Sir Thomas Phillipps, Vello-maniac



This is an article that appeared in the weekly magazine named Abe Books. Abe Books started about 1960 and was put out of business by the computer in the year 2000. It was a magazine for the professional book sellers. A dear friend of mine who was not in the book business but suscribed to this magazine because he loved books. This man would give me his old copies and it was always a pleasure to read. About five years ago I asked a man to type out the story for me, which he did. This is the story of an insane book collector who started collecting books about the year 1800 and then for the next 60 years he amassed an unbelievable large collection of books. Luckily he was born into money and he spent the vast majority of it on books. A 190 years after his death they were still sorting out his collection. The man was insane and that is a trait that makes for one of the best book colection ever amassed. He is my role model.



By Joel Silver 


Vellum is derived from the Latin word “vitulinum” meaning "made from calf", leading to Old French “Vélin” ("calfskin"). It is mammal skin prepared for writing or printing on, to produce single pages, scrolls, codices or books. It is a near-synonym of the word parchment, but "vellum" tends to be the term used for finer-quality parchment.

Modern "paper vellum" (vegetable vellum) is a quite different synthetic material, used for a variety of purposes including plans, technical drawings, and blueprints.


In amassing my Collection of MSS. I commenced with purchasing everything that lay within my reach, to which I was instigated by reading various accounts of the destruction of valuable MSS. As in the beginning of any undertaking few persons are sufficiently masters of their subject as to judge unerringly what may be done & what not done with so regard to myself; I had not the ability to select, nor the resolution to let anything escape because it was of trifling value. My principal search has been for Historical & particularly unpublished MSS., whether good or bad, and more particularly those on Vellum. My chief desire for preserving Vellum MSS. arose from witnessing the unceasing destruction of them by Goldbeaters; My search for charters or deeds by their destruction in the shops of Glue-makers & Taylors.
As I advanced, the ardour of the pursuit increased until at last I became a perfect Vello-maniac (if I may coin a word) and I gave any price that was asked. Nor do I regret it, for my object was not only to secure Manuscripts for myself but also to raise the public estimation of them, so that their value might be more generally known, & consequently more MSS. preserved. For nothing tends to the preservation of anything so much as making it bear a high price.

So wrote Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792 – 1872), one of the greatest collectors that the world has ever seen. His words were written about 1828, in the introduction to the privately printed catalogue of his manuscript collection. He was not yet 40 years old, and he had a great deal of collecting ahead of him, but he had already purchased many thousands of manuscripts, some of which today are amoung the treasures of the world’s libraries.
Forming antiquarian interests at an early age, Phillipps spent his life, and continually overspent his fortune, in amassing the enormous collection of manuscripts and printed books that is still in the process of being dispersed, nearly 125 years after his death.
Even to summarize his collecting activities is no easy task. He bought up libraries and booksellers’ stocks, dealt extensively with merchants of wastepaper and vellum, and was obsessed by the written and printed word. He never threw away even the slightest scrap of paper with writing on it.
His life was a tangled web of difficult personal relationships, monumental purchases and broken commitments – a complex series of actions and transactions difficult to unravel and sometimes painful to observe. He was consumed by his collecting, and his personal and business dealings were hindered by his explosive temper, and by his intolerance of anything that threatened to interfere with his acquisition of books and manuscripts.
Sir Thomas Phillipps was born in Manchester, England, just over two centuries ago, on July 2, 1791. He was the illegitimate son of Thomas Phillipps, a successful calico manufacturer, and Hannah Walton, of whom relatively little is known.
Sir Thomas was raised by his father, and although letters occasionally passed between the Phillippses and Hannah Walton, she was not permitted to visit. She eventually married another man, and was left a small annuity by the elder Phillipps at his death in 1818.
The future collector manifested his instincts while in his teens. After being educated locally, Phillipps became a student at Rugby in 1807. He soon sent his father a handwritten list of his books, displaying pride at owning more than 100 volumes, mostly editions of popular literature. Another list, more substantial in its contents, was prepared two years later, but the real turning point came after Phillipps entered Oxford in 1811. There he met other students who shared his interest in books and antiquarian pursuits, and Phillipps quickly developed a passion for topography, genealogy and local history.
Phillipps was by no means an outstanding student, but he did have a genuine interest in historical research, which he expressed by working with original manuscript and printed records in various antiquarian projects. As was the case with all of his endeavors, his research plans were often more grandiose than practical, and they usually had to be scaled back considerably. He was also soon overspending his allowance, chiefly on antiquarian books, drawing rebukes from his father, who failed to heed his son’s pleas for additional funds.
Phillipps’ father also refused to consent, in 1817 to the younger Phillipps’ marriage to Henrietta Molyneux, whose father was unable to provide a substantial dowry. The marriage did indeed take place, but only after the death of Phillipps’ father in November 1818.
The elder Phillipps was well aware of his son’s spendthrift tendencies, and in his will, prepared just three months before his death, he made his son his principal heir, but granted only the income from his properties, and protected the outright ownership for future Phillipps generations through the legal device of entail. The younger Phillipps now had a substantial income, amounting to some 6,000 pounds a year, but the maintenance of a London house, as well as the large family home at Middle Hill, Worcestershire, used a significant portion of it.
Phillipps and Henrietta Molyneux were married in 1819. Through the influence of Henrietta’s father, Phillipps was made a baronet two years later, and he used the title with pride and fervor.
Although three daughters were born to this couple during the first four years of their marriage, the relationship was not a happy one. Phillipps could not curb his tendency to spend large amounts on manuscripts and books, requiring him to diminish his income to pay interest on loans, and also leading him to forego payments to tradesmen and other creditors. Phillipps was to be the target of creditors’ lawsuits throughout his life, and the Phillipps family would frequently resort to periods of extended residence on the Continent to cut down on expenses and to avoid creditors at home.
Through all of this, Phillipps continued his book and manuscript purchases, driving his wife (and her father) to distraction. Sir Thomas was frequently away, visiting  booksellers, attending auctions, carrying on research at libraries and record offices, and remaining far from Middle Hill to avoid his creditors.
Broken by circumstances of her family life, and the increasing emotional distance from her husband, Henrietta died in February 1832, at the age of 37.
Phillipps began, almost immediately, to search for a second wife who could augment his income substantially. After a decade of fruitless, and sometime ludicrous, approaches to the fathers of wealthy brides, Phillipps settled for a dowry of 3,000 pounds, which was to be used by Phillipps to provide a marriage settlement for his wife, and in 1842 he married Elizabeth Mansel.
Phillipps’ relationship with his second wife was better than with his first, and the new Lady Elizabeth Phillipps bore with the whims, eccentricities, temper, and unabated bibliomania of Sir Thomas until his death 30 years later. In his will, however, Elizabeth received only the sum of 100 pounds, “as a mark of his affection,” to supplement the income from her marriage settlement.
The mention of Elizabeth in Sir Thomas’ will seemed almost and afterthought. The focus of his will, as it had been the focus of his life, was the vast library. The first printed catalogue of his library was produced in 1819, when Phillipps was 27 years of age. Listing nearly 3,000 books and 50 manuscripts, the catalogue reflected the topographical and historical interests of the young collector.
During the ensuing decades, taking advantage of the tremendous opportunities for collectors in Europe in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, and the later favorable market conditions for buyers in England, Phillipps swept through auctions, negotiated for collections, and obtained long credit with booksellers.
The pace of his purchases fluctuated during the course of his life, but Phillipps was always an eager buyer. He was relentless at auction, often willing to pay any price to get what he wanted. His aggressiveness made for some unpopularity, and he would seldom yield, even when battling with the British Museum for a prize. His eagerness drove up market prices and severely strained his finances. Phillipps, however, never heeded the advice given to him in 1831 by the London bookselling firm, Payne & Foss: “We venture to say in confidence, that if you could only restrain your anxiety, and had the resolution to say no, you would be enabled to purchase all your MSS. at a much more reasonable price than at present. A few might possibly escape you but after all for the bulk, we are certain, that no other purchaser is looked to, but Sir Thomas Phillipps.”
His business relationships with booksellers were often strained. Although he frequently took years to pay, usually did pay eventually, and in a slow market, booksellers often preferred to move the stock, even at Phillipps’ difficult terms.
Typical of his troubled dealings with the trade were his transactions with the London bookseller, Thomas Thorpe. Phillipps had purchased manuscripts and books from Thorpe for years, paying very late, and contributing to Thorpe’s financial hardships. Their relationship took a turn for the worse (for Thorpe) in the mid-1830s. in exchange for Thorpe agreeing not to compete against him at the Richard Heber sale, held in February 1836, Phillipps agreed to make a substantial, but unspecified, subsequent purchase from Thorpe’s stock.
Later that year, after Thorpe had issued a large and unsuccessful catalogue of manuscripts, and was in financial distress, Phillipps agreed, after hard bargaining, to purchase Thorpe’s manuscripts at about half the catalogue prices. For 6,000 pounds (in negotiable bills guaranteed by Phillipps), Phillipps obtained more than 1,600 manuscripts, including many of the original records of Battle Abbey, founded by William the Conqueror, in addition to several early English literary manuscripts, among many others.
To raise needed funds quickly, Thorpe transferred the bills to other parties at a discount, but when Phillipps was unable to meet his obligations on the bills the following year, Thorpe was forced into bankruptcy. This episode, like many of Phillipps’ transactions, eventually resulted in a protracted lawsuit regarding payment, but through it all, Phillips owned and retained the manuscripts.

Phillipps’ Private Press

In addition to his collecting, Sir Thomas Phillipps was also very much interested in printing. Phillipps wished to publish historical and topographical works, and he resented paying the prices charged by commercial firms.
In 1822, Phillipps engaged Adolphus Brightley to move to Middle Hill to operate Phillipps’ private press. Brightley was the first of many printers who would work at Middle Hill, and who would also leave eventually, for various reasons. Brightley stayed for three years, coping with a demanding employer, poor living and working conditions, and few benefits. Phillipps was constantly behind on paying wages, ad he resented the possibility that his printer might have the slightest moment of idleness. Phillipps therefore kept up a constant stream of quickly prepared and illegible copy for Brightley to print, ensuring that Phillipps would get his money’s worth.
After Brightley’s departure, similar stories were repeated with subsequent printers, who found Phillipps’ low wages insufficient reward for trying to learn Latin, Greek and Anglo-Saxon. Phillipps’ printing projects, including numerous small pamphlets and a large catalogue of his manuscripts, were carried out by a variety of printers over the years, and the often scarce publications of the Middle Hill Press are sought by collectors today.
Phillipps began the printing of the catalogue of his manuscripts in 1824, with additional sheets being printed and added as his new accessions were received and listed. By the time of his death, the catalogue recorded 23,837 manuscripts, but this figure is deceiving. Often an entry referred to a group of manuscripts rather than an individual item, and there were a number of uncatalogued manuscripts left at Phillipps’ death. The actual number of manuscripts in the Phillipps collection has been put at much higher figures, especially when individual deeds and letters are counted.
As Phillipps’ fame as a collector grew, the number of requests by scholars to consult his manuscripts increased. Although potential visitors often found that it was difficult to finalize arrangements with Phillipps, he did try to be accommodating and he genuinely enjoyed showing his collection.
Visitors were often surprised by the lack of comfort at Middle Hill, for the house was not maintained for the convenience of guests or even its human occupants, but for the wellbeing of the collection. Books and manuscripts were everywhere, housed in small drop-front wooden boxes stacked on one another, so that they could be removed quickly in case of fire. The windows of the house were also never opened, presumably to protect against the intrusion of weather.
The books continued to encroach on living space, so that there were stacks of the boxes everywhere, and desired manuscripts could not always be found. There were also beech logs, smeared with paste, placed liberally around the rooms to attract worms that might otherwise lodge in the wooden bindings of the books. By looking for signs of infestation in the logs, such as sawdust trails, Phillipps could tell which logs had been successful in drawing the worms, so these logs could immediately be burned.
Phillipps was not only a collector of manuscripts. In addition to other objects, such as coins, he always bought printed books, and the purchases accelerated toward the end of his life. Although he never owned a Gutenberg Bible, having been outbid on two occasions in the 1840s, he did aquire more than 700 other 15th-century books, among the more than 50,000 volumes in his library at his death. As Phillipps wrote, half-seriously, to his longtime friend Robert Curzon, in 1869, “I am buying Printed Books because I wish to have on Copy of every book in the World!!!!!” While this dream was never realized, Phillipps’ library did include thousands of wonderful books in all fields, from early illustrated books to Americana, though his printed holdings were overshadowed by the riches of his manuscript collections.

Moving the Collection

Middle Hill was a large house, but it was rapidly becoming overrun by the library. It also served as a reminder of one of the most disappointing episodes of Phillipps’ life, the marriage in 1842 of his eldest daughter, Henrietta, to James Orchard Halliwell.
Halliwell, a young scholar and author, had corresponded with Phillipps in a cordial manner since 1839, regarding manuscripts and historical matters. After Halliwell began to visit Middle Hill in early 1842, and met Henrietta Phillipps, his relationship with her developed rapidly. When the prospect of marriage was discussed with Sir Thomas, he raised objections to Halliwell’s lack of financial prospects, especially since Phillipps himself was unable or unwilling to provide Henrietta with a dowry.
The couple married in spite of Phillipps’ objections. Although Henrietta attempted to reconcile with her father, the publication in 1845 of accusations against Halliwell regarding the theft of manuscripts from Trinity College, Cambridge, further alienated Phillipps. Halliwell was never criminally charged with the theft, but a modern reexamination of the documentary evidence by D.A. Winsatnley, Vice Master at Trinity College, concluded that “after giving him [Halliwell] the benefit of the doubt it is impossible not to believe that he stole the manuscripts from the college library.” Phillipps never spoke to Halliwell again, even as Halliwell’s reputation as a Shakspearean scholar grew, and Phillipps took what steps he could to reduce the property that might come to Halliwell by inheritance.
Phillipps grew more and more angry at the thought that Halliwell, a manuscript thief, could become his heir. Phillipps had no male child and Middle Hill and the other family lands were restricted by the entail imposed by Phillipps’ father. Under its terms, Halliwell would be an heir to the estates, if he would agree to assume the surname of Phillipps after Sir Thomas’ death. Phillipps determined to remove the library from Middle Hill, to insure that Halliwell would never own any part of it, and in 1863 and 1864, Phillipps moved his household and library to Thirlestaine House, a 60-room mansion in Cheltenham. Well over 100 large wagon-loads were required to move the library alone, with the trips resulting in numerous collapsed wheels and broken axles.
Despite the size of the new quarters, the library continued to crowd out the occupants. While Sir Thomas worked at arranging the collections, his wife Elizabeth wrote that she was “booked out of one wing and ratted out of the other.”
When Phillipps moved out of Middle Hill, he was determined that there would be little left of it for Halliwell to inherit. He cut as much timber from the estates as he could, and he let the house go to ruin rather than rent it out so that it could be kept up. Vandalism was frequent, there was a great deal of damage from water, and the house became a shambles.
Phillipps’ spite remained with him until the end, which came on February 6, 1872. In his will, Thirlestaine House and the library were given, with many burdensome conditions, and with extremely inadequate funds for upkeep, to the family of Phillipps’ youngest daughter, Katharine Fenwick.
The will also specified that no Roman Catholic, nor Henrietta nor James Halliwell, could ever inspect the books and manuscripts. The library was to remain in the order in which Sir Thomas had placed it, and no bookseller or stranger was to be allowed to rearrange it. Phillipps also specified that “no hot air flues or gas pipes shall ever be lighted or used in Thirlestaine House.” Other lands that Phillipps had purchased during his life were left not to his children, but to a distant cousin.
James Orchard Halliwell acted quickly to assume the surname of Phillipps and rescue what was left of Middle Hill. Katherine and John Fenwick were faced with the task of inventorying the vast collection and deciding what could be done with it under the terms of Phillipps’ will. No one yet knew all of the treasures that were to be found in the library, but with the death of Phillipps, the long process of dispersal of the largest private collection yet assembled could begin.


The task that faced the Fenwicks was of enormous proportions. The will was specific regarding the preservation of the library, but there was little money to maintain it. The naming of the Fenwicks as heirs by Phillipps put an end to years of outside speculation as to what the fate of the library would be. Phillipps had made overtures to many institutions, both in England and abroad, but with his difficult temper, no institution met his conditions or kept his friendship long enough.
The story of the dispersal of the library of Sir Thomas Phillipps is unparalleled in the history of book collecting. In the first few years after Phillipps’ death, the Fenwicks tried to keep the conditions imposed by Sir Thomas, but it was a heavy burden. The requests by scholars to use the collection increased, and the Fenwicks were forced to take the controversial and unpopular step of charging small fees for admission and use. Relief was forthcoming, however, with the reforms of British inheritance laws that took place in the early 1880s.
Under the new laws, the Fenwicks could petition the Court of Chancery for permission to sell personal property that they had received as heirlooms, despite any conditions attached. The Court ruled that the Fenwicks could arrange to sell under Court approval, “all or any of the Manuscripts and all or any of the books of which there are duplicates or two or more editions and all or any of the prints and coins of which there are duplicates.” With this ruling, the dispersal of the Phillipps collection began.
The story of the sale of the Phillipps collection is a long, detailed, and fascinating one. Until his death in 1938, the dispersal of the collection was handled by the Fenwicks’ youngest son, Thomas Fitzroy Fenwick, who applied excellent judgment to the task. He understood the dangers of flooding the market, and he also understood the benefits of both private and public sales.
Beginning with sales of duplicate books at Sotheby’s in 1886, Fenwick started the long process (still very much in process) of tapping the library’s riches. By 1914, Fenwick had sold a number of items privately, and had also sent to auction 18,876 lots of books and manuscripts, which realized more than £70,000. There were six additional sales at Sotheby’s before Fenwick’s death, as well as private sales to J.P. Morgan II, Sir Chester Beatty, and A.S.W. Rosenbach, among others.
With the death of Sir Thomas Fitzroy Fenwick in 1938, and the outbreak of the Second World War, the dispersal of the library entered a new phase. The library was crated up, and Thirlestaine House was requisitioned by the Ministry of Aircraft Production. As the war neared its close, explorations began by the library’s trustees to sell the collection en bloc.
Lionel and Philip Robinson, acting for their London bookselling firm, William H. Robinson Limited, negotiated a purchase of the library in 1945 at the then seemingly high price of 100,000 pounds. In retrospect it was one of the greatest bargains in book history, but this was not obvious to all at the time. The library was impossible to inspect, and much had to be taken on faith. The money was difficult to raise, and even Harvard University rejected the Robinson’s offer of the collection at 110,000 pounds, in the event they were able to purchase it.
The faith of the Robinson’s was more than justified. A quick sale at Sotheby’s in 1946 of only 34 of the best manuscripts in the collection raised more than 50,000 pounds. Other public and private sale followed, and the Robinsons were soon able to buy out the bankers with whom they had purchased the collection in partnership.
Some of the riches of the Phillipps collection were revealed in a series of sumptuous catalogues issued by the Robinsons. Other high spots were sold to institutions and private collectors throughout the world. The Robinsons decided to retire from business in 1956, retaining the ownership of the collection. A new series of sales began at Sotheby’s in 1965, and in 20 sessions, through 1977, thousands more of the books and manuscripts in the Phillipps collection were revealed to the world.
This still did not mark the end. Following the sales at Sotheby’s, the still enormous residue of the collection was sold for one million pounds to H.P. Kraus of New York. As Kraus wrote in his autobiography, A Rare Book Saga:
“As I read the gallery-proofs of this book in November 1977, I can add, with pride, that we have just returned from London, where I succeeded in acquiring from the trust created by Lionel and Philip Robinson all the remaining Phillipps manuscripts. It is hard to believe that, after many auctions, about 2,000 volumes of manuscripts and over 13,000 letters and documents remain. It will take time to catalogue this huge mass of material, much of it unknown to scholars, and I am confident that many discoveries will reward my venture.”
They have. Important Phillipps manuscripts continue to appear in Kraus’ catalogues, and the end is nowhere in sight. It is sobering to realize how much of our cultural heritage was acquired and preserved by Sir Thomas Phillips, and how much survived the sifting of the generations who are still dispersing the collection.

Further Reading

As befits a collector who operated on a grand scale as Sir Thomas Phillipps, there has been a great deal written about the Baronet and his collections. The indispensable source is A.N.L. Munby’s series of five Phillipps Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951 – 1960; reissued in two volumes in 1971 by Sotheby Parke-Bernet). Munby, who was commissioned to write the Phillipps saga by the Robinson brothers, wove a fascinating narrative filled with bibliographical and biographical details. Munby’s separate volumes deal with different aspects of Phillipps’ life and collections, and contain a mass of information that is of interest to anyone who enjoys studying books and their histories.
For a reader in search of a less technical and more connected narrative, Nicolas Barker has abridged and rearranged Munby’s work in Portrait of An Obsession: The Life of Sir Thomas Phillipps. The world’s greatest book collector… (London: Constable, and New York: Putnam’s, 1967). Barker’s abridgment retains Munby’s language and with it the flavor and scholarship of the original. It is immensely readable.
The arduous physical task of arranging for the move of the Phillipps collection is wonderfully described by Philip Robinson in “Recollections of Moving a Library or, How the Phillipps Collection was brought to London,” in The Book Collector (Vol. 35, No. 4, Winter 1986, pp. 431-442). A.S.W. Rosenbach’s adventures in dealing with Thomas Fitzroy Fenwick are related by Leslie A. Morris in Rosenbach Abroad: In pursuit of books in private collections (Philadelphia: Rosenbach Museum & Library, 1988).
In addition to these descriptive accounts, there are also Sir Thomas Phillipps’ own Middle Hill Press publications, including his catalogue of manuscripts, the Catalogus Librorum Manuscriptorum, the massive folio volume printed over many years and reprinted by The Holland Press in 1968. Also well worth reading are the many catalogues from Sotheby’s, the Robinsons, H.P. Kraus, and countless other firms that have handled the thousands of manuscripts and printed books gathered by Sir Thomas Phillipps. 

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