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Thomas Phillipps


Thomas Phillipps

Sir Thomas Phillipps, Bt
Sir Thomas Phillipps, ca. 1860
Born (1792-07-02)2 July 1792
Died 6 February 1872(1872-02-06) (aged 79)
Thirlestaine House, Cheltenham
Resting place
Church of St Aldhelm and St Eadburgha, Broadway
Alma mater University College Oxford
Occupation antiquarian, book collector
Spouse(s) Henrietta Elizabeth Molyneux (1819–1832);
Elizabeth Harriet Anne Mansel (1848–1872)
Children Henrietta (born 1819), Sophia (born 1821), and Katharine (born 1829)
Parents Thomas Phillipps and Hannah Walton (illegitimate)[1]

Sir Thomas Phillipps, 1st Baronet (2 July 1792 – 6 February 1872) was an English antiquary and book collector[2] who amassed the largest collection of manuscript material in the 19th century, due to his severe condition of bibliomania. He was an illegitimate son of a textile manufacturer and inherited a substantial estate, which he spent almost entirely on vellum manuscripts and, when out of funds, borrowed heavily to buy manuscripts, thereby putting his family deep into debt. Phillipps recorded in an early catalogue that his collection was instigated by reading various accounts of the destruction of valuable manuscripts.[3] Such was his devotion that he acquired some 40,000 printed books and 60,000 manuscripts, arguably the largest collection a single individual has created, and coined the term "vello-maniac"[4] to describe his obsession.

The Collection

Broadway Tower, Worcestershire. The home of Phillipps' Middle Hill Press

In 1798, when Phillipps was 6 years old, he already owned 110 books, and is recorded to have said that he wanted to own one of every book in the world.[5] Philipps began collecting in earnest while still at Rugby. He continued buying books when he went on to University College Oxford[6] and graduated in 1815. In 1820, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1820.[7]

A.N.L. Munby notes that, "[Phillipps] spent perhaps between two hundred thousand and a quarter of a million pounds[,] altogether four or five thousand pounds a year, while accessions came in at the rate of forty or fifty a week.".[8] Phillipps would go into book shops and purchase the entire stock; he would receive dealers catalogues and buy all the listings; his agents bought entire lots of books at auction, outbidding his rival the British Library.[5] His country seat, Middle Hill near Broadway, Worcestershire gave over sixteen of twenty rooms to books.

In 1863, Phillipps began to move the collection as he was fearful that his son-in-law, James Orchard Halliwell, would gain ownership of it when Phillipps's estranged daughter inherited Middle Hill. Phillipps hired 250 men and 125 wagons, spending two years moving the collection to Thirlestaine House in Cheltenham, leaving Middle Hill to fall to ruin.[5]

On his death in 1872 the probate valuation (by Edward Bond of the British Museum) of his manuscripts was £74,779 17s 0d. His success as a collector owed something to the dispersal of the monastic libraries following the French Revolution and the relative cheapness of a large amount of vellum material, in particular English legal documents, many of which owe their survival to Phillipps. He was an assiduous cataloguer who established the Middle Hill Press in 1822 not only to record his book holdings but also to publish his findings in English topography and genealogy.[9] The press was housed in Broadway Tower, a folly completed on Broadway Hill, Worcestershire, in 1798.[10]

Thirlestaine House, Phillipps' home during the latter part of his life

During his lifetime, Phillipps attempted to turn over his collection to the British nation and corresponded with the then-Chancellor of the Exchequer Disraeli in order that it should be acquired for the British Library. Negotiations proved unsuccessful and, ultimately, the dispersal of his collection took over 100 years. Phillipps's will stipulated that his books should remain intact at Thirlestaine House, that no bookseller or stranger should rearrange them and that no Roman Catholic, especially his son-in-law James Halliwell, should be permitted to view them.[11] In 1885, the Court of Chancery declared this too restrictive and thus made possible the sale of the library which Phillipps's grandson Thomas FitzRoy Fenwick supervised for the next fifty years. Significant portions of the European material were sold to the national collections on the continent including the Royal Library, Berlin, the Royal Library of Belgium, and the Provincial Archives in Utrecht as well as the sale of outstanding individual items to the J. Pierpont Morgan and Henry E. Huntington libraries. By 1946, what was known as the "residue" was sold to London booksellers Phillip and Lionel Robinson for £100,000, though this part of the collection was uncatalogued and unexamined. The Robinsons endeavoured to sell these books through their own published catalogues and a number of Sothebys sales. The final portion of the collection was sold by Christie's on 7 June 2006, lots 18–38.[12] A five-volume history of the collection and its dispersal, Phillipps Studies, by A. N. L. Munby was published between 1951 and 1960.


Phillipps married Henrietta Elizabeth Molyneux, daughter of Major-General Thomas Molyneux, in 1819.[13] This was after the death of his father, who had opposed the match because she lacked a dowry.[7]

In 1821, he was made baronet of Middle Hill in the County of Worcester[14] at the age of 29. The honour was the result of his father-in-law's connections with the Duke of Beaufort.[13] He was appointed High Sheriff of Worcestershire in 1825.[15]

Phillipps eldest daughter, Harriett, married the Shakesperean scholar James Orchard Halliwell. while still an undergraduate at Cambridge, Halliwell had collaborated in research with Phillipps. He came to visit Thomas Phillipps in February 1842 and became attached to Harriett. Phillipps refused to allow his daughter to marry and the couple eloped, Phillipps was enraged by this and maintained a life-long vendetta against the couple.[7]

As the Phillippses had only daughters the title became extinct on his death in February 1872, aged 79. He was buried at the Church of St Aldhelm and St Eadburgha at Broadway in Somerset.[7]

Items from the Phillipps Collection


  1. ^ "Sir Thomas Phillipps, antiquary: collections relating to Gloucestershire". Gloucestershire Archives: Online Catalogue. Gloucestershire City Council. Retrieved 8 September 2011. 
  2. Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900. 
  3. ^ N. A. Basbanes: A Gentle Madness, p. 120
  4. ^ Basbanes, op. cit. p. 121
  5. ^ a b c Rasmussen, Eric (2011). The Shakespeare Thefts. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 81–87. ISBN . 
  6. ^ Grolier Club
  7. ^ a b c d Alan Bell, 'Phillipps, Sir Thomas, baronet (1792–1872)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, (2004)
  8. ^ Nicolas Barker: Portrait of an Obsession: The Life of Sir Thomas Phillipps, the world’s greatest book collector, 1967.
  9. ^ The Horblit collection of Middle Hill Press books at the Grolier Club contains 558 titles, [1]
  10. ^ "Broadway Tower, Middle Hill, Broadway (Worcestershire)". Retrieved 1 September 2014. 
  11. ^ Basbanes, op. cit, p. 122
  12. ^ Christie's, sale 7233, Valuable Manuscripts and Printed Books, London, King Street, 7 June 2006, lots 18–38. [2]
  13. ^ a b Curious Britain: Broadway Tower
  14. ^ The London Gazette: no. 17730. p. 1555. 28 July 1821.
  15. ^ Annual register 1825, Volume 67,p.192 edited by Edmund Burke
Sources and Bibliography
  • Nicholas A. Basbanes: A Gentle Madness, 1995
  • "Phillipps, Sir Thomas, baronet (1792–1872)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/22141.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  • A.N.L.Munby: Phillipps Studies, 5 vols. 1951–1960.
  • A BBC Radio 4 play, by Nick Warburton, on the removal of the Phillipps collection to Thirlestaine House was broadcast in August 2010, [3]
  • Michelle Moreau-Ricaud: Sir Thomas Phillipps: un bibliophile, in "Freud collectionneur", Ed. Campagnes première, 2011, ISBN 2915789665 (French)

External links

Baronetage of the United Kingdom
New creation Baronet
(of Middle Hill)
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