David Philips, 1946-2008

As Chris noted here the other day, David Philips died recently. David was a recently retired associate professor in the School of Historical Studies at the University of Melbourne, where he taught for three decades, and had an international reputation in the study of crime and policing in 19th century Britain and the comparative study of relations between settlers and indigenous people in Britain's colonies. A South African expatriate, he was long active in the anti-apartheid movement and human rights issues more generally. He was the author, co-author or co-editor of more than a half-dozen books, from Crime and Authority in Victorian England: The Black Country 1835-1860 (1977) to (with Julie Evans, Pat Grimshaw and Shurlee Swain) Equal Subjects, Unequal rights: Indigenous Peoples in British Settler Colonies, 1830-1910 (2003).

Back in 2003-4, I was one of David's students, so I thought it appropriate to write a little about him. It was only for a semester, at the end of my honours year (technically, postgraduate diploma, but pretty much the same thing). I was already half-way through my honours thesis; my original supervisor had to take a sabbatical in order to write, and as David was the only other British historian around, he was the obvious replacement. I wish I could say that we hit it off immediately and saw eye to eye on how my project was going and where it should be going, but we didn't quite. I've always thought that must have been difficult, to be dropped into the middle of a student's research without any idea of where they are coming from and having had no opportunity to influence the course it has taken. There's no choice at that late stage but to run with it.

So I was grateful to David for taking me on. And in the end, although our relationship was not always easy, he did help me produce the best thesis I could write, so I'm grateful for that too. Some of the ideas from that thesis have unexpectedly carried over into my current research, so his influence lives on! We also had fun: although aviation history was not his area, he was a widely-read and intellectually curious person, and as I recall he was quite fascinated by air combat in the Great War, which meant I had to dredge up bits and pieces I'd read about Fokker interrupter gear years before, or the vulnerability of Zeppelins to incendiary bullets. David's early death, only a year after his retirement, is a loss to the historical community as well as to his family.

A memorial service for David will be held on Monday 8 September at 4:30pm at Melba Hall (map here) on Royal Parade, at the University of Melbourne. All are welcome.

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