Biography of Thomas Phillips

A Cultivated and Well-Stored Mind' Thomas Phillips MRCS, Benefactor of St David's College Lampeter

Thomas Phillips the benefactor, donor of more than 20,000 books and manuscripts to the college library, is well-known within the University. Thomas Phillips the man far less so. He lived long – from 1760 until 1851 – and his life story reads like something out of C.S. Forester’s ‘Hornblower’ novels, or Bernard Cornwell’s ‘Sharpe’.

Thomas Phillips

Phillips was a London-Welshman, of a family from Llandegley in Radnorshire, but born within the ‘sound of Bow Bells’. It was, however, not in London but back home in Wales that he grew up, acquired a taste for hill-walking and exploration which never left him, and began, as an apprentice to a surgeon-apothecary at Hay-on-Wye, his long, colourful and distinguished medical career.  He was not, however, cut out for the quiet life of a country practitioner, and well before his twentieth birthday he was back in London, studying surgery under John Hunter, perhaps the greatest comparative anatomist of his time.  Adventure beckoning, in 1780 he became surgeon’s mate aboard HMS Danae, a 32-gun frigate, bound for Canada.  In the two years of his naval service, Phillips was to experience the rigours of a Canadian winter, on the ice-bound waters of the St Lawrence, and enlarge his surgical experience in the hospitals at Quebec and Montreal.

Returning home in 1782, he was well qualified to gain the Certificate of the Corporation of Surgeons (later M.R.C.S.) and, ready to make his fortune, he joined the Honourable East India Company, and sailed for India, bound for Calcutta.  We know little of his early service, which seems to have been with one of the native infantry regiments, and also with an artillery regiment, but after 1794, when he was gazetted as a full Surgeon, the story becomes clearer.  In 1796 he sailed for Australia, to inspect and report on the hospital provision at the Botany Bay penal colony, which had been established eight years earlier, and, his duty done, he took the opportunity to return to India via China and Penang.  Phillips was a widely-travelled man, and large parts of his bequest to Lampeter bear eloquent testimony to his enthusiasm and love for the Orient, and his desire to widen the horizons and increase the knowledge of students at the college, the vast majority of whom had never set foot outside of Wales.

In 1798, after more than fifteen years in India, Phillips sailed for home on leave, but became a victim of the war then being waged with republican France.  The Danish ship in which he was travelling was captured, and Phillips found himself a prisoner at Bordeaux, where he was subjected to two days’ interrogation.  Luck (as it always seemed to be) was with him, as “passengers and officers on sick leave not being considered prisoners-of-war” – and Phillips was suffering from a liver complaint at the time – he was released, and made it back to Radnorshire.  Here what may well have been a teenage romance was rekindled, and, at the age of 40, in 1800 he married Althea Edwards, the daughter of the rector of Cusop, under whose care he had been placed when a lad, and who ( a typical Phillips’ drama!) during that time on one occasion had rescued him from drowning.  It was to prove a long, happy, though childless, marriage, and in 1802 Althea accompanied him back to India, where he resumed his position as a surgeon in one of the artillery regiments.

In 1810 Phillips was promoted Superintending Surgeon.  He was now 50, and such a promotion could have signalled a lucrative semi-retirement.  But Phillips being Phillips, it was to mark the beginning of one of the most active and hazardous periods of his life.  Although nominally based at Meerut, some 70 km. north-east of Delhi, and one of the largest garrisons in northern India (it was here that the 1857 India Mutiny was to break out) Phillips was actually engaged in active service in the Java War, and present at its capture.  Three years later he was in Nepal, in the campaign against the Gurkhas under Major-General Robert “Rollicking Rollo” Gillespie.  At the woefully mismanaged siege of Kalunga, in the high Himalayas, Gillespie was shot from his horse, and died in Phillips’ arms.  As Gillespie was leading the attack at the time, this implies that Phillips was actually on the field, and that was, in fact, the case.  He and his assistant were up there with the fighting troops, tending the wounded as they fell, and one soldier was killed by a second shot whilst Phillips was actually treating him.  Personally fearless, Phillips was evidently using a variant of the mobile field-hospital and dressing-station which had been pioneered by Napoleon’s great senior surgeon, the Baron de Larry.

At Kalunga Phillips also once again revealed the compassion and consideration which characterised his entire career.  When the fort finally capitulated, the women who had aided the defence, many of whom were wounded, were left to their fate. Phillips gave up his own tent for them, and treated them.  Many years before, on board the Hind, he had done something similar, giving up his own berth for a sick sailor, and on another occasion, when the ship on which he was travelling in the Indian Ocean was becalmed, and the water supply failed, he had shared his own last pint with a dying sailor, administering it by teaspoonfuls.  Only heavy rain in the night, caught in the sails and thus funnelled to replenish the casks, had on that occasion saved Phillips and the rest of the crew.  Personal safety and comfort were things Phillips never prioritised.

In his last years with the EIC, at Mauritius and at Chunar (close to the holy city of Benares), Phillips, now a wealthy and a senior figure in the Indian medical establishment, began something he was to continue until his dying day, the supplying of libraries of books to facilitate the education of those who could not otherwise afford it.  It began with the Mess Rooms of the ordinary soldiery, but after his retirement in 1817 and return to London, it continued, and libraries and reading rooms at Hereford, Hay and Builth were among the recipients of his benefactions.  Like all EIC personnel, he had invested and engaged in trade throughout his 35 years of service.  He had made enough money to purchase (for £40,000) a sugar plantation on St Vincent in the West Indies, where, although an absentee landlord, was solicitous of the welfare of his slaves before manumission in 1834, and careful of the welfare of his employees thereafter.  At home he had numerous personal ‘pensioners’; he educated at his own cost some of his distant relatives, and it was not unusual for him to send them a gift of a book wrapped up in a £100 banknote!  On a larger scale, in 1847, when he was 87, he founded Llandovery College, endowing it with shares (then) worth nearly £13,000 and gave 7000 books to establish its library.  Here at Lampeter, his bequest of books has already been mentioned, but he also founded six scholarships, and at his death in 1851 left the college shares in the London & Westminster Bank worth (then) nearly £7,000.  Thomas Phillips was a very wealthy, but generous man.  A distant relative said of him “[He was] hospitable and liberal, benevolent and charitable, affable and kind.  He had strong powers of observation, a retentive memory, a cultivated and well-stocked mind, and [was] a fine conversationalist, sensibly alive to the sufferings of his fellow-creatures”.  At his death no less than 50,000 books were found in his London home, all earmarked for distribution to various libraries, including our own. 

This, then, was Thomas Phillips, one of the three ‘Thomases’ we number with pride and gratitude among our founders.  Long may his portrait, a copy of that by Mornewick at Llandovery College, grace the new Roderic Bowen Library and Archives, which now houses so many of his books and manuscripts. 

John Morgan-Guy