda (1988) enriched the marriage.
Phil co-edited with Madge Dresser The Making of Modern Bristol (1996) and maintained his Irish connections with Industry Trade and People in Ireland: 1650-1950 (2005), co-edited with Brenda Collins and Trevor Parkhill. A further co-edited volume, The European Linen Industry in Historical Perspective (2003) extended his Ulster studies to a larger canvas. A monograph entitled Northern Ireland in the Second World War (2013) consolidated Phil’s reputation as one of the leading scholars of his generation. It is an intricate study of government, business, trade unions, and the inevitable nationalist-unionist conflict in the midst of a terrible global war. With more than a thousand references, most of them to primary sources, it was a signal achievement. A regular output of articles in journals of history, business and finance buttressed an already formidable reputation. To the Cambridge History of Ireland (2017) he contributed a sparkling essay entitled ‘Neutrality and Belligerence: Ireland 1939-1945’. It demonstrated among other qualities Phil’s expertise in economy and politics on both sides of the Irish border as well as an overarching knowledge of the interrelationships of British and Irish history.
In 2018 BBC Northern Ireland made two programmes on the ‘Carpet King’, Cyril Lord. Also hailing from the north of England, Lord had made the Ards Peninsula in Northern Ireland the centre of his vast carpet-making enterprise. Phil was naturally a major contributor. In his last contribution, just before admission to hospital in mid-March of this year, Phil was completing revisions to an article for Business History. This drew heavily on the records of the Federation of British Industries (a forerunner of the CBI) and will appear posthumously as ‘Business, Politics and the Transition from War to Peace: the Federation of British Industries, 1916-25’.
The sheer range of Phil’s historical interests is striking. It included contributions on banking, business, proto-industry, modern industry, entrepreneurship, corporate failure, wartime mobilisation, employers’ organisations and the business-politics interface. The geographical reach extended across Ireland, Britain and continental Europe. In theoretical terms the influence (once again) of Sidney Pollard, particularly Pollard’s Peaceful Conquest: The Industrialization of Europe (1981) with its emphasis on the role of regions in early industrialization stands out.
There is a further aspect to all this endeavour that deserves to be highlighted. Philip lived and breathed archives. The depth of research in primary sources in all of his work ensures that his academic legacy will be long-lived. We might also pay tribute to Phil’s disinterested work on behalf of other scholars as exemplified by the help he gave Trevor Parkhill and the Public Record Office, Northern Ireland, in acquiring Irish banking archives and his work on the editorial boards of various journals. Later, at Bristol, he collaborated with Peter Wardley and Jennifer Green to produce Business in Avon and Somerset: A Survey of Archives (1991), which was described at the time as the most detailed survey of regional business archives ever carried out in England and Wales. Characteristically, this enthusiasm infected others round him. Phil motivated his third-year students to work intensively in archives not just in Bristol and London but in Belfast as well.
His students in Ireland and in England are indeed an integral part of his life’s story. Phil once related to me: ‘I came into higher education to teach, and to inform teaching with research’. Hard-pressed colleagues may blanch at the thought that historians at UWE offered individual meetings and feedback to students on all of their assessed work. Phil was an enthusiastic proponent and advocate of the practice. Little wonder that generations of students held him in such high regard. And now he is no more, having fought a courageous but ultimately failing battle against multiple myeloma from April 2018 to March 2020. Normally fit and healthy, those who spoke to Phil during those final years could scarcely comprehend his cheerful disposition in the face of the trials of ill health and the harshness of the treatments. His faith in the National Health Service, and its medical staff, was unlimited. Personally speaking, I have never met anyone with such a will to live and such a positive approach to the present and the future while facing into the abyss.
As we say in Ireland, his likes won’t be seen again.
[This obituary was first published on ehs.org.uk.]