John Phillips (1800-1874)


Plaque on St Mary’s Lodge, at the entrance to the Museum Gardens, Marygate.

The son of an excise officer, John Phillips was orphaned at the age of seven but rose to become one of the most respected figures in British geology and the gentrified academic establishment. By introducing a statistical approach to palaeontology, he developed William Smith’s ideas on using fossils to prove the correct stratigraphy of geological deposits. He identified and named the major geological eras – Palaeozoic, Mesozoic and Caenozoic – and demonstrated the mass extinctions between them. Phillips was a prolific academic and popular science author and was also active in the fields of astronomy, electromagnetism, zoology, botany, meteorology, scientific instruments, museum design, and surveying.

Early education

John Phillips was born on Christmas Day, 1800 at Marden, Wiltshire. When both his parents died in 1808, he was supported by his remarkable uncle, William Smith, moving into his London home. A largely self-taught surveyor, who spent his income on his passions of fossils and geology, Smith ultimately became known as the “Father of English Geology”. He did his best to provide his nephew with a good education under difficult circumstances. In spite of being moved between four different schools, John quickly became confident in Latin, French and mathematics and learned enough Greek for him to build on in his later career. His uncle’s financial problems, however, forced John to leave school when he was about 14 although he was then able to continue his studies for a year under Smith’s friend the Revd Benjamin Richardson who helped him to develop a deep love of natural history. Formal education stopped at the age of 15 when he began to work as his uncle’s assistant, travelling the country with him on pioneering geological field trips. They were often in poverty; Smith was imprisoned for debt in 1819. On his release, they travelled extensively in the North of England as itinerant surveyors also using their travels to work on Smith’s geological maps.

Yorkshire Philosophical Society

From about 1819, John accompanied his uncle on surveying commissions in Yorkshire and helped with the 1820 update of Smith’s famous 1815 geological map and the County Map of Yorkshire published in 1821. In 1824, he helped with Smith’s series of lectures to the Yorkshire Philosophical Society (YPS), making an immediate impact. He was paid £20 to arrange the YPS’s fossil and geological collections and was made an Honorary Member of what was then still an exclusive society. In 1825 he was appointed by the YPS as keeper of its museum and draughtsman to the society commencing 1 January 1826. His salary of just £60 pa plus lecture fees was for three days a week, from 10am to 4pm, for nine months each year. Proving to be an excellent lecturer, he toured extensively in the region. Characteristically, he donated half of his lecture fees to the YPS for the purchase of display cabinets and also donated many valuable specimens.

In a somewhat bizarre and famous incident in 1831, he was chased around the YPS Gardens by a bear that had escaped from the society’s menagerie. The bear was captured and offered to the newly opened Royal Zoological Gardens in London which accepted the gift with instructions that it should be sent to them as an outside passenger on the stage coach. That same year he was one of the founder members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and became its first secretary, serving from 1832 to 1863. The association’s inaugural meeting was hosted by the YPS in York in 1831.

Academic publications

In 1834 there was a breakthrough in his academic career when he was appointed to the Chair of Geology at King’s College, London, published a Guide to Geology and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. His Report on the Geology of Cornwall, Devon, and West Somerset was published in 1839, followed by Figures and Descriptions of Palaeozoic Fossils of Cornwall, Devon, and West Somerset in 1841, in which year he joined the British Geological Survey. In 1844, he was appointed Professor of Geology at the University of Dublin and was awarded the prestigious Wollaston Medal by the Geological Society of London. In the same year, he published The Memoirs of William Smith LL.D.”, author of the Map of the Strata of England and Wales, by his nephew and pupil, John Phillips FRS, FGS in which he confirmed his uncle’s major contribution to the study of geology. John published the Geological Survey of the Malvern Hills in 1849 and was appointed as a commissioner to enquire into the ventilation of coal mines which led to the introduction of colliery inspectors.

John made countless geological field trips throughout Yorkshire leading to major works specific to the county. These included Illustrations of the Geology of Yorkshire Part 1 (1829), which included a detailed geological map of eastern Yorkshire. Part 2, which covered the Mountain Limestone in the north west of the county, followed in 1836. These remarkable volumes remained the main reference sources for Yorkshire geology until the mid 20th century. Also significant were The Rivers, Mountains, and Sea-Coast of Yorkshire (1853), and a Geological Map of Yorkshire (1855) which included three cross sections of the strata.

St Mary’s Lodge

St Mary’s Lodge was added to the 12th-century gatehouse to St Mary’s Abbey during refurbishment in 1470. It survived the dissolution of the monasteries and served a number of different uses, including as a prison, until the early 1700s. In 1838 the Lodge, now known as Gateway House, was in poor repair and had become the Brown Cow public house. It stands on a parcel of land which was added to the grounds of the Yorkshire Museum in 1835. John Phillips, whose career was blossoming at that time, offered to undertake major repairs and refurbishment at his own expense in order to make a home for himself and his sister provided a substantial garden was included in a 30-year lease at £15 pa. The YPS eventually agreed to a lifelong lease of “the Gateway and the Garden”, jointly with his sister Anne and starting in April 1839 when the existing tenant quit, for an even lower initial rent of £7 10s. The refurbishment was finished later in 1839 and John renamed the building St Mary’s Lodge.

St Mary’s Lodge at the entrance to the Museum Gardens, Marygate

During the long period of the lease, although he visited regularly, John was often based out of York. He therefore subleased the Lodge for significant periods, though records of this are incomplete. One tenant wrote to him in 1844 about the beauty of the garden he had taken over. Other tenants were in residence in 1854 and 1858. John himself was almost certainly in residence 1839-41 and 1849-53 and possibly intermittently at other times. Interestingly, in 1850 John returned home to find the Water Company had erected an engine chimney in view of his property to a much greater height than had been agreed. He wrote a strong letter of protest which resulted in the chimney being shortened. The 1851 census for St Mary’s Lodge shows the residents to be John Phillips (aged 50, FRS and formerly Professor of Geology at King’s College London and at Trinity College, Dublin), Anne Phillips (his sister, aged 48), and two servants (a Cook and a Housemaid). John finally relinquished the lease in 1870 under favourable terms.

University of Oxford

John’s long career at the University of Oxford started in 1853 when he was appointed Deputy Reader in Geology. He was elevated to Professor in 1856 and was also elected as President of the Geological Society of London. Between 1856 and 1865, he wrote a number of astronomical papers which he presented to the Royal Society. Although a devout Christian, in 1860 John engaged in a scientific debate on the age of the earth with Charles Darwin. Darwin had estimated 300 million years but John argued that geological evidence demonstrated a much greater age of 1,000 million years. Both estimates were almost unimaginable at the time compared with the view accepted by the Church of about 6,000 years, but were actually much more conservative than the present day estimate of 4,600 million years. In the same year, John published his book on the subject: Life on Earth, its Origin and Succession. Fittingly, he served as President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1865. He died in 1874, following a fall at All Souls College, Oxford. His body was accompanied to Oxford railway station by 150 mourners. After arrival at York, he lay in state overnight in the Yorkshire Museum. The next day, 30 April 1874, the Minster bells were tolled for 90 minutes before his funeral. He was buried in York Cemetery alongside his sister, under a modest gravestone.



British Geological Survey website:

W.E. Collinge, ‘John Phillips’, Yorkshire Philosophical Society Annual Report (York, 1924)

Encyclopedia Britannica 9th Edition:

Geological Society website:

Jack Morrell, ‘The legacy of William Smith: the case of John Phillips in the 1820s’, Archives of Natural History Vol.16, Issue 3 (Edinburgh, 1989), 319-335

Jack Morrell, John Phillips and the business of Victorian science (Abingdon, 2005)

Jack Morrell, ‘John Phillips’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford)

A.D. Orange, ‘John Phillips and the Yorkshire Philosophical Society’, Yorkshire Philosophical Society Annual Report (York, 1971)

A.D. Orange, Philosophers and provincial: the Yorkshire Philosophical Society from 1822 to 1844 (York, 1973)

David Rubinstein, The nature of the world, The Yorkshire Philosophical Society 1822-2000 (York, 2008)

Strange Science website:



© Rod Leonard