Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Phillips, Richard (1767-1840)

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PHILLIPS, Sir RICHARD (1767–1840), author, bookseller, and publisher, the son of a Leicestershire farmer, was born in London in 1767. By his uncle, a brewer in Oxford Street, he was sent to schools in Soho Square and at Chiswick, but his home surroundings were distasteful to him, and in 1786 he started on his own account as usher in a school at Chester. Thence, in 1788, he moved to Leicester, where he invested his small means in a commercial academy in Bond Street. A year later he ‘turned to the ordinary trade of the place,’ and opened a hosier's shop, which he stocked with borrowed capital; but it was not until the summer of 1790, when he commenced business as a stationer, bookseller, and patent medicine vendor, that he found his proper vocation. He soon added a printing-press, and, when his already heterogeneous business began to prosper, he essayed further developments by the sale of pianofortes, music, caricatures, and prints, and the conduct of a circulating library. He held original opinions in matters of literature and science; he early conceived a rooted idea that the theory of gravitation had no foundation, and he developed strong radical and republican views in politics. His shop became a depôt for the advanced democratic literature of the revolutionary epoch, and, to give further expression to his views, Phillips founded in May 1792 the ‘Leicester Herald,’ he himself acting as editor, and upholding the rights of man in no measured terms. His paper proved a success, and he showed considerable skill in avoiding prosecutions; but in January 1793, upon the evidence of a paid informer named Jackson, he was found guilty of selling Paine's ‘Rights of Man,’ and was sentenced to eighteen months' imprisonment. From Leicester gaol, then under the control of Daniel Lambert [q. v.], he continued to edit the ‘Leicester Herald,’ and succeeded in obtaining the co-operation of Dr. Priestley of Birmingham. In May 1795 he added to his other ventures a fortnightly magazine of a semi-scientific nature, entitled ‘The Museum;’ but a disastrous fire brought both this and the ‘Herald’ to a conclusion. With the funds derived from his insurance policy Phillips betook himself to London, and opened business in St. Paul's Churchyard. He soon turned his journalistic experience to account by establishing the ‘Monthly Magazine,’ the first number of which appeared on 1 July 1796. It was edited by John Aikin (1747–1822) [q. v.], and among the contributors were Peter Pindar (Wolcot), Capel Lofft, and Dr. Mavor, while Phillips himself wrote trenchant articles against the government, under the signature ‘Common Sense.’ In 1806 he quarrelled with Aikin, whose place was taken by George Gregory. The ‘Antiquary's Magazine,’ started in the following year, scarcely outlived the quarrels which attended its birth. In the meantime, in spite of his peculiarities and irascible temper, Phillips's business prospered, and he removed in 1806 to larger premises in Little Bridge Street, Blackfriars. His publications included vast numbers of elementary class-books and cheap manuals, issued under a variety of pseudonyms. French, Italian, and Latin word-books and phrase-books appeared as by the Abbé Bossut; geographical and scientific works by the Rev. J. Goldsmith; and others by James Adair, Rev. S. Barrow, Rev. David Blair, Rev. C. C. Clarke, Rev. John Robinson, and Mrs. or Miss Pelham. Some of these works were compiled by Mavor, Watkins, Gregory, and others of Phillips's assistants; in others, however, such as ‘A popular Dictionary of Facts and Knowledge’ (1827?), ‘A Dictionary of the Arts of Life and Civilisation,’ and ‘A Million of Facts’ (1832?), he himself seems to have had a principal share. Several of these works have passed through from one hundred to five hundred editions. At midsummer 1807 Phillips was elected a sheriff of London, and as the bearer of an address from the corporation to George III, he was knighted by the king on 30 March 1808. During his shrievalty Phillips established the sheriff's fund for the relief of poor debtors, and placed the sponging-houses under better regulations. Subsequently his affairs became much embarrassed; but through the generosity of a former apprentice Phillips was enabled to repurchase the ‘Monthly Magazine’ and many of his best copyrights, and continued his publisher's business on a somewhat more restricted scale, until in 1823 he retired to Brighton. There he died on 2 April 1840. He married, in 1795, a Miss Griffiths, a milliner's assistant, by whom he left three sons—Richard, Alfred (vicar of Kilmersdon, Somerset), Horatio (a bookseller in Paris)—and four daughters. A portrait by James Saxon is in the National Portrait Gallery.

Christopher North called Phillips ‘a dirty little Jacobin,’ with no literary ability and absurd scientific views; but he afterwards allowed him the virtue of political consistency, and confessed the ‘Monthly’ to be a valuable periodical. Tom Moore considered him a bore, and laughed at his ‘Pythagorean diet;’ for from an early date Phillips practised strict vegetarianism, and his devotion to its tenets is depicted by George Borrow in his ‘Lavengro.’ De Morgan credits him with honesty, zeal, ability, and courage, but adds that ‘he applied them all in teaching matters about which he knew nothing,’ and so made himself ridiculous. Phillips was a friend of Priestley and of Orator Hunt, and a patron of Bamford and other radical contemporaries, and it was he who, after hearing Coleridge talk at a dinner-party, exclaimed that he wished he had him in a garret without a coat to his back. His chief importance was as a purveyor of cheap miscellaneous literature designed for popular instruction, and as the legitimate predecessor of the brothers Chambers and of Charles Knight.

The following are the chief of the works which are attributed to Phillips himself:

  1. ‘A Letter to the Livery of London relative to the Duties and Office of Sheriff,’ 1808, 12mo.
  2. ‘Treatise on the Powers and Duties of Juries, and on the Criminal Laws of England,’ 1811, 8vo.
  3. ‘Communications relative to the Datura Stramonium as a Cure for Asthma,’ 1811, 8vo.
  4. ‘A Morning's Walk from London to Kew,’ 1817 (1819 and 1820), 8vo; in this he airs original political and philosophical views.
  5. ‘The Proximate Causes of Material Phenomena,’ 1821 and 1824, 8vo; a pretentious volume on the principle of universal causation, which provoked De Morgan's anger.
  6. ‘Golden Rules of Social Philosophy,’ 1826, 8vo; this is dedicated to Simon Bolivar, and includes ‘Golden Rules’ for sovereign princes, for legislators, electors, sheriffs, jurymen, journalists, and others, besides ‘The Author's Reasons for not eating Animal Food.’

[A paper entitled ‘An Old Leicestershire Bookseller’ by F. S. Herne, in the Journal of the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society, contains much useful material for a biography of Phillips. See also Memoirs of the Public and Private Life of Sir R. Phillips, London 1808 (published during his shrievalty, upon materials ‘drawn from headquarters,’ and consequently far from entirely trustworthy); Gent. Mag. 1840, ii. 213–14; Biogr. Dict. of Living Authors, 1816, p. 271; Moore's Diary, iv. 296–297; Wilson's Noctes Ambrosianæ, ed. Mackenzie, i. 133, 266, ii. 420; Conway's Life of Paine, ii. 27; Bamford's Passages in the Life of a Radical, 1893, ii. 213; Fox-Bourne's English Newspapers, i. 299; Allibone's Dict. of English Literature; Nichols's Lit. Illustrations, viii. 512–13; Southey's Life and Correspondence, chap. xv.]

T. S.