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)
Parent(s) 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. 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, which is more commonly termed bibliomania.

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.[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 1850 at a meeting of the Cambrian Archaeological society (Cymdeithas Hynafiaethau Cymru), Phillips announced that he was seeking to locate his large collection at a location in Wales.

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. Halliwell was apparently a book thief (Phillips accused Halliwell of stealing his 1603 copy of Hamlet which he sold to the British Museum minus the title page containing Phillipps' book stamp) and also a destroyer of other valuable old books, cutting out pages to stick them in his scrap book.[5] At least 105 wagon-loads, each drawn by two horses and accompanied by one or two men, were used to move the collection to Thirlestaine House in Cheltenham over a period of 8 months, leaving Middle Hill to fall to ruin.[9] The previous owner of Thirlestaine House was John Rushout, 2nd Baron Northwick, whose important art collection had been sold in 1859 after he died intestate.[10] There are thus numerous MSS named "Codex Middlehillianus", "Cheltenham Codex" or "Codex Cheltenhamensis".[11]

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 (‘Typis Medio-Montanis’) in 1822 not only to record his book holdings but also to publish his findings in English topography and genealogy.[12] The press was housed in Broadway Tower, a folly completed on Broadway Hill, Worcestershire, in 1798.[13]

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.[14] 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 Sotheby's sales. The final portion of the collection was sold by Christie's on 7 June 2006, lots 18–38.[15] 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.[16] 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[17] at the age of 29. The honour was the result of his father-in-law's connections with the Duke of Beaufort.[16] He was appointed High Sheriff of Worcestershire in 1825.[18]

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 lifelong 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.  Lee, Sidney, ed. (1896). "Phillipps, Thomas". Dictionary of National Biography. 45. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 192–195.
  3. N. A. Basbanes: A Gentle Madness, p. 120
  4. Basbanes, op. cit. p. 121
  5. 1 2 3 Rasmussen, Eric (2011). The Shakespeare Thefts. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 81–87. ISBN 9780230109414.
  6. Grolier Club
  7. 1 2 3 4 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. Michell, John F (1999). Eccentric Lives and Peculiar Notions Adventures Unlimited Press, p. 160. ISBN 9780932813671
  10. Catalogue of the late Lord Northwick's extensive and magnificent collection of ancient and modern pictures, cabinet of miniatures and enamels... sold by 'Mr. Phillips'. (1859)
  11. e.g. Codex Cheltenhamensis 9303, containing the Lingua Ignota by Hildegard of Bingen. Steinmayer E; Sievers, E. (1895). Sachlich geordnete Glossare. Die Althochdeutschen Glossen, Vol. III. pp. 390-404. Phillipps' collection included another manuscript of a work by Hildegard, one of the earliest copies of her Liber Vite Meritorum, now Berlin, Staatsbibliothek Preussicher Kulturbesitz, Ms. fol. 727; see Hildegardis Bingensis, Liber Vite Meritorum, ed. A. Carlevaris (Turnout: Brepols, 1996), p. xlvii.
  12. The Horblit collection of Middle Hill Press books at the Grolier Club contains 558 titles,
  13. "Broadway Tower, Middle Hill, Broadway (Worcestershire)". Retrieved 1 September 2014.
  14. Basbanes, op. cit, p. 122
  15. Christie's, sale 7233, Valuable Manuscripts and Printed Books, London, King Street, 7 June 2006, lots 18–38.
  16. 1 2 Curious Britain: Broadway Tower
  17. The London Gazette: no. 17730. p. 1555. 28 July 1821.
  18. Annual register 1825, Volume 67,p.192 edited by Edmund Burke
Sources and Bibliography
Baronetage of the United Kingdom
New creation Baronet
(of Middle Hill)
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