PHILIPS, George (1766-1847), of Sedgley, nr. Manchester, Lancs.; Weston House, nr. Chipping Norton, Warws. and 111 Mount Street, Grosvenor Square, Mdx.
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Family and Education
b. 24 Mar. 1766, 2nd but o. surv. s. of Thomas Philips of Sedgley and Mary, da. and h. of John Rider of Manchester. educ. Miss Heywood’s sch.; Blue Coat Hosp. Manchester; Dissenting schs. Pillington (Mr. Pope), Manchester (Mr. Ralph Harrison).1 m. 16 Oct. 1788, his cos. Sarah Ann, da. of Nathaniel Philips of Hollinghurst, Lancs., 1s.; 1s. illegit.2 suc. fa. 1811; cr. bt. 21 Feb. 1828. d. 3 Oct. 1847.
Lt.-col. commdt. 1st batt. 4 Manchester vol. inf. 1803.
At the beginning of his engagingly Shandyesque memoirs, Philips recorded that
the more I reflect on my own history, the more I am inclined to think its character is much to be attributed to the circumstances of my situation in early life. My father had become a follower of John Wesley, and lived almost exclusively with the sect of Methodists at the time that they were much reviled and persecuted. His society was of course very inferior to that which his station in life entitled him to frequent. I was left much to the care of the servants. I slept with one of the men-servants who, in our house, were of a very inferior order. From such society it is unnecessary to say that nothing good or useful could be learned.3
Both his grandfather, John Philips, and his father were prosperous partners in silk and cotton manufacturing firms in Manchester, but personal and business quarrels dominated his early life. He had a poor relationship with his father, who deprived him of a good education and regarded him as a ‘sort of evil genius of the family, destined to work its ruin’.4 However, he studied hard in private to improve himself, and to
keep my attention awake I drank green tea very copiously and used other means to prevent me from sleeping. The consequence was that I became so nervous that I trembled at the sight of strangers and was totally unfit for society. In this state I tried to go into some parties, to which I was invited, but I was so agitated on entering the room, that my whole frame was disordered and my teeth chattered in my mouth. After thus exposing myself, all that I could do was to quit the party, who of course would make me a town’s talk. I was some years in recovering from this state.5
His autobiography also dwelt on his early lack of religious belief and hinted at many youthful indiscretions. Of particular note was an adulterous affair which he conducted in a shameless manner, openly walking arm-in-arm with his mistress in the streets of Manchester. A child, ‘that she had after my connection with her’, was secured an appointment in the East India Company’s artillery corps. However, Philips, whose personality was much influenced by his religious upbringing, subsequently experienced a conversion to the kind of faith which he had found so lacking in his enforced chapel attendance as a boy, and he enjoyed a happy domestic life with his wife.6 He also succeeded in extending his social circle and, as well as mixing with Dissenters and merchants, he moved amongst the élite of Manchester’s legal, medical and literary society, and knew some of the country’s leading Whigs.7
Philips equally regretted the arrogance and vanity which had led him into many political difficulties during his life. His father’s branch of the family had been Whigs who sympathized with the revolutions in America and France. He recalled that
young and eager and inexperienced as I was, it was not surprising that I should be led astray by wild, enthusiastic hopes of an unattainable perfectibility of rulers and subjects when even the wisest, and ablest men like Fox and Sheridan partook of the general delusion.
He belonged to reform clubs in Manchester and London, and reckoned that his greatest folly was to have written a pamphlet, The Necessity for a Speedy and Effectual Reform in Parliament (1793), which advocated universal (including female) suffrage and annual parliaments, generally prefiguring the demands of the Chartists. In his memoirs he acknowledged its vigour of style, but added that ‘a more impracticable and utopian scheme never entered into any man’s head’.8 His ambition to enter the Commons resulted in minor intrigues at Steyning and Stafford, before, by his own account, he purchased a seat at Ilchester from Sir William Manners† for £5,000 in 1812. In 1818 he was elected for Steyning
for which I lent the then [12th] duke of Norfolk £50,000 at a time when there was such a demand for money, and so little in the market, that his agent Mr. [Edward] Blount* could not find any person willing to advance that sum to the duke on the security which he had to offer.
Confusingly, and probably wrongly, Philips recorded that in conformity with his agreement with Norfolk, ‘I represented under the duke’s interest first Ilchester, and afterwards Steyning’.9 He was a frequent speaker, and boasted that after having congratulated Sir Samuel Romilly on an anti-slavery speech, ‘he said, "I intended to have spoken to you of your speech in terms similar to those you have applied to mine". I consider this as the highest compliment that my speaking in Parliament was ever honoured with’.10 Although Philips always believed that the militia had acted wrongly in opening fire on an essentially peaceable crowd in St. Peter’s Fields, Manchester, 16 Aug., he condemned his own actions in support of the radicals and acknowledged that his manner in bringing the matter before the House, 24 Nov. 1819, had subjected him to ridicule and injured his parliamentary reputation.11
In 1820 Philips probably decided to resign his seat at Steyning in favour of his son, George Richard, and he turned instead to Wootton Bassett, where he owned houses and land. He was elected there on the interest of Lord Bolingbroke, despite an opposition, a scrutiny and a petition.12 As an entrepreneur and merchant capitalist, he was by then an extremely wealthy man; his friend Sydney Smith joked that he doubled his capital twice a week. He was a partner in a cotton factory at Salford with George Augustus Lee, who kept him informed on business affairs, but had many other diversified businesses.13 Unsurprisingly for the man dubbed the ‘Member for Manchester’, the main themes of his numerous parliamentary speeches (including those made on the presentation of mercantile petitions) continued to be the promotion of the manufacturing interest, especially in Lancashire, and, following David Ricardo*, the removal of restrictions in all branches of trade, notably by repealing the corn laws. He later wrote that the economist Robert Torrens* had addressed a pamphlet to him, ‘as the first person in Parliament who had placed those laws in a true light, and treated them on just and comprehensive principles’. He also became more vocal in support of religious and humanitarian concerns.14 Although the parliamentary reporters rarely distinguished unambiguously between him and his son, the very uniformity of these interventions suggests that they were by him rather than by George Richard. He was a teller for opposition on the civil list, 3 May, and voted against the Liverpool administration on this, 5, 8 May. On the 19th he stated one of his favourite arguments, that
it was impossible that any such protection, extended exclusively to one branch of society, should not injure not only itself, but the other branches also. He was of opinion that the agriculture, the commerce and the manufactures of the country had but one common interest. Whatever injured one must also be prejudicial to others.
Referring to the debate on agricultural distress, Sir James Mackintosh* recorded, 1 June 1820, that ‘poor George Philips made two vain attempts to be heard last night, but was twice obliged to sit down. What enhanced the mortification was that [Henry] Brougham and others were patiently heard afterwards’.15
Philips, an active committeeman, continued to divide regularly for economies and retrenchment in this and the following three sessions, as well as with the Whig opposition on almost all major political controversies and legal, social and foreign policy issues. He signed a requisition for a Manchester meeting on the Queen Caroline affair, 23 Nov. 1820, and in the following session voted steadily in support of the opposition campaign on her behalf.16 He condemned the proceedings at meetings in her favour in London, 2 Feb., and Cheshire, 9, 20 Feb., when he was a teller for the minority for inquiry into the conduct of the sheriff. Because he believed that the opinions of the country generally, and the manufacturing districts in particular, were not sufficiently represented in the House, he advocated parliamentary reform, 31 Jan., 12 Feb. He spoke for inquiry into Peterloo, 20 Feb., 15 May, and voted for this, 16 May, and repeal of the recent repressive legislation, 8 May.17 He divided for parliamentary reform, 9 May, alteration of the Scottish county representation, 10 May, and the bill to secure the independence of Parliament, 31 May. He attended the inaugural meeting of the Whig Club for Cheshire and its neighbouring counties, 9 Oct. 1821, declaring that its foundation showed that the ‘spirit of liberty is as much at variance with anarchy on the one hand, as with despotism on the other’.18 He was one of the founders of the Manchester Guardian later that year.19 Attending and speaking frequently in the Commons, he voiced the anti-protectionist views of the Manchester chamber of commerce and urged the abolition of the tax on raw silk, 20 Mar., and again supported the idea of free trade, 1 Apr. 1822. He defended the interests of the public creditor, 8 May, calling the possible return to a deflated paper currency ‘worse than inexpedient’. He voted for Ricardo’s motion for a 20s. duty on wheat, 9 May. Using his own specialist knowledge, he made a lengthy speech against excessive agricultural protection, 13 May, arguing that it was unjustified and created fluctuations and imbalances detrimental to the whole economy.20 At the meeting of the Cheshire Whig Club, 9 Oct. 1822, he condemned ministers’ illiberal foreign policy and advocated reducing the power of the crown and the nobility by increasing the influence of the numerous and virtuous middle class.21
Philips voted for parliamentary reform, 25 Apr. 1822, 20 Feb., 24 Apr., and for information on Inverness elections, 26 Mar. 1823. Arguing that domestic producers could very well compete in foreign markets, he spoke against regulation of the cloth trades, 21 Mar., and denied that Manchester cotton weavers, whose profits he claimed were higher than those of their employers, were injured by the introduction of machinery, 25 Apr. On 12 May he said that he ‘saw no hope of effectual relief but from reduced taxation’.22 In arguing for the unhurried passage of the bill to repeal the Spitalfields Act, 21 May, and in raising objections to the repeal of the combination laws, 27 May, he underlined his laissez faire principles. He spoke against the wool tax, 4 June, and on the silk manufacture bill, 9 June, declared that ‘ministers deserved the highest praise whenever they had the manliness to break through any of the absurd regulations which fettered our commerce’.23 He attacked the method of selecting the grand juries of Lancashire as prejudicial to the trials of the Manchester militia following Peterloo, 12 June 1823. While supporting efforts to reduce the duties on imported silks, 5, 9 Mar., he advocated their gradual diminution in order to minimize disruption to trade, but he gave an optimistic forecast of the improved prosperity of the domestic industry, 19, 22 Mar. 1824. He asked that restrictions be lifted on trade with Prussia and Ireland, 6, 13 Apr. He spoke against combinations, which he argued were the result of wages being too high rather than too low, 14 Apr., 3 June. He spoke for Catholic claims, 27 May, and divided in condemnation of the trial of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara, 11 June 1824.24
Philips stated that merchants would invest in Ireland as long as tranquillity was preserved, 21 Feb. 1825, but that this would not long continue unless the Catholic question was settled. As he had on 28 Feb. 1821, he voted for relief, 1 Mar., 21 Apr., 10 May, when he condemned the ‘hole and corner’ anti-Catholic petition from Manchester as a distortion of the true state of opinion there. He admitted that he had changed his mind on the Liverpool and Manchester railway bill, 2 Mar., and was now convinced that canal transportation was just as, if not more, efficient. He opposed the cotton mills regulation bill to reduce the extent of child labour, on the grounds that the scheme was impracticable, 16 May. He repeated that to reduce their hours would be to risk throwing children out of employment altogether, 31 May. He promised Brougham that he would try to get additional subscribers to the Cheshire Whig Club, 3 Oct., and when presiding at its meeting, 10 Oct., he praised ministers for the improvements in commercial policy and their recognition of the new South American countries, but advocated reform and Catholic emancipation.25 In November 1825 Mackintosh urged him to take a lead in promoting anti-slavery agitation in Manchester.26 He spoke for ending colonial slavery, 1 Mar., and voted in condemnation of the Jamaican slave trials, 2 Mar. 1826. He criticized the system of supplementing the wages of agricultural labourers from the poor rates, 14 Mar.27 He raised a query about the office of the treasurership of the navy on the grant of a salary to the president of the board of trade, 6 Apr., and voted against this, 10 Apr. He divided for altering the representation of Edinburgh, 13 Apr., and parliamentary reform, 27 Apr. He seconded and was a minority teller for a motion to consider the corn laws, 18 Apr., when he advocated a protecting duty of no more than 10s. or 12s., denied that agriculture deserved an advantage over manufacturing industry and argued that their repeal would lead to general prosperity. He welcomed the announcement that bonded corn would be released in order to relieve distress, 1 May, and told the House not to dismiss the opinions of well informed and moderate manufacturers, 2 May 1826.
Not least because of the unpopularity of his pro-Catholic votes, Philips again faced a challenge at the general election that summer, but he was returned for Wootton Bassett after a contest and survived a petition.28 He voted for Hume’s amendment to the address complaining of distress, 21 Nov. 1826, and remarked that the ‘great evil’ of protection lay in its depriving Britain’s competitors of the wherewithal to purchase her manufactures, 21 Feb. 1827. He argued that a figure of 50s. would give the landed interest sufficient protection and that ‘any system of duty was preferable to prohibition’, 9 May, when he voted for Whitmore’s amendment to make this, not 60s., the import price. He voted against increased protection for barley, 12 Mar., but said that he would vote for the second reading of the corn duties bill, 2 Apr., because it represented some improvement on the former laws. He urged the lifting of the East India Company’s trading monopoly, 15, 22 May, and spoke for encouraging emigration as a way of affording relief in the current severe circumstances, 21 May.29 He voted for Catholic relief, 6 Mar. 1827, 12 May 1828. He returned thanks for a toast to the manufacturing interest at a meeting of the Wiltshire Society, 16 May 1827.30 He advocated transferring the elective franchise of Penryn to Manchester and thought that the right of voting should be in those rated to the poor at £15 or £20, 28 May 1827, when he voted for the disfranchisement of Penryn. The new premier, Canning, had apparently expressed a wish that Philips should be offered some distinction, and although Lord Dudley thought he would accept nothing less than a peerage, Lord Goderich followed Sydney Smith’s suggestion and secured him the baronetcy which he was awarded early the following year.31
Philips presented petitions for repeal of the Test Acts, 21, 22 Feb., and voted for this, 26 Feb. 1828. He was named to the committee to prepare a bill to transfer Penryn’s seats to Manchester, 31 Jan., and made interventions in its favour, 14, 24, 28 Mar. He voted against extending East Retford’s franchise to the freeholders of Bassetlaw, 21 Mar., and spoke of the importance of giving the vote to manufacturing areas and the ‘tranquillizing effect of popular representation’, 19 May. He again advocated free trade in corn, 21 Apr., and expressed himself dissatisfied with Huskisson’s explanation of government policy, 22 Apr., as the new system would provide neither relief for the poor nor a good return for farmers; he voted that day to make the pivot price 60s. not 64s. He divided for Catholic relief, 12 May, but probably missed the last month of the session visiting his sick friend Richard Sharp*. As in the previous two years, he attended the Cheshire Whig Club meeting, 9 Oct. 1828, when he praised the repeal of the Test Acts.32 He spoke in favour of the suppression of anti-Catholic associations in Ireland, 13 Feb., but his speech criticizing the Manchester anti-Catholic petition, 2 Mar. 1829, was apparently misreported.33 He brought up and endorsed pro-Catholic petitions from the Dissenters of Manchester and Cheshire, 10, 16 Mar., and voted for emancipation, 6, 30 Mar. He opposed a return to the old system of regulating the silk trade to relieve weavers, as any such changes would only serve to worsen their problems, 26 Feb., 7, 10 Apr. He spoke and voted in favour of a fixed duty on corn imports, 19 May, and defended the use of child labour, 19 May, and the level of wages, 28 May. He voted to transfer East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 5 May, and to allow Daniel O’Connell to take his seat unimpeded, 18 May 1829.
Either Philips or his son was one of the 28 opposition Members who divided in the ministerial majority against Knatchbull’s amendment to the address, 4 Feb. 1830. He voted for a reduction of taxes, 15 Feb., and complained that no representative of the manufacturing interest had been appointed to the select committee on the renewal of the East India Company’s charter, 16 Feb. He again divided in favour of transferring East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 5 Mar., and he paired for reform, 28 May. He voted for the production of information on Portugal, 10 Mar., and joined in the revived opposition campaign in favour of retrenchment and reduced taxation that session. He observed that the manufactures of Lancashire were improving despite the existing distress, that ministers’ domestic policy was highly praiseworthy, though he favoured greater reductions, and that he would vote against a committee on the state of the nation, 18, 22 Mar. He paired for information on the affair at Terceira, 28 Apr., and Jewish emancipation, 17 May. He sided with opposition on the civil government of Canada, 25 May, and voted to abolish the death penalty for forgery, 7 June 1830. By the general election that year, Philips had sold to Lord Clarendon his interest at Wootton Bassett, where a Tory reaction had anyway made his return unlikely. One Manchester paper noted with regret his decision to retire, ‘his health being unequal to the arduous duties which have of late devolved on the Members of the House of Commons’.34
In an undated anecdote in his recollections, Philips wrote that
one day when [his son] George and Sharp and I were together, some circumstance occasioned our making a rude estimate of the cost of our seats in Parliament, which we calculated then to amount to at least £20,000. Sharp said, ‘I hope you will let Lord Grey [the incoming prime minister] and the leaders of the party know the fact’. ‘Why should I?’ I replied. ‘I want nothing from them, and will neither ask nor accept anything. Instead of blazoning the fact I would prefer concealing it, as it might be considered a culpable and wanton extravagance on my part rather than an act entitling me to credit’.
Whether or not illness or expense was a factor, he had come to realize that a reputation in Parliament could only be gained by harder work than was consistent with a tranquil domestic life, and so he quitted ‘without any reluctance, when my son, and several friends, Sydney Smith among the rest, thought I was doing what I should infallibly repent of. They were mistaken. My judgement on the subject never changed’. About this time he moved to Weston, a magnificent mansion which he had recently had built at vast expense in the Holland House style, and which was much admired by Lord John Russell*. On a visit to this retreat in October 1830, Smith wrote that the ‘evils of old age, gout and prolixity of narrative are invading the worthy and recent baronet’.35
Despite being a relative newcomer, Philips had immediately become active in Warwickshire politics. He seconded the candidacy of the reformer Francis Lawley* at both the nomination meeting, 3 Aug., and the county election, 6 Aug. 1830.36 He signed the requisition for a county meeting on reform, and at it, 4 Apr. 1831, he seconded the resolution in favour of the ministerial reform bill, which he said ‘would enable the people to have their rights fairly stated in the House of Commons’.37 On the retirement of Dugdale Stratford Dugdale at the general election of 1831, Philips was urgently solicited to stand as a compromise candidate in order to keep out the Tory Sir John Eardley Eardley Wilmot and to prevent a split among the reformers. He reluctantly agreed, but to his delight another candidate emerged on the morning of the nomination meeting, 4 May, though, as he informed Brougham the following day, ‘I had actually ended my speech in the county hall before they informed me that they would agree to support Sir Gray Skipwith’. He duly withdrew in Skipwith’s favour, being widely praised for his honourable conduct, and, apparently present at the election at Worcester, he left it to his son to propose Lawley on his behalf, 10 May.38 At another county meeting (the requisition for which he had again signed), 8 Nov. 1831, he moved the first resolution deploring the Lords’ rejection of the reform bill and condemned the magistrates’ decision to call out the military.39 Much to the surprise of his family, and despite his own declaration that ‘had he wished to have been returned to Parliament, could he not have been two years ago, and without a contest’, he allowed himself to be nominated for Warwickshire South at the general election of 1832, when he was returned as a Liberal by a margin of only 13 votes.40 As he recorded in his memoirs, at the dissolution in 1834 he was ‘most happy to retire into private life, still interesting myself about public transactions, and events, as I continue doing at present’. He died in October 1847, being succeeded by his only legitimate child, George Richard Philips.41
Ref Volumes: 1820-1832
Author: Stephen Farrell
Largely based on Warws. RO MI 247, microfilm of Sir George Philips's mems., written in two notebooks, 1845-6; typed transcript at CR 1381; location of original unknown. See also D. Brown, 'From "Cotton Lord" to Landed Aristocrat: the Rise of Sir George Philips', HR, lxix (1996), 82-82.
- 1. Philips mems. i. 6-9.
- 2. Ibid. ii. 19.
- 3. Ibid. i.2.
- 4. Ibid. i. 3-9, 56; F. J. Faraday, 'Selections of Corresp. of J.L. Philips', Mems and Procs of Manchester Lit. and Phil. Soc. (ser. 4), iii (1890), 13-14.
- 5. Philips mems. i. 15-16.
- 6. Ibid. i.3, 17-22, ii.13-76; Brown, 70-73.
- 7. Philips mems. i. 57, 74-102, 226-50, 278-98, 311-41.
- 8. Ibid. i. 112-18, 257-68, 363.
- 9. Ibid. ii. 107-11; Brown, 74-75.
- 10. Philips mems. i. 294.
- 11. Ibid. i.20-21, 261-8.
- 12. Ibid. ii. 111-12; Devizes Gazette, 30 Mar. 1820.
- 13. Smith Letters, i, 366; R. Owen, Life (1857), 120-1; Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Philips mss DR 198/1-10; Brown, 67-69.
- 14. Philips mems. i. 269-79, 307-9; HP Commons, 1790-1820, iv. 793-4; Brown, 75-78.
- 15. Add. 52444, f. 123; The Times, 1 June 1820.
- 16. Cowdroy's Manchester Gazette, 25 Nov. 1820.
- 17. The Times, 21 Feb. 1821.
- 18. Manchester Guardian, 13 Oct. 1821.
- 19. Brown, 74.