Sir Thomas Phillipps, collector of the largest collection of privately owned books in the world, was born at 32 Cannon Street, Manchester, on 2nd July 1792 and he was baptised later that month in Manchester Cathedral. He was the third son of Thomas Phillipps, calico manufacturer and printer of Manchester. Thomas’s mother, Hannah Judd (née Walton), from Yorkshire, played no part in his upbringing.
Although Thomas spent the first few years of his life in Manchester, his paternal grandparents lived near Broadway. His grandfather, William Phillipps, who was born in London in 1712, farmed several hundred acres in the area surrounding Broadway, Childswickham and Buckland. Thomas’s grandmother, Mary (née Cotterell), was born in 1713 in nearby Saintbury. Mary died in 1800 and is buried in Snowshill, Gloucestershire.
The Middle Hill Estate, Broadway
When Thomas’s father retired in 1794 he purchased Middle Hill, Broadway, a large house situated above the village beneath Broadway Tower. The family moved in to the Middle Hill estate in 1796 where Thomas started his collection of books. Thomas spent all of his pocket money on books and by the age of six had already collected over 110 books.
Thomas was educated locally until 1807 (it is likely that he had a private tutor or governess). He went on to Rugby School before studying at University College, Oxford, for four years. It was at Oxford that Thomas continued to collect rather than merely research and catalogue old books and manuscripts. His hobby proved to be expensive in both time and money. Thomas needed a private tutor to help him prepare for examinations and although he was given access to an annual income of £6000 upon the death of his father on 1st November 1818, the Middle Hill estate was left in trust so that it could not be sold to further expand Thomas’s growing collection.
In 1819 Thomas married Henrietta Elizabeth Molyneux, daughter of Major General Thomas Molyneux and they had three daughters, Henrietta (born 1819), Sophia (1821) and Katharine (1829). In 1820 Thomas was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and made a baronet in the following year aided by his father-in-law’s association with the Duke of Beaufort. In 1825 Thomas was elected High Sheriff of Worcestershire, a post his father had held in 1801.
From 1822, Thomas started to copy, commission and print transcripts of historical documents and he established a private printing press at Broadway Tower. Publications printed on the Broadway Tower press often carry a stencilled crest of a lion with ‘Sir T. P. /Middle Hill’ and the manuscript number added by hand below. Thomas’s obsession with books and manuscripts meant that from this point onwards he was in debt for the rest of his life. To cut costs he was forced to move to Europe (between 1822-1829), yet this enabled him to have access to manuscripts of leading continental scholars, for example, Gerard Meerman, the Dutch typographic historian (1722-1771), and it did little to curb Thomas’s spending habits.
In 1839 Thomas became acquainted with James Orchard Halliwell, a young undergraduate and Shakespearean scholar who had written to him requesting historical information. In exchange for an examination of the Cambridge libraries, Thomas printed a catalogue of scientific manuscripts that had been assembled by Halliwell and invited him to stay at Middle Hill in 1842. There, James Halliwell fell in love with Thomas’s eldest daughter Henrietta and despite initially agreeing a dowry James and Thomas fell out. The young couple were forced to elope and they married in August 1842. Thomas never forgave his daughter. He shunned numerous attempts at reconciliation with the couple and chose to criticise and deny his son-in-law at every opportunity.
Thomas’s first wife, Henrietta, died in 1832 and in 1848 he secondly married Elizabeth Harriet Anne Mansel, daughter of the Reverend William Mansel (Rector of Eldesborough, Buckinghamshire, and the son of Sir William Mansel, Bt). Thomas continued to expand his collection of books and manuscripts which attracted scholars from all over the world to Middle Hill including the American historians William H Prescott and Jared Sparks, the American painter and author George Catlin and the English born Australian landscape artist John Glover (Thomas was a patron of John Glover and George Catlin).
The Move to Thirlestaine House in Cheltenham
Throughout the 1850s Thomas became preoccupied with what should happen to his collection after his death which by then took up 16 of the 20 rooms at Middle Hill. Discussions held with Oxford University fell through when Thomas proposed in return that he should become chief librarian of the Bodleian Library. In 1861, he accepted an invitation to become a trustee of the British Museum but he then refused them access to the collection when his recommendations for improvements at the Museum were not adopted. The Middle Hill estate remained promised to Henrietta despite her marriage, yet Thomas was adamant that his collection would not be inherited by her husband, James. Thomas moved to Thirlestaine House in Cheltenham (now owned by Cheltenham College) in 1863 which also gave him more space to house his collection. It took two years to transport the 60,000 manuscripts and 30,000 books to the new site where he continued to collect, catalogue and entertain leading academics until his death on 6th February 1872.
Thomas was buried in the churchyard at St Eadburga’s Church, Snowshill Road, Broadway. Thirlestaine House and its contents, including 60,000 manuscripts and 50,000 printed books, were left in trust for his youngest daughter, Katherine, with a life interest for her third son, Thomas Fitzroy Fenwick. The Halliwell family and all Roman Catholics were to be banned from entering the library which was to remain intact. However, by 1885, the Fenwicks could no longer afford to maintain the house and collection and so acquired judicial approval to disperse its contents. Manuscripts were sold in groups to private collectors and foreign governments and there were a series of auctions at Sotheby’s. In 1946, the remaining collection was acquired by Lionel and Philip Robinson, antiquarian booksellers of London, who continued to disperse the manuscripts at further auctions at Sotheby’s and through their own retail catalogues. Between 1977-1983, they sold what was left of their holdings to H.P. Kraus, dealers of New York.
Talk on Sir Thomas Phillipps, Monday 21st October in the Lifford Memorial Hall, Broadway
On Monday 21st October 2019, the Society looks forward to welcoming Gerard Molyneux to give a talk on his bibliophile relative Sir Thomas Phillipps. The talk will take place in the Lifford Memorial Hall, Lower Green, Broadway, starting at 7pm. Talks are free to members (membership £10 p.a), non-members are very welcome £3 on the door.
Broadway History Society
Dictionary of National Biography
Further reading: Wikipedia Article: Thomas Phillipps