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Obituary: Patrick Phelan - BASW Chairman 1980-1981

BASW member Terry Bamford pays tribute to his friend and former colleague Patrick Phelan, who has died aged 80, on October 11th 2016.

BASW’s annual Report for 1981/2 said: ”PP was a wonderful chairman of the association. His warmth, whimsy and wit in alliance with his care, commitment and creativity made him a hard act to follow.” I wrote that 36 years ago but can find no better words to describe him. The memory of Patrick is still very vivid for all who knew him.

Three months before Patrick became Chairman (BASW’s last Chairman), the Association had been haemorrhaging money, losing £5000 a week as a result of the collapse in advertising revenue. As a consequence, a number of staff had been made redundant, conferences were cancelled and activities truncated. The atmosphere was febrile with a failed AGM bid to increase subscriptions and a second AGM having to be called.

It was courageous of Patrick to take on the role at a time of existential crisis for BASW.  Tall, slim and elegant, he brought a unique style to the role. This was somewhat undermined by the carrier bag in which he carried papers to meetings. Chairing BASW from 1980 to 1982, Patrick brought calm and composure to this unstable situation when its very existence was threatened.

Patrick took a special interest in disability issues and was at the forefront of those working in partnership with those with a disability to devise their own ways of best meeting their needs. He represented BASW on the Disability Living Foundation and Disability Alliance as well as serving as a Trustee of the Social workers Benevolent Trust. He served on the Wagner Committee reviewing residential care.

His addresses to the AGM were, for many, a highlight of the BASW year. No speech went by without a reference to her late Imperial Majesty Queen Victoria and somehow Patrick would ingeniously weave a reference into a serious text. Sometimes metaphors would be built on metaphors until the audience collapsed in laughter. He was the first to describe his predecessors as ‘antique chairs’. He would have made a good stand-up comedian with his gift for language and his sharp ear for pomposity.

But in addition to his verbal style; his writing was equally elegant. His handwriting was beautiful and his content used humour to point up a serious message. The focus on practice which Patrick brought to the role was important at a time when Thatcherite economics held sway. His mannered style led some to think him a soft touch. However, it disguised the toughness with which he defended core values of personal dignity and human compassion, particularly at a time when too often cash was given priority over care. He was warm and interested in everyone and was a true champion of social work.

Subsequently, Patrick’s compassion and values took him in a different direction and he became a Church of England priest in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He was a Benedictine Monk before serving as a priest in Camden Town and then at St Julian’s church, Norwich, the shrine of Julian of Norwich. Her famous saying, “All shall be well, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well” constitutes a fitting epitaph for a man who through his social work life and his vocation strove to improve the lot of his fellow citizens.