Obituary: Oliver Roskill
Thursday 09 June 1994
OLIVER ROSKILL had an extraordinary gift for friendship. He would quiz even casual acquaintances about their life and work with such a genuine desire to understand what made them tick that, more often than not, they would become friends for life - friendship which might thereafter embrace their whole family through four generations.
For many people, their abiding image of this wholly lovable man is of a twinkling-eyed, moustachioed figure standing beneath the great copper beech-tree at his annual garden party hoarsely demanding that his guests cease their gossiping so that the music could begin.
Born in 1906, Oliver was the third of the four remarkable sons of John Roskill KC and Sybil, daughter of Ashton Dilke MP. His two elder brothers predeceased him: Sir Ashton Roskill QC, who was chairman of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, and Stephen Roskill, the distinguished naval historian. Eustace, the youngest brother, recently retired as a Law Lord.
Oliver cut his own furrow, virtually inventing a career as one of this country's first management consultants, establishing OW Roskill Industrial Consultants in 1930. He was primarily a scientist but was master of two cultures. Educated at Oundle and Lincoln College, Oxford, he gained a First in Chemistry in 1928. He was also passionately interested in the arts, especially music, and was a more than competent violinist.
On coming down from Oxford, he worked for Brunner Mond in Germany as an industrial chemist, occasionally playing the fiddle in the evening in the orchestra for silent films. His knowledge of the German chemical industry was employed during the Second World War in various areas of economic warfare. He was particularly proud of having developed for the Ministry of Supply an alternative to balsa wood for the frame of the Mosquito plane.
After the war he pioneered industrial market research, produced many innovative reports, particularly on the building industry, and published valuable directories - notably, from 1958, Who Owns Whom. He travelled the world advising on a huge variety of industrial projects, mostly designed to better ordinary people's living standards. Roskill had the highest moral standards and was never afraid of sounding priggish in his insistence on personal and public probity.
Long before it was fashionable to do so, he believed that small was beautiful and deliberately kept his own company small enough to provide a personal service. Even very late in life, he still gained great satisfaction from encouraging initiative, nurturing new projects and helping infant companies take their first steps.
In 1941, Roskill bought from the left-wing lawyer DN Pritt an ancient and beautiful priory near Reading, in order to house his wartime staff. The house and gardens were to be the love of his life. Before arthritis crippled him, visitors might expect to be greeted by Roskill wielding a chainsaw high up some unfortunate tree. The gardens he tended so assiduously were both graceful and productive: guests at the Priory sometimes complaining that Roskill too often preferred to sell his vegetables - especially the asparagus - than eat them himself.
Oliver Roskill relished challenges - he liked to say he had always taken risks and that they had usually paid off. With his encyclopaedic memory and agile mind, he never ceased inquiring how the world worked and teasingly used to wonder how it was possible to find nourishment in novels when there were so many books about the 'real' world to be read. His great charm and his delight in human diversity ensured that he was very much loved although he never married. Jaguar-loads of nieces, nephews and godchildren were swept through Europe on adventurous holidays to be introduced not only to architectural treasures but also to belching chemical plants whose owners were his clients.
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