Thursday, 30 August 2007

Chartist Lives: Robert Philp

Philp[1], a Chartist and compiler of reference works, was born in Falmouth on 14th June 1819, the son of Henry Philp (1793–1836). His grandfather, Robert Kemp Philp (1769–1850), was the Unitarian minister of Falmouth and one of the earliest supporters of ragged schools.

Philp was apprenticed in 1835 to a printer in Bristol, and afterwards settled as a newsvendor in Bath, where he was once fined for selling a Sunday newspaper; on refusing to pay, he was condemned to the stocks for two hours. He became a well-known Chartist, regularly contributing to the movement’s journals and editing, with Henry Vincent, the National Vindicator, a Bath weekly newspaper, which appeared in 1841–2. Prominently involved in the campaign on behalf of the leader of the Newport rising, John Frost, he was arrested in early 1840, but charges were dropped. Philp’s prominence was confirmed by his election in mid-1841 to the executive committee of the National Charter Association. A supporter of a cross-class alliance, in the spring of 1842 he signed the declaration drawn up by Joseph Sturge and was appointed a delegate to the conference called by Sturge in Birmingham in December 1842. Philp did not believe he was abandoning his Chartist principles. He was a member of the National Convention which sat in London in April 1842, and is credited with having drawn up the second Chartist petition, signed by 3,317,752 persons. His support for Sturge’s Complete Suffrage Union, however, resulted in a bitter row with Feargus O’Connor and his removal from the Chartist executive.

No longer a Chartist, Philp moved to Fetter Lane in London in 1845 and began a career as a publisher of popular literature. He was sub-editor of the People’s Journal from 1846 to 1848 and then launched the Family Friend, successively a monthly, fortnightly, and weekly periodical; he was its editor from 1849 to 1852. It had an enormous sale. Similar serials followed: the Family Tutor (1851–3), the Home Companion (1852–6), and the Family Treasury (1853–4). Philp then began to compile cheap practical handbooks; in many cases these were issued in monthly numbers at 2d. The most popular, Enquire Within upon Everything, appeared in 1856; a sixty-fifth edition followed in 1882, and by 1888 over a million copies had been sold. Another best-seller from 1856 was The Reason Why, which sought to answer common queries. This compilation heralded a Reason Why series of volumes dealing with such topics as domestic science (1857), the Bible (1859), natural history (1860), Christian denominations (1860), the garden and the farm (1860), and physical geography and geology (1863). His dictionaries of daily wants (1859), of useful knowledge (1858–62; issued in monthly parts), and of medical and surgical knowledge (1862–4; issued in monthly parts), and The Lady’s Every-day Book (1873) were also popular.

In addition to Philp’s various dictionaries, he also compiled travel guides, notably a series in the 1870s for the various railway companies. Finally, at least five songs by him were set to music, and he wrote poetry and a comedy in two acts, The Successful Candidate (1852). Philp died at 21 Claremont Square, Islington, on 30th November 1882, aged sixty-three, and was buried at Highgate. He left an only son.


[1] Sources: R. B. Pugh ‘Chartism in Somerset and Wiltshire’, Chartist Studies, ed. A. Briggs, 1959, pages 174–219, The Academy, 23rd December 1882, pages 451–2 and The Times, 23rd December 1882.

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