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Richard Phillips


  1. The annual necrology, for 1797-8, including, also, various articles of neglected biography publisher



The son of a Leicestershire farmer, Richard Phillips was a self-made man and lifelong vegetarian with unorthodox views, who worked as a schoolteacher, trader, publisher and author. Educated at his uncle's expense in London, he left his uncle's brewery in Soho in 1785 with the aim of sailing to South America, where he hoped to support the cause of rebellion against Spanish rule. Though he abandoned this scheme, he later dedicated his 'Golden Rules of Social Philosophy; or, A New System of Practical Ethics' (1826), which included an essay on his reasons for not eating meat, to the Venezuelan revolutionary Simón Bolívar.

Instead, he moved to Chester where he worked as a school usher from 1786 to 1788, and then, after a brief attempt to establish himself in London, to Leicester, where he ran an elementary school for young children. He also set up a philosophical and scientific society, whose activities included electrical experiments.

By summer 1790, Phillips had established a business in Leicester as a publisher, bookseller and stationer, where he sold patent medicines, pianofortes, sheet music and caricatures, as well as running a circulating library. In 1791, he founded the Leicester Herald to express his support for the French Revolution. In January 1793, Phillips was sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment for selling Thomas Paine’s 'Rights of Man' (1791-92). Throughout his confinement he continued to run the Leicester Herald with the help of Joseph Priestley, one of its main contributors.

After a fire, which he was suspected of having caused, destroyed his entire stock in November 1795, he used the insurance payment to relocate to London. In February 1769, he launched the Monthly Magazine with the aid of a substantial loan from the dissenting publisher, Joseph Johnson, which he soon repaid following the magazine’s success. Phillips wrote and edited the outspoken political content under the signature ‘Common Sense’. Other contributors included members of the Norwich Unitarian circle, such as Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Capel Lofft and Amelia Opie; as well as reform-minded authors, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge (as ‘Nehemiah Higginbottom’), Humphry Davy, Mary Hays, Charles Lamb, Mary Robinson, John Thelwall, and John Wolcot (aka 'Peter Pindar'). His business prospered to such a degree that he could afford to buy a family villa at Hampstead.

In 1799 he launched 'Public Characters', a series of memoirs of living people, and in 1800, the Annual Necrology, a series of extended obituaries of prominent people who died in 1797-98, including Catherine II of Russia and Mary Wollstonecraft. He also published Joseph Ritson’s 'Essay on Abstinence from Animal Food, as a Moral Duty' (1802), works by William Godwin and Mary Hays, a successful 'Juvenile Library' (1800-03), and many reference works, including dictionaries, school textbooks, and instructional manuals, some of which he pseudonymously wrote himself. He also wrote books on legal reform, travel and social philosophy.

In 1806 he moved the business to larger premises in Blackfriars, and in 1807 he served as Sheriff of London for which he was knighted. In this post he established a fund for debtors and instigated reforms in prison conditions for debtors and others.

Around 1809 Phillips began to run into financial difficulties. Despite his widely publicized humanitarian interests, his character was also brought into question by his allegedly coercive publishing practices, including non-payment to some of his authors. On 28 July 1810 a fire, widely believed to be another insurance fraud, destroyed large amounts of stock at his printer, T. Gillet, and by the end of the year he was declared bankrupt. In the early 1820s, he retired to Brighton and suffered further losses in the national financial crisis of 1826. In 1828, Phillips toured Britain to promote his ‘interrogative’ educational system (advocating the learning of facts and reciting them), which he had begun developing in 1798, and he continued to publish works which demonstrated his lasting commitment to education.

Phillips was buried in the churchyard of St Nicholas under his own epitaph, in which he extolled his achievements in writing and publishing "more original works than any of his contemporaries… [which] advocated civil liberty, general benevolence, ascendancy of justice, and the improvement of the human race". While some admired Phillips as a champion of liberty and reform (Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine had described him as "a dirty little jacobin"); others attacked him for his vanity, dishonesty, and exploitative working practices. While his main claim to fame may be for publishing cheap miscellaneous literature designed for mass instruction, some of his original writings, notably 'A Morning’s Walk from London to Kew' (1817), in which he ruminated on a range of political and social matters, are considered ahead of their time.

For a fuller account of this fascinating character, see the ONDB entry on Phillips by Pamela Clemit and Jenny McAuley, from which this précis has been adapted.