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PHILLIPS, George

 
Date listed: 15/1/2021

08/04/1924 - 15/12/2020

Born within the sound of Bow Bells (East London), George served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War as an aircraft technician working near Rosyth on the Firth of Forth. He, his older brothers, Bill and Henry, their mother, Philadelphia, and his nephew found Adelaide in the 1950s after a long car journey from Brisbane. The ‘Ten Pound Pom’ was a scientific instrument maker; a craft he had entered during the early part of the war when he worked for the historic firm of Cooke, Troughton & Simms at their London factory.  He spent time at the Long Range Weapons Establishment, Salisbury, and the University of Adelaide electrical engineering laboratory before many years at ETSA, Mile End, where a number of his inventions kept the State running. 

Along with his brothers he owned and operated one of Adelaide’s early supermarkets, possibly its third. Located on Henley Beach Road, it began soon after they arrived. (It is now IGA Henley Beach.) The great American innovation, the ‘supermarket’ was brought to Australia in 1952 in the Sydney suburb of Hurstville. Adelaide’s first supermarket came shortly afterwards, in 1953, on Anzac Highway at Morphettville. George had a falling out with his business partners (they stitched him up so the story goes), one of whom he never spoke to again. He stood firm and held fast to his principles.

In most respects he was an archetypal man of his generation. George took advantage of the favourable economics of his time and became the patriarch of a large, ordinary, middle-class family. He was tidy and proud - vain even - although without pomp. His dinner plate was decidedly that of an old Britisher: boiled vegetables with fish or meat, which was occasionally curried. And he had the 'new world' penchant for building things. George helped build a number of houses, including his great work, 24 Hermitage Road, Auldana, laying thousands of bricks and pavers there himself; wearing away the bones of his back and hands on that old vineyard. Yet, sadly, he never considered Australia home, remarking at times that he only felt he could truly relax when getting off the plane at Heathrow. He considered himself a socialist and an irreligious man, as a result of his formative experiences at war. ‘Pa’ influenced those around him, especially his grandsons in whom he instilled a curiosity about the world, open mindedness, a hard work ethic, contempt for the ‘idiot box’, compassion and realism. 

George saw extraordinary change - political, economic, social and technological - over his near century. Memorably, he observed of the Blitz in London that people got on with life. There was no nationalistic fervour, nor sycophantic lust for Winston Churchill. That would come retrospectively with the decline of empire. As a scientific instrument maker, he worked on the blurred line that separates science from conquest. During the day he would debate history; at night, he would read it. It was he who introduced me to this intellectual preoccupation. His study of history was not scholarly but indiscriminate, as is typical of autodidacts. Naturally, he would have been an historian had he been fortunate enough to receive a formal education beyond the age of 14. George was no practitioner at heart: he would have liked gathering and interpreting evidence, formulating arguments and embroiling himself in debates consequential to society.

Truthfully, age humbled his mind. His wife of 61 years, Barbara, 84, languished for a number of those to keep him at home. George’s dependence on Barb, his family, the health care system and contract helpers became complete. It should not be forgotten that in his final decade George was subjected to ageist mockery and condescension by many in his family. This practice was upsetting to him and, occasionally, he would register the irony with a glance, comment or eye roll at those who respected him. He had become fond of repetition, increasingly forgetful and adopted latent traditional views. Even so, he still possessed remarkable prescience at the time we last parted. His mind was effortlessly the best of the bunch. 

I will tell my children about their great-grandfather and he will live on in the oral tradition, in fond remembrance – C. J. Coventry.

“The unfed mind devours itself.” Gore Vidal.

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