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Notable Local Geologists: John Phillips

John Phillips (1800–1874)

Professor Michael Winterbottom writes about a man who helped found the British Science Association and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, has craters on the Moon and Mars named after him, and was publisher of the first global geologic time scale.

On 18 June 1921 the seventeen-year-old W.J. Arkell received a prize from the Master of Wellington College for an essay on natural history. It was on John Phillips’ Geology of Oxford and the Valley of the Thames. This symbolic link between eminent Oxford geologists can be taken further back. Phillips was the nephew of William Smith, and was brought up by him when his parents died early in his life. And he owed his advent in Oxford to the death of William Buckland’s deputy as reader in geology, Hugh Strickland. Phillips was hardly less a Renaissance man than Plot and Lluyd two centuries before, and, more sensible and less flamboyant than Buckland, he played a key role in the dragging of Oxford, with some kicks and screams, into the modern age of science. His varied career has been magisterially described and assessed in Jack Morrell’s John Phillips and the Business of Victorian Science (Aldershot, 2005), now sadly out of print and inconceivably expensive on the second-hand market. The present account draws heavily and gratefully on Morrell’s fine book, and on his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, but it concentrates on the part of Phillips’ career that is relevant to Oxford and Oxfordshire.        


'The most prevalent notion in the works which Mr. Smith could then [in the late 1790s] consult, regarding the forms and localities of organic remains, was the vague and irrational belief (founded on a misconception of the meaning of Scripture, but handed down even to these days as if to demonstrate the indestructibility of a popular error), that these relics of more ancient systems of life were all buried in the solid strata of the Earth by the operation of the general deluge. This notion appears never to have influenced for a moment the mind of Mr. Smith, who in . . . this period, not only denies the unsatisfactory hypothesis, but places in direct contrast with it his own views . . .'

John Phillips

Memoirs of William Smith (1844)

Phillips’ willingness to take up his lowly first position in 1853, at the age of 53, reflects his anxiety to come to Oxford. He had been a Fellow of the Royal Society since 1834; had held two professorships (in London and Dublin); had worked for the Geological Survey over many years (coining the terms Palaeozoic, Mesozoic and Cainozoic along the way); had been the long-term assistant secretary of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, whose first meeting he had organised when keeper of the Yorkshire Museum in York; and had written important books on geology. This distinguished career owed its first flowering to Phillips’ link with William Smith; but it was driven by the financial imperatives of one who could not subsist without paid employment. Once at Oxford, as was to be expected, he rose rapidly. He became reader in Geology in 1856, and professor in 1860, when he relinquished the keepership of the Ashmolean Museum and took over as keeper of the new University Museum, where he lived in a newly built keeper’s house on site: not with a wife, but with his formidable sister Anne, who sadly died in 1862 (she gave her name to Miss Phillips’ Conglomerate, found in the Malverns). 



 ...lasting memorial



It is the University Museum that is his most lasting memorial. He oversaw its building, paying attention not least to the shafts of the columns where British rocks are so splendidly displayed, and to the great court, whose roof, then as now, gave trouble. What is now solely or largely a museum was envisaged as a new centre of Oxford science, to which flowed other collections, especially from the Ashmolean. The Clarendon Laboratory was built next door, and all the sciences were now brought together, with the sole exception of botany, which remained in the Botanic Garden. Not least, the Radcliffe Library was brought there from the Camera. Phillips thought of the column shafts, the floral capitals and the collections as part of the process of teaching rather than as objects to amuse the public.


Teaching indeed had always been very important to him, and he did what the colleges could not or would not do. With little or no assistance, he gave lectures year after year on a very wide range of geological subjects; it is remarkable that women often attended, or even formed the majority (who were they, one wonders). One of Morrell’s illustrations is of a question paper, listing topics that members of his audience might wish to discuss with him in the half hour following the lecture. Thus: ‘Answer geologically the question of De Luc – Why has the Earth any Mountains?’ A reading list is appended, including two books of Phillips’. Nor were field trips lacking, day outings to Shotover Hill or Stonesfield, and a four-day trip to the Malverns.

 Yorkshire Museum  

 The University Museum, Oxford.

The book that the youthful Arkell received was first published in 1871, three years before Phillips’ death. It has been reprinted, and can be obtained for a modest sum from Forgotten Books. It is less delightful and perhaps less accessible to the general reader than Arkell’s masterpiece (The Geology of Oxford [Oxford, 1947). It does have its lyrical moments: there is an evocative passage on rivers (p. 34), and a splendid rhapsody on the anthropocene history of Wittenham hill (479); and knowledge of the Latin classics is not suppressed. But in general Phillips gives us a sober, even dry account of the geological fortunes, not just of Oxfordshire but of the whole basin of the Thames (stretched to include his beloved Malverns), arranged chronologically from the Cambrian to the present. ‘I know’, he comments, 'of no district of equal area which offers so great a variety of interesting facts to the geological observer, in a country as full of natural beauty and historical associations’ (p. 10). He is interested not just in rocks but in trees (a fascinating note on p. 52) and flowers (orchids listed on p. 53). The first chapter is a succinct sketch of the way in which the subject had developed, from the times of Tradescant and Ashmole to the present when the new railway cuttings had opened up much that had been inaccessible in the past (the unfortunate Strickland had been killed while geologising in a cutting on the Great Northern line). The bulk of the book is taken up by meticulous lists of fossils, beautifully illustrated by plates and woodcuts drawn by the author; but particular emphasis is naturally placed on the recently discovered Cetiosaurus, which Phillips, with the help of his assistant Caudell, had painstakingly reconstructed. Recording a deep borehole at Wytham (pp. 296-7), Phillips interestingly uses workmen’s terms as employed in the Staffordshire coalfields: 59 different layers, Clunch and Clunch bines, Dark ground and Mingled ground. He has seen shells ‘in one of the blocks at Stonehenge’ (p. 447), but will not tell us where to look for them. No less cautiously, he advises against making one’s own artesian well without expert help (p. 501). Nor does he forget the future. Ever interested in water, he ends (pp. 502-3) on a prophetic note: ‘Instead of depending on the Thames and its branches, “new rivers” may have to be brought from distant regions …; and, though not in our days, the slopes of Welsh mountains like Plynlimmon and the Berwyns may be formed into reservoirs, and the midland counties of England be traversed by aqueducts grander than any which span the plains of Provence or the Campagna of Rome.’




laid to rest in York




This well-liked and genial character was a facilitator, not a controversialist. He saw no conflict between religion and geology, and, though he recognised that the Earth must have existed for an enormously long time, he did not accept Darwin’s evolutionary theories. His geology is naturally outdated. But his legacy lives on, in the Oxford science school and in the University Museum. He died a very Oxford death. He had dined at All Souls in illustrious company, the Warden of the college, the professor of International Law, the Principal of Jesus. After dinner, he stumbled over a mat, and fell down fifteen stone steps. He had been born in Wiltshire, and had lived in Oxford for seventeen years. But his request was to be buried with his sister at York, and thither he was carried by train for an elaborate funeral. No one associated with Oxford geology can approach his distinction.

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