Project Canterbury

Four Biographical Sketches
Bishop Ollivant, Bishop Thirlwall, Rev. Griffith Jones, and Sir Thomas Phillips, Q.C. with A Chapter on 'The Church of Wales'.

By John Morgan.

London: Elliot Stock, 1892.


SIR THOMAS PHILLIPS, Q.C., of Llanelen, Monmouthshire, whose friendship it was my privilege for many years to enjoy, was a native of Llanelly, Breconshire. His parents were highly esteemed for their intelligence, industry, and piety. When their son Thomas was but a youth they removed to the vicinity of Trosnant, near Pontypool, noted within my memory for its antique-looking cottages, with their quaint checkered windows .and low beetling roofs, its narrow courts, and nondescript inhabitants of various nationalities. A remarkable neighbourhood altogether was that of Trosnant. Close by stood the Wire Mills, erected by Major Hanbury, the friend and confidant of the great Duke of Marlborough. Here also lived Dr. Read and his good wife Mally,* [* By some unaccountable process the sweet name of Mary is transmuted in English into Molly, and in Welsh into Mally. But both seem to be in a fair way of being supplanted by the still more unaccountable substitute of Polly.] whose praise may be still found in [161/162] the Methodist Calendar for their fervent piety and great hospitality to the itinerant evangelist, and on whom the Rev. William Williams, of Pantycelyn, composed one of his most touching elegies. David Lloyd Isaac, the antiquarian, and author of 'Siluriana,' ministered here for many years to a Welsh Baptist congregation, but having conformed to the Church, he died at a vicarage in Carmarthenshire, to which he had been preferred by Bishop Thirlwall. The Friends, or, as they are popularly called, the Quakers, had a meeting-house at this place, formerly reputed to be the oldest in the country. The society at one time reckoned a fair number of adherents, but a mysterious and inveterate blight appears to have come over it, and although unusually free from external molestation, and visibly advancing in worldly prosperity, it gradually drooped and faded away as a religious community, until two or three members only of the brotherhood remained. And when I inquired after them, some years since, even these had disappeared. The room in which they had been accustomed to assemble for worship presented at the time of my visit a melancholy appearance. I was told that a Friend, who was a stranger to the neighbourhood, had recently come from a distance as a pilgrim to the shrine of his ancestors, and spent the best part of a Lord's day, solitary and silent, within that empty and neglected room. After a short stay in the neighbourhood of Pontypool young [162/163] Thomas Phillips removed to Newport, and was articled to Mr. Thomas Prothero, a solicitor in that town, and, by dint of energy and diligence, so won on the confidence of the firm that he was accepted as a partner. In 1839, whilst still practising as a solicitor, he was chosen Mayor of the town. The year was rendered memorable in local annals, and indeed in the ampler page of English history, by the occurrence of the Chartist riots.

As most of my readers are, no doubt, aware, the Chartists derived their name from what were termed the six points of the People's Charter, and had their headquarters at Birmingham. The six points were (1) Universal suffrage; (2) Vote by ballot; (3) Paid representatives in Parliament; (4) Equal electoral districts; (5) Abolition of the property qualification for members of Parliament; (6) Annual Parliaments. Instead of resting their cause on reason and argument, the Chartist leaders in the National Convention determined to overawe the Government, and carry their points by violence and disorder. Large bodies of armed men assembled at night in various parts of the country, occasioning a wide-spread feeling of disquiet and alarm. This was especially the case with what are known as the Hills of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire.

In these large centres of busy labour, despite the prevalence of a high rate of wages, domestic misery, and neglect of even the common decencies of life, [163/164] became the rule, and not the exception. This, as might be expected, proved a fruitful ground for discontent and disloyalty, and the political charlatan and the rebel found in it all the elements they wished to work upon. Nowhere was the Chartist cause more readily espoused, and a spirit more stern or more reckless evinced in its favour, than on these Welsh hills. Henry Vincent and other itinerant agitators traversed them with indefatigable zeal, meeting with a cordial reception everywhere, and by their inflammatory speeches communicating their own enthusiasm to their infatuated adherents. When these had been formed into lodges, and officers under the names of captains assigned them, and their fidelity firmly established, it was decided by the Welsh leaders, William Jones of Pontypool, Zephaniah Williams of Coalbrook Vale, and John Frost of Newport, that a combined attack should be made on the town of Newport on Monday morning, November 4. A general gathering was ordered to take place at certain stated points on the Sunday previous. It was understood that of the three divisions into which the men had been distributed, one division was to start under the command of Frost from Blackwood, another under the command of Williams from a mountain above Nantyglo, and the third under the command of Jones from the Race, near Pontypool, and the three divisions were then to form a junction at Cefn, about [164/165] two miles from Newport. Sunday night, however, turned out to be wet and stormy, and the torrents of rain that fell, as well as the difficult mountain paths that had to be crossed, deterred many of their followers from continuing on the march. Still a solid body of fierce and determined men, organized, and very sufficiently armed, presented themselves before the town early on the morning agreed upon. There were some lately living who remembered their formidable appearance as they came down Stow Hill, and, wheeling to the right, deployed before the Westgate Hotel.

Living, as we have lived for many years, without any public alarm or fear of civil tumult, we can hardly now form a conception of the uneasy state of the country at that time. But if we cannot adequately realize, we can easily believe the accounts of eyewitnesses of the extreme consternation which seized the inhabitants of Newport when they found an infuriated multitude of Welsh mountaineers in their midst. But they relied with a full reliance on the skill, the sagacity, and cool and unflinching courage of their Mayor. And their confidence in him was justified. Through some negligence on the part of the executive, only one inconsiderable detachment of the 45th Regiment happened to be stationed in the district, and so threatening seemed its own post, from the disturbed condition of the country around, that but very few men could be taken from it, and placed [165/166] at the disposal of the Mayor, who had decided to make his final stand at the Westgate Hotel, in the centre of the town. The soldiers all told were but thirty, whilst their assailants were computed at eight thousand. The small band of defenders was under the command of Lieutenant Gray.* [* There were until recently a striking portrait of the lieutenant in the coffee-room of the Westgate Hotel, and a formidable long spear, with a sharp curved knife, about a foot below the steel point, which had been taken from the insurgents. The knife, it was supposed, was intended for cutting the bridles of the horse soldiers. The pillars also which stood outside the front entrance showed marks of several bullet shots.] He and the Mayor had barely completed their arrangements, after having been warned by a friendly scout of the imminence of the attack, when the rebels appeared, as already stated, in force, and with frightful menaces and brandishing of weapons they rushed on in a dense mass to storm the building. The Mayor had given orders to the soldiers to remain on the defensive, and by no means to provoke a conflict. The work of destruction was at once commenced by the assailants, and shots in rapid succession were poured into the various rooms. It was now time for the soldiers to act, and accordingly they were told to load with ball cartridges. The Mayor and Lieutenant Gray went forward to open the windows that the soldiers might fire from them. At the moment the Mayor was withdrawing from the window he was wounded in the arm with a slug, and [166/167] he subsequently received a shot also in the groin. But the soldiers' fire proved so effective that the spirit of the crowd outside, and of the few who had forced an entrance into the passages inside, began to fail. The sight of their dead, and the groans of their wounded comrades, as well as the steadiness of the soldiery, completed their overthrow, and in an incredibly short time they retreated from the town, and fled away as best they could from the vengeance of the law that they had so daringly defied.

The friendly scout alluded to above was Mr. Thomas Walker, late of Pontypool. I knew him well in after-years, years, when he was an occasional attendant at my church in Monmouthshire. The only way in which he could account for the panic which seized the mob was the fact that many of them had been forcibly taken from their homes, and compelled to join the others on the march to Newport. The majority were unquestionably resolute and violent men, fully bent on mischief, and regardless of consequences.

Mr. Phillips's prompt and judicious conduct on this occasion, his firmness in the hour of trial, and his successful resistance to lawless aggression, gained him the admiration and esteem of town and country. He suffered severely from his wounds, but he was consoled by the numerous testimonies borne him by all classes of the community for the faithful discharge of his magisterial duties, and his adherence to the [167/168] cause of public order. The freedom of the City of London was presented to him. The inhabitants of Newport and the neighbourhood testified their sense of his merits by subscribing upwards of £800, and presenting him at the Westgate, the scene of his exploit, with a service of plate and with his own portrait. Her Majesty the Queen did him the honour of receiving him for one week as a guest at Windsor Castle, and subsequently knighting him.

In the second part of the 'Greville Memoirs,' recently published, a reference is made to Sir Thomas Phillips's visit at Windsor Castle, where his admittance as her Majesty's guest is mentioned as a bold and most unusual innovation on established customs, creating, it seems, a flutter in the dovecotes where Lord Normanby and Lord Melbourne (himself the grandson of a country attorney) ruled as masters of the ceremonies. I cannot do better, perhaps, than lay before my readers the passage in question at length. Charles Greville's Journal records that--

'On Monday last [some day in December, 1839] I went to Windsor for a Council. There we had Sir Thomas Phillips, the Mayor of Newport, who came to be knighted. They were going to knight him and then dismiss him, but I persuaded Normanby that it would be a wise and popular thing to keep him there and load him with civilities--do good to the Queen, encourage others to do their duty--and send him back rejoicing to his province, to spread far and wide the fame of his gracious reception. He said that etiquette would not permit one of his rank in life to be invited to the royal table. I said that this was all nonsense: if [168/169] he was good enough to come and be knighted, he was good enough to dine there, and that it was a little outlay for a large return. He was convinced, spoke to Melbourne, who settled it, and Phillips stayed. Nothing could answer better, everybody approved of it, and the man behaved as if his whole life had been spent in Courts, perfectly at his ease, without rudeness or forwardness, quiet, unobtrusive, but with complete self-possession, and a nil admirari manner which had something distinguished in it. The Queen was very civil to him, and he was delighted.'

For the purpose of recruiting his health, Sir Thomas about this time made a tour in the East, of which I regret to think but few reminiscences remain. In the appendix to one of his works he informs us that he landed in Spain, and reached Thebes, in Egypt, in the winter of 1842-43, then passed through Syria, and went as far as Damascus, 'the oriental pearl surrounded by emeralds,' where he witnessed the funeral rites of the last male descendant of the Prophet, who would not allow himself to enter that earthly paradise, lest amidst its delicious groves and sparkling streams he might forget the heavenly Paradise. Wherever he sojourned the traveller's thoughts reverted to his native country, and the customs of foreign nations led him to dwell on those which he had left behind him. When he noticed the uncontrollable fervour of the worshippers in the South of Europe at the Elevation of the Host, or at some other point of the impressive ceremonial of the Romish Church, he was reminded of the exhibition of similar emotion, so often kindled [169/170] and swayed by the eloquence of the Welsh pulpit, and when he heard the chant-like wail of women in funeral processions in the East, he failed not to recall the scenes that are so familiar in Wales, where the mourners also go about the streets, and as they accompany the dead to his long home 'sing psalms and hymns by the way.'

After his return from abroad he became the proprietor of a colliery. This was a distinction which Welshmen, who were at all actuated in those days by a spirit of enterprise and ambition, eagerly coveted. The knowledge that beneath the soil lay an inexhaustible fund of admirable coal, and the example of successfully working it, set by such men as the Crawshays, Baileys, Hills, and Powells, and the rapid acquisition by them of enormous fortunes, cast a spell on many who were otherwise doing well and had no particular motive to embark in hazardous speculations. These could not be at ease until they also joined in the venture, and dealt in what was significantly called 'the Welsh black diamonds.' The failures, it is true, were numerous, and often ended in irretrievable disaster. I have known myself several persons of more than ordinary intelligence who ruined themselves and their families by their persistence in the attempt to 'win' coal, and I have seen them for years afterwards haunting the scene of their discomfiture, like perturbed and mournful sprites, [170/171] feeling indeed no compunction for their neglect of friendly warning and counsel, and their folly in continuing the search against all probability of succeeding, but obstinately regarding themselves as victims of a blind and inscrutable destiny. Sir Thomas was more fortunate, his colliery proving highly remunerative, and he may be cited as one of the successful pioneers in the trade which has since grown into such proportions as to become one of the staple trades, and the greatest source of wealth, of South Wales. But the increase of his means, and the attainment of a more prominent and influential position in the country only made him to feel more deeply the obligation imposed on him to further the material and moral welfare of those who were thus brought into close connection with himself. He provided for them a beautiful church, which was stated to have been built in memory of his parents, and was dedicated to SS. Philip and James. He supported an excellent school for the children, established a lending library, and gave lectures for their instruction; he promoted sick funds and co-operative stores in connection with the colliery, and was never so happy as when he found himself in sympathy and in friendly intercourse with the people in his employ.

Having shortly after the suppression of the riots relinquished his practice as a solicitor, Sir Thomas Phillips was called, in the year 1842, to the Bar by the [171/172] Honourable Society of the Inner Temple. He enjoyed as a barrister a large and remunerative practice, especially in Parliamentary business. He became Q.C. in 1866, and continued his professional engagements up to the time of his death, reaping the well-earned fruits of his efforts, and displaying a learning, an acumen, elocution, and integrity calculated at all times to secure the confidence of clients.

It was a main object with him to encourage whatever might redound to the credit or advantage of Wales. Nothing gave him greater pleasure than to discover exceptional talent, combined with culture, in any young Welshman. One instance of this may be mentioned. Whilst Sir Thomas had been thus bringing himself prominently to the front in South Wales, a young student of the name of Rowland Williams, a, North Walian, had been at the same time pursuing a brilliant career at Eton and Cambridge, and had lately appealed to the suffrages of his countrymen by the publication of his 'Lays from a Cimbric Lyre,' and the genuine warmth with which he claimed for Wales an honourable place in the 'Hall of the Nations.' Sir Thomas was one of the first to give expression to the 'just pride' with which Williams was regarded in the Principality, and it was chiefly at his instigation that the Vice-Principalship of St. David's College, Lampeter, was offered to and accepted by Dr. Rowland Williams. A more eligible sphere of peaceful and [172/173] profitable labour could hardly be conceived for one of his ability and ardent patriotism, and had he allowed himself to be guided by such advisers as Sir Thomas Phillips, instead of being mastered by his own impetuous nature, and misled by the latest speculations of the boldest German Theorists, his residence at Lampeter, which proved to be such an unedifying episode, might have been an honour to himself and a blessing to his country. At the frustration of so many bright hopes, the alienation of so many valued friends, and the consequent vexation which evidently preyed on his proud and sensitive spirit during the latter part of his life, when he found himself hopelessly involved in troubles of his own seeking, and wasting his energies in a barren controversy, there was no sincerer mourner than the subject of our memoir.

It was a fine feature in Sir Thomas's character that whilst he was thus assiduously employed in his direct professional avocation, and in connection with it going through an amount of work that would have absorbed the entire available energy of a less active or a less disciplined mind, and conscious as he must have been that every day so employed brought with it its own golden fee, and every fee was an addition to the acquisition of a fortune, he yet never failed to apply himself with the greatest ardour and an unstinted hand to the encouragement and promotion of every social, educational, and [173/174] religious movement that in any way tended to the advancement of his country. He took an influential part in all county business, and acted for some time as deputy-chairman of the Court of Quarter Sessions. As chairman of the Society of Arts he rendered most valuable aid by his carefully-prepared occasional addresses and by his exertions to extend its benefits to the provincial societies that were in union with it. In the concerns of religion, whilst he was unaffectedly tolerant in matters on which good and intelligent men are prone to differ, and animated by the pervading spirit of the charity that 'never faileth,' as evidenced by his long and friendly intimacy with the Rev. Thomas Phillips, the late excellent Association Secretary of the Bible Society, there was one great and historic institution of the country to which he was strongly and unalterably attached, and that institution was the Church of England. Like his friend, the late Lord Hatherley, he thought it not beneath him to become a Sunday-school teacher. When at his residence in the country, he regularly taught a class of boys and took a warm personal interest in their career in life. He was a member of the Church Institution, and a governor of the Corporation of the Sons of Clergy, and of King's College. He was one of the foremost in establishing and supporting the Church Extension Society for the Diocese of Llandaff. He was the recognised friend and [174/175] counsellor of the clergy, from the Lord Bishop to the least known curate among us. In difficult and vexatious cases, or cases of pecuniary need, no one ever sought his aid in vain.

But it was as an Educationist that Sir Thomas left a most durable and conspicuous mark. The great and pressing need of an elementary system of popular education, as exhibited by the recent outrages, forced itself on his attention and roused him to action. The publication of certain Blue Books also served to stimulate him. These books, arresting as they could not fail to do, by their startling disclosures, the serious regard of all who had the country's welfare at heart, gave, nevertheless, great dissatisfaction by their partisan and exaggerated statements. Sir Thomas determined, therefore, to examine the question for himself. For this purpose he travelled the greatest part of the Principality, visiting every town, every village, and even many an out-of-the-way and sequestered country place, and by that means collected a mass of valuable information on the condition of the people, which he afterwards embodied in his book on 'Wales.' I venture to say that, for lucidity of treatment, for fulness of information, for calm, judicial statement, for tender yet discriminating sympathy with his poor and neglected countrymen, no less than for the suggestion of remedies applicable to their case, very few publications of the kind can be compared to this [175/176] one. Its author had previously published his pleasing 'Memoir of James Davies, of Devauden,' showing us how much good in the long-neglected but increasingly important department of education, that relating to the children of the poor in agricultural districts, could be done by one man who was himself placed in a humble position in life. Sir Thomas Phillips, if not exactly the founder, was one of the chief directors of the Welsh Committee of the National Society. To him, under its auspices, we owe, in a great measure, the Training College at Carmarthen. To him we are indebted for the application of a portion of Howell's Charity to the school for orphan and other girls at Llandaff. To him we are indebted for the restoration of what is known as the Gelligaer Charity, and for the scheme by which its funds were devoted to educational purposes in the district. To him we are principally indebted for the preservation and better endowment of the Collegiate School at Brecon. And of all modern labourers in the field of primary education for the labouring classes, which threatens now to be over-run by idle and amateur hands, who seem to seek only a new and interesting form of recreation, but was then beset with difficulties, with overt opposition and with secret and deep-rooted prejudices, which none but an intensely earnest and intrepid soul could face and surmount, Sir Thomas Phillips was the pioneer, the constant advocate, and [176/177] the most ardent and successful adventurer. It is but just to state that in these, as well as in all his other efforts at the amelioration of the people, he was encouraged and nobly seconded by his friends, Bishop Copleston, Bishop Ollivant, the late Dean Williams, and the Ven. Archdeacon Crawley. At the same time it is equally just to add that for the spread of sound religious education he was able to enlist the sympathies and obtain the assistance of the great iron and colliery proprietors of the two counties. Indeed, so conciliatory were his advances, and so great his influence, that it was a common belief that not one of those wealthy employers of labour, so apathetic before and so parsimonious, could well refuse any appeal Sir Thomas might deem fit to make.

Whilst he was thus pursuing his career of activity and usefulness, the warning came suddenly to him that his course was finished, and his work done, and that his Master was discharging him from his earthly toil and calling him up higher. His death took place on Sunday evening, May 26, 1867. On the previous Tuesday he had been engaged before a Committee of the House of Commons, and had been addressing the committee for about an hour, when, immediately on resuming his seat, he was struck with paralysis. He slightly rallied, but the inevitable hour had come, and on the Sunday, as I said, he entered the dark [177/178] portal, but emerged into the fuller life of another and a better world, where he rests in hope,

'Till from the east the eternal morning moves.'

In person Sir Thomas Phillips was of medium size, with a well-made and compact frame, indicating great strength and power of endurance. His presence had an air of command, and yet he was one who could be loved and trusted at first sight. His smile was especially pleasant. He was never married. When in the country he lived, in conformity with his true character, in a plain and unostentatious manner. His country residence was at Llanelen, Monmouthshire, a village that lies at the foot of the Blorenge, and on the margin of the river Usk as it leaves the neighbourhood of Abergavenny and enters on its winding course through the pleasant domains of Llanover. He lies buried in the parish churchyard of Llanelen.

His sister Mary was married to the late Canon Price, Vicar of Llanarth, whose only son, Thomas Phillips Price, is the present member of Parliament for the Northern Division of Monmouthshire.

I shall not take the liberty of intervening between the reader and my subject with any attempts at improving it, but I may be permitted to state my conviction, that as in the case of many other good and great men of whom our common country is justly [178/179] proud, the life of Sir Thomas Phillips supplies us with a memorable example of an unconditional self-consecration to duty, and of its bounteous and blessed results. His polestar was duty, his highest ambition was to fulfil his duty, and his sweetest reward, the consciousness that he had tried to do so.



Wales: the language, social condition, moral character, etc., of the people.
Memoir of James Davies, of Devanden.

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