Anne Phillips is a mystery. What we know of her comes second hand, deduced from snippets written to her, or about her. Nuggets of information, rolled smooth by the tide of history, and redeposited in the archives of her more famous brother and uncle. But sometimes this is enough. What we do know is this: it was Anne Phillips’ work that finally resolved the origins of Britain’s Malvern Hills, proving Sir Roderick Murchison wrong in the process.
Anne Phillips (1803-1862) was the niece and ward of William Smith, the man who published the first geological map of Britain. But Anne’s story is really told through the marginalia of the life of her brother John Phillips. John is less well-known than his uncle, but was arguably an even more important figure, rising from a position as his uncle’s orphaned apprentice to become a professor at Oxford. For most of his career, Anne was his housekeeper, confidant and constant companion but it wasn’t until geologist and science writer Nina Morgan set to work transcribing John Phillips’ letters to his sister, and published a popular account highlighting their correspondence, that the true extent of Anne’s contribution to her brother’s work came to light.
Her importance is absolutely clear, and John is unstinting in his adoration for Anne:
“Whatever I possess is as much yours as mine, for without you I should not have won it.”–John Phillips, 1838 (quoted in Morgan 2007)
Anne’s most notable geological achievement was proving the husband of Charlotte Murchison, Sir Roderick Impey Murchison, wrong about the origins of the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire. Murchison, a man rarely short of opinions that later turned out to be erroneous, argued that the igneous rocks of the main Malvern ridge were younger than the Silurian sediments thereabouts, having formed and then forced their way up and through those sediments at a later date. Sir Roderick, with significant input from Charlotte–see here, had published the then definitive volume on that geological period, The Silurian System, and he was a force to be reckoned with — but John had other ideas. John thought the igneous rock of the Malverns had formed first, and that the Silurian sediments were lain down by an ancient sea that lapped against Malvern’s igneous shores.
It took Anne to prove that this was in fact the case. In 1842, with John working in the area, Anne moved to Worcestershire for a few months. Carrying out her own reconnaissance, she located an outcrop in Lower Dingle Quarry, Malvern, that yielded a conglomerate containing fragments of the igneous hills at the base of the Silurian sediments. This proved the Malvern Ridge had formed first (in the Precambrian, we now know), and had time to be the weathered and deposited beneath the Silurian seas. The rock that wronged Roderick became known as Miss Phillips’ Conglomerate, and quickly became a must-have item on every self-respecting geological collectors tick list.
Trying to find the famous lithology today is tricky, as John Payne of the Herefordshire & Worcestershire Earth Heritage Trust make’s clear [pdf]. I recently visited The Dingle, briefly, on my way to a wedding in Worcester, hoping to find an outcrop. My appreciation for Anne’s geological detective skills was rubber-stamped: I could only locate igneous rocks and a bus stop.
It is thought that Anne did a good deal more geological research, but little investigation has been carried out beyond Nina Morgan’s re-telling of the Miss Phillips’ conglomerate story. Nina’s work has hinted that Anne was more than just an assistant: William Smith wrote to Anne about “Your Little Book” — the book in question was the popular Guide to Geology. The official author of the Guide was John Phillips, but William Smith’s comments imply Anne may have been more involved than the authorship suggests. It’s also possible that Anne may have been one of the early members of the Royal Institution: The RI’s Curator of Collections Charlotte New tells us that John gave three of the RI’s evening discourses (March 22, 1844; March 11, 1853; March 13, 1857), including one entitled “On the Malvern Hills,” and that there is familiar and friendly correspondence between the two men. While there is no other mention of Anne in the associated RI records, bar a letter from John to Faraday [‘My sister joins in kindest compliments to Mrs Faraday with your faithful friend, John Philips’ (IEE collection – MS SC 2 – dated 5th Dec 1850)], one of the few known pictures of her (the portrait used here) was discovered in the Michael Faraday folio suggesting a personal or professional link between them [NB the description in the image library is incorrect – this *is* our Anne Phillips, wife of no one]. Clearly more work on Anne Phillips is needed, and you can help!
This September, the first Yorkshire Fossil Festival is taking place in and around Scarborough’s wonderful Rotunda Museum. Appropriately, the Rotunda was designed by William Smith, with John Phillips contributing a ceiling mural of the coastal geology from the Humber to the Tees. We can only guess at Anne’s involvement in this project, but a celebration of geology in Yorkshire provides a fine opportunity to appraise Anne’s life, as she lived much of it in the county, in York, and is buried in the city alongside her brother.
Furthermore, the William Smith Archive team will be at the Yorkshire Fossil Festival. They are looking for volunteers to help them transcribe the documents, and at the festival they will be focussing on the Yorkshire years. You can also do a bit of digital rummaging, as the Oxford University Museum of Natural History has recently finished digitizing the William Smith Archive. A letter from uncle to niece is even quoted on the front page.
Their next digitization project will be to get John Phillips’ own archive – vastly larger than Smith’s – online too. Nina Morgan has transcribed and is working on an interpretation of the more than 230 letters John wrote to Anne, but Anne’s letters to John have not been found. In fact, not many letters written by Anne have so far been uncovered. If they ever are, maybe then we’ll begin to get a fuller picture of Anne, her life in Yorkshire, and the pioneering work she carried out in the early years of British geology.
Edited and additional content by Tori, with huge thanks to Nina Morgan and Charlotte New at the Royal Institution for all of their help.
The Yorkshire Fossil Festival (#YorksFossilFest) will run from September 12th to 14th at the Rotunda Museum, Scarborough. For more details, visit: http://www.yorkshirefossilfestival.org/
This article relied heavily on Nina Morgan’s two published pieces on Anne Phillips, which are well worth a read:
Morgan, N. 2007. Anne Phillips: John Phillip’s geological companion. In Burek, C.V. & Higgs , B. (eds) The Role of Women in the History of Geology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 281, 265-275. [pdf ££]
Morgan, N. 2006. Anne Phillips and the Mystery of the Malverns. Geoscientist 16 (7): 6-15. [not online, but if you email Nina Morgan at email@example.com she ought to be able to sort you out!]
And you can read John Payne’s paper on finding Miss Phillips’ Conglomerate here: [pdf ]