"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, September 20, 2021

Thomas Phillipps, World's Greatest Bibliomaniac

Anyone who agrees with the old saying that "you can't have too much of a good thing" has never heard of Thomas Phillipps.  This gentleman took what is normally a highly admirable pastime--collecting books--and turned it into a nightmare for everyone unfortunate enough to be around him.

I'm not sure he enjoyed it much, either.

Phillipps was born on July 2, 1792.  He was the illegitimate only child between Thomas Phillipps, a well-to-do merchant, and a woman named Hannah Walton.  Although Walton lived until 1851, Thomas Jr. was raised exclusively by his father, and he had little, if any, contact with his mother.

Young Thomas was given a good education--his father was determined that despite the accident of his birth, he should become a proper "gentleman"--and the boy demonstrated his passion for books from an early age.  By the time he went to Oxford, he was a devoted antiquarian, focusing on his own private studies rather than those imposed upon him by the college.  His father--an ominous sign for the future--was already complaining about the remarkable sums his son was spending on books.  By the time Thomas Sr. died in 1818, he had become so concerned about his progeny's unbridled bibliospending that he left his estate in trust.  Thomas Jr. was able to access only the income--which was, however, a quite generous £6000 a year.

In 1819, Phillipps married Henrietta Molyneux, a charming and pretty girl of good family, but relatively small dowry.  It appears to have been a love match, one that produced three daughters and, for some years at least, was a happy and stable union.  During the first decade of his marriage, Thomas' intellectual pursuits were successful and pleasantly normal.  He was made a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1821 became a baronet.  He threw himself into buying books with increasing exuberance.  He also paid to have transcripts made of various historical documents, which he often published with his own small private printing press.  He was equally fanatical about hoarding his own personal history.  He never threw out any scrap of paper.  Household bills, drafts and copies of all his letters, receipts, memos, you name it.  Every bit of documentation of his private life, no matter how trivial, was obsessively saved.  Phillipps had quite possibly the best-documented life in history.

Unfortunately, these pastimes began to control him, rather than the other way around.  His increasingly heedless spending, coupled with his refusal to take any sort of financial advice, soon landed him hopelessly in debt.  Beginning in 1822, he was obligated every few years to spend long periods living on the Continent to avoid his creditors.  This did nothing to dissuade him.  He traveled throughout Europe scooping up every book and old manuscript he could lay his hands on.  No volume was safe from him.  A number of booksellers who were foolish enough to lend Phillipps long lines of credit were, thanks to this generosity, eventually forced into bankruptcy.

It was all too much for Henrietta Phillipps.  Worn out by years of living with a fanatic, she consoled herself by becoming a drug addict, dying at the age of only 37 in 1832.  Thomas almost immediately set out to find her replacement.  Unlike his first marriage, this time he was determined to marry for wealth.  "I am," he announced grandly, "for sale at  £50,000."  All of his wife's money would, of course, be converted into books.  

No one--except apparently Phillipps--was surprised that there was not a flock of ladies eager to close this sale.  It took him ten years before he was able to find a woman rich enough and brave enough to take him on.  (One prospective father-in-law accused him of behaving like a "Smithfield cattle dealer.")  In 1842, he wed Elizabeth Mansel, the daughter of a wealthy clergyman.  Fortunately, she proved to be an amiable, forgiving, and self-sacrificing sort.  Any woman married to Thomas Phillipps would have to be, if she wished to keep some measure of sanity.

One month after his remarriage, another wedding took place that was to have a great effect on Phillipps' life.  His eldest daughter, Henrietta, eloped with James Orchard Halliwell.  Halliwell was a talented scholar whom Phillipps had hired to help organize his by now massive collection of manuscripts.  Although Phillipps had found the young man useful, he disapproved of him personally--particularly when it came out that Halliwell had stolen manuscripts from Cambridge libraries.  Besides, Halliwell didn't have a penny, and Phillipps had been determined that all his daughters should marry rich men.  He was not a man accustomed to being thwarted, and being forced to accept this brilliant but unscrupulous and impecunious scamp as a son-in-law sent him into a rage which never quite abated.  From then on, he considered Halliwell--and Henrietta--as his greatest foes.

By this time, Phillipps' estate of Middle Hill had become little more than a massive storage closet.  His books and manuscripts were kept in large trunks, which soon filled virtually every corner of the mansion.  He owned so many that they were virtually impossible for him to catalog.  (Although he continually press-ganged his wife and daughters into assisting him with this task.)  He himself completely lost track of what he owned, or where anything was kept, which sent visiting scholars practically into fits of frustration.  He was able to keep himself financially afloat only through a rigid miserliness that he also imposed upon his family.  He refused to spend money on anything except books, and if his wife and daughters suffered as a result, well, too bad.

Phillipps simply could not stop buying.  He was, in his own word, a "Vellomaniac," buying up huge quantities of historical manuscripts whenever he could.  Many of them were highly valuable, many of them were utter rubbish.  It seemed to matter little to him which they were.

In his later years, he became increasingly absorbed in the problem of what should become of his fabulous collection of historic printed treasures after his death.  Although Middle Hill was entailed on his daughter Henrietta, he was determined that his hated son-in-law should not get a single one of his precious manuscripts.  It was for this reason that in 1867 he bought Thirlestaine House, in Cheltenham.  This mansion was dilapidated and uncomfortable, but all Phillipps cared about was that it was large enough to house his collection.  It took two years before all his books and manuscripts could be transported to his new home.  In the meantime, simply out of spite, he deliberately let Middle Hill go to ruin.  The estate's beautiful trees were cut down and sold for firewood.  The land was allowed to become a dank wilderness.  The house itself was left to rot.  If he could not keep the Halliwells from inheriting the house, he could see to it that it was an inheritance not much worth having.

Thirlestaine House

Phillipps was content with his new home--drafty and vermin-ridden though it was--but his wife, she complained, was left "booked out of one wing and ratted out of the other." Most of the rooms were so crammed with trunks of books and papers that they were unusable for any other purposes.  The hallways were so jammed with his acquisitions that only one person at a time could snake their way through the corridors.  The bedrooms contained little else than a bed and books.

Elizabeth’s husband scarcely noticed her unhappiness.  All he cared about were his books.  "I wish to have one copy of every book in the world!!!!!" he once wrote, and if he came short of this goal, it certainly was not for lack of trying.  He continued in his same old pattern of running up debts and corresponding with scholars across Europe until his death on February 6, 1872.

Elizabeth Phillipps was left only £100 in her husband's will.  Most of his lands were settled on various tenants, as well as a grandson.  Thirlestaine House went to his youngest daughter Katherine, with instructions that not one book or a single piece of parchment was to be moved from the home.  The Halliwells--and all their descendants--were barred from even entering the place.  It was not until 1885 that Katherine's family was able to get legal approval to begin dispersing Phillipps' life's work.

Selling such a vast collection was a job that took years to complete.  The last of the estimated 60,000 manuscripts acquired by this greatest of literary hoarders was not sold until 1977.

As for Phillipps' bête noire, James Halliwell ironically came out quite well from his connection to the old bibliomaniac.  After his father-in-law's death, Halliwell fixed up Middle Hill and found a buyer.  The money from the sale made him a rich man for the rest of his life.  He became a leading Shakespeare scholar.  He is given much of the credit for launching modern-day Shakespeare idolatry, and his biography of the Bard is still considered one of the best books on the now-legendary dramatist.  He himself became a noted bibliophile (his collection was founded on items he had secretly stolen from Phillipps.)  Halliwell lived long enough to overcome his tawdry early reputation, becoming a respected, even revered figure in literary circles.  As a victory lap of sorts, he eventually took on the grand name, "J.O. Halliwell-Phillipps."

How old Thomas' ghost must have hated that.

1 comment:

  1. What a waste of a book-collector. Phillipps of course didn't love books, though he probably thought he did. He was just a hoarder; he may as well have collected the rats that infested his houses. Very sad.


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