PHILIPS, George (1766-1847), of Sedgley, nr. Manchester, Lancs. and Weston House, nr. Chipping Norton, Warws.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1812 - 1818
1818 - 1820
1820 - 1830

Family and Education

b. 24 Mar. 1766, o.s. of Thomas Philips of Sedgley by Mary, da. and h. of John Rider of Manchester. m. 16 Oct. 1788, his cos. Sarah Ann, da. of Nathaniel Philips of Hollinghurst, Lancs., 1s. suc. fa. 1811. cr. Bt. 21 Feb. 1828.

Offices Held

Lt.-col. commdt. 1 batt. 4 Manchester vol. inf. 1803.


‘At Ilchester’, wrote Sir William Manners* to Sir Gilbert Heathcote on 9 Oct. 1812, ‘I brought in last Tuesday without opposition ... Mr Philips of Manchester, a man of great property there in trade. Manchester and its 100,000 inhabitants will thus have a representative by the means of Ilchester.’1 According to his friend Sydney Smith, who dubbed him ‘Philosopher Philips’, ‘Cotton King’ and ‘a superior article’, he meant to come into the Parliament of 1806. He associated with the intellectual Whigs who frequented the Lake District, such as Richard Sharp* and William Smith*, and was apparently, like the latter, a dissenter.2 In 1811 he inherited the Sedgley estate purchased by his father in 1785. He was a sleeping partner in the family cotton-spinning business and made known to his Whig friends his wish to be in the next Parliament. By one account, he was in the lobby of the House of Commons with William Smith when Spencer Perceval was shot, and caught him as he fell, 11 May 1812.3 He paid £6,000 or £7,000 for his seat at the ensuing election. In 1818 he and his son were brought in for Steyning by the Duke of Norfolk. Thomas Creevey* reproached the duke: ‘Mr Philips’s claims upon you are founded upon a large loan of money that he advanced to you two or three years ago’.4

Philips, who joined Brooks’s Club on 14 Dec. 1812, voted with opposition consistently and regularly. In 1818 he signed the requisition to Tierney to lead them. Whenever the interests of the cotton manufacturers were concerned he was ready to speak: but seldom on other matters. His invariable support of Catholic relief was silent, as was his opposition to the resumption of war in 1815. His speeches may largely be classed in four groups: first, against measures increasing manufacturers’ costs. He opposed the import duty on American cotton, 31 Mar., 10 May 1813. He fought in 1815 against the resolutions of the committee on the Corn Laws and the ensuing bill, insisting that the real object was to raise the price of corn. Having ‘shown both by reasoning and by reference to facts, that the price of provisions must ultimately and on the average regulate that of labour’, he argued that higher food prices would therefore set the manufacturers at a disadvantage with foreign competitors. He complained that industry was more oppressed with taxes than was agriculture and quoted statistics to prove that the prosperity of the country depended on manufactures rather than farming. Nevertheless he was moderate enough to accept temporary protection for British corn. In 1817 he was still lamenting that the pressure of taxation handicapped the British manufacturer. On 18 June 1819 he opposed the duty on imported wool.

Secondly, Philips sought to free industry from restrictions. He opposed the prolongation of the East India Company’s monopoly, 31 May, 1 July 1813, arguing the advantages of opening India so that cotton might be prepared there for manufacture in England. (He also favoured the opening of India to Christian missionaries, 12 July.) Stating that the country received about half a million sterling from the Company for its China trade monopoly, he remarked that ‘he, and several friends of his, would be very happy to give twice that sum for such an advantage’ (1 June 1813). In attacking the apprentice laws, 27 Apr. 1814, he declared his opposition to legislative interference:

The persons most competent to form regulations with respect to trade were the master manufacturers, whose interest it was to have goods of the best fabric; and no legislative enactment could ever effect so much in producing that result, as the merely leaving things to their own course and operation.

No country, he thought, could profit as much as Britain by general free trade. Protection for weak industries merely established manufactures disadvantageous to the country.

Thirdly, in consequence, Philips objected to the introduction of new restrictions. Peel’s attempts to regulate the cotton factories greatly provoked him and he produced figures to show the healthiness of spinning mills compared with other factories—in a contemporary satire he was alleged to have ‘stated that his manufactory was more healthy in proportion to the number of its inhabitants than any ordinary residences’.5 He had given his attention to the industry for 25 years, he said on 17 Apr. 1818, ‘and he felt satisfied that parliamentary interference in such a business would be productive only of mischief’. Ten days later he strongly defended the existing state of affairs: ‘If cotton mills were such as they were represented, he should at once say, "sweep them away altogether" '. But the work was light and the hours and wages uniform: 'The Speaker himself, sitting in that chair, went through more labour in a single session calculated to impair his health, than the people of a well regulated factory endured for the whole year'. He suggested that the demand from restrictions came from those who employed apprentice labour, were therefore bound by regulations and jealous of those employing free labour. 'In a country like this it was dangerous to violate the most perfect freedom of management between wages and labour': interference produced combinations among workmen. Nor could the regulations introduced in cotton spinning be refused to other industries: it was impossible to draw a line. Why should they, he inquired when regulations spread to ribbon and silk weaving, 'introduce a different principle in regard to the wages or price of labour than they adopted in regard to any other matter of sale?'. He disliked the idea of a minimum wage: workers should not thick that 'their wages could be raised except by the natural course of demand for labour'.

Fourthly, Philips crriticized the government's attitude to the distress prevailing, particularly in Lancashire: the widespread privation he blamed on taxation and the Corn Act. He was an opponent of the suspension of habeas corpus: the discontent he ascribed entirely to the work of spies and informers. On 5 feb. 1818 he complained that spies had been sent amoung the unemployed of Lancashire 'to exasperate their discontents, and to encourage them in their delusions' that a reform of Parliament would solve their problems. On 5 Mar. 1818 (apparently after rehearsing with Tierney) he moved unsuccessfully for an inquiry into the conduct of spies and informers. Some of his evidence proved faulty.6 He himself had voted for parliamentary reform, 11 Feb. and 20 May 1817, and went on to vote for burgh reform, 1 Apr., 6 May 1819. After Peterloo he wrote a letter to Richard Sharp*, 21 Aug. 1819, in which he regretted that the magistrates had called in the military on the day of the meeting, but stated his belief that the episode would probably avert a greater disaster.7 On 24 Nov. he repeated his criticisms of the magistrates in the debate on the address, and in opposing the seditious ,eetings bill, 2 Dec., complained of the exculsion of the manufacturers from the Lancashire magistracy. He voted against repressive measures to the end of the session.

Philips bore out Sir William Manner's forecast that he would be spokesman for Manchester, though taking second place as such to the county Member, Lord Stanley. He was capable of speaking 'astonishingly well' (on the most practical mode of securing French abolition of the slave trade, 27 June 1814),8 argued cogently and showed his knowledge of economic theory, without committing himself to any one economist. Creevey styled him 'the patriotic and fashionable savant from Manchester'.9 He died 3 Oct. 1847.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: M. H. Port


  • 1. Lincs. AO, Ancaster mss, 3 Anc/494.
  • 2. Sydney Smith Letters ed. N. C. Smith, i. 118, 164, 210, 259, 283; W. Nicholls, Prestwich, 46.
  • 3. Parl. Deb. xxxvii. 561; Add. 51574, Abercromby to Holland, 3 Sept. 1811; P. H. Fitzgerald, Life of Geo. IV, ii. 90.
  • 4. Creevey Pprs. ed. Maxwell, i. 274; cf. Creevey’s Life and Times, 112-13.
  • 5. New Whig Guide (1819), 57n.
  • 6. Brougham mss 12060; Sydney Smith Letters, i. 287, 290; Pellow, Sidmouth, iii. 191.
  • 7. Add. 48223, f. 127; 51561, Brougham to Holland, Mon.; 51593, Philips to Sharp, 21 Aug. 1819.
  • 8. Add. 52172, Lady Holland to Allen [28 June 1814].
  • 9. Creevey Pprs. ii. 64.