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Telling it like it was

Nina Morgan recalls an eyewitness account of 19th century Ireland

Words by Nina Morgan
15 August 2023

Image by Brin Weins from Pixabay

The best geologists, so it is said, are those that have seen the most rocks. For the geologist John Phillips [1800 – 1874], then working on the Mountain (Carboniferous) Limestone district volume of his series, Illustrations of the Geology of Yorkshire, the 1835 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), held in Dublin, offered a golden opportunity to expand his knowledge of the Carboniferous Limestone.

Orphaned at the age of seven and brought up by his uncle, William Smith [1769 – 1839], Phillips began working as Smith’s scientific assistant when he was just 15 and became, in effect, the first ‘apprenticed’ geologist. Without the benefit of a university education, he went on to work his way up the scientific ranks to become the first Professor of Geology at Oxford, a post he held from 1856 until his death in 1874. He was one of the driving forces behind the building of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH), and became the first keeper there in 1857. Along the way he held chairs in geology at London and Dublin, and played important roles in the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, the new Geological Survey, and the BAAS where he served as an assistant general secretary.

In this capacity, he was responsible for organising conference venues as well as accommodation for the non-locals – known as Strangers – at the BAAS meeting held in Dublin in 1835. He also attended the meeting himself, where he took part in the Geological Section, and presented a paper about rain to the Physical section.

John Phillips [1800 – 1874] (Photograph by H J Whitlock, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Eye opening

This was his first trip to Ireland, and Phillips took full advantage of the opportunity to consult with the experts on Irish geology. After the conference he went on to explore the Carboniferous Limestones in Ireland with fellow geologists Adam Sedgwick [1785 – 1873] and Roderick Murchison [1792 – 1871].

The social and economic conditions endured by the majority of the Irish population, who were mainly tenant farmers to often absentee landlords, were harsh in 1835. Habitations were little more than huts and the tenants’ opportunities for self-advancement and improvement were non-existent. These conditions got even worse in the 1840s when famine struck, and large areas became depopulated through emigration or death.

As Phillips wrote in a series of letters to his sister Anne, which are preserved in the OUMNH archives, the trip to Ireland opened his eyes in more ways than one. In a letter dated 25 July 1835, two days after his arrival, he mulls on national characteristics and describes the conditions for Irish labourers looking for farm work in England:


“The men of the Mountain Slopes are gigantic, yet active & really athletic, contrasting amazingly well with the meanly clad, small, foot cramped poor Irish who are now tramping by hundreds through their hayfields & along roads to the E. Harvests of England. Melancholy contrast: the Englishman well fed, well clad, a gentleman in discontent; the ‘Irish native’ in rags, all skin & bone, merriment & fun. It is astonishing how much more of a man’s & a nation’s character is derived from the blood of their ancestry than from the daily events which occur to them.”


State of the nation

What struck Phillips even more than the Irish geology was the state of the Irish countryside, and the people who lived there. In a letter dated 19 August 1835, he provides Anne with a candid first-hand account of the poor conditions suffered by the majority of the Irish population:


“You never saw such wretched huts, & such apparent wretchedness among the people in parts very near Dublin. The most miserable heaps of particoloured rags, tied together, or open in vast slits, are all that the people wear. Many are seen running about with a tattered shirt et rien d’autre. In the course of 20 miles not one good horse, not one carriage, car of any pretensions, Lady or Gentleman walking or riding. Yet some of the small towns are pretty (as Kells, Cavan) and there must be a good deal of wealth in the country, or rather much goes out of it…

“But oh! miserable island! The violence of party feeling, on which so strong a compression was laid by the Association [i.e. the BAAS meeting], will again burst forth & the whole be a scene of confusion.”


Thankfully, much has changed in Ireland since Phillips last visited. And clearly his observations did not dim his appreciation of Irish geology and the people he met there. Phillips returned to Ireland in August 1843 for a short visit to the southwest of the country. And at the end of that year he accepted an appointment to the newly established Chair of Geology at Trinity College, Dublin. He also tried, unsuccessfully to gain an appointment as Local Director of the Geological Survey in Ireland. The appreciation must have been mutual. In 1857, Phillips, like his uncle William Smith before him, was awarded an honorary Legum Doctor (LL.D. or Doctor of Laws) degree by the University of Dublin.


Nina Morgan is a geologist and science writer based near Oxford, UK



I am grateful to the Director and Librarian and Archivist at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (www.oum.ox.ac.uk) for permission to quote from the letters from John Phillips to Anne Phillips. I also thank Patrick Wyse Jackson of Trinity College Dublin for providing valuable background information about the social conditions in Ireland during the nineteenth century.

Further reading

  • Edmonds, J.M. (1982) The first ‘apprenticed’ geologist, Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine 76, 141-154.
  • Herries Davies, G.L. (1969) The University of Dublin and two pioneers of English geology; William Smith and John Phillips, Hermathena 109, 24-36.
  • Morrell, J. (2005) John Phillips and the Business of Victorian Science. Ashgate, 437 pp.
  • Morrell, J. & Thackray, A. (1981) Gentlemen of Science: early years of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Oxford University Press, 604 pp.
  • Phillips, J. (1836) Illustrations of the Geology of Yorkshire, Part II The Mountain Limestone District, John Murray, London, 330 pp.


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