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Early warning

kljhGeologist and science writer Nina Morgan uncovers some potential piracy in the Malvern Hills

John Phillips's [1800 – 1874] 1848 Geological Survey Memoir II The Malvern Hills, was revolutionary in many ways.  Not only did it debunk the theory about the formation of the Malvern Hills (put forward Roderick Murchison [1792 – 1831] – the 'Mr Silurian' of the day) that the igneous rocks that make up the Malvern ridge were intruded after the Silurian sediments to the west of the Malverns had been deposited.

Picture: Anne Phillips (1803-1862), possibly wearing an ‘oiled silk cape’ of the sort requested by brother John to protect him against the elements in North Wales.

It was also notable for giving full credit to a woman for locating the crucial bit of evidence that showed that Murchison was wrong. In the Memoir, Phillips named his sister, Anne [1803 – 1862, pictured], as the discoverer of what became known as 'Miss Phillips's conglomerate'. This conglomerate, which Phillips  described as “full of Silurian shells, and pebbles and fragments of the sienitic, felspatho-quartzose and other rock-masses of the Malvern hills” demonstrated that the igneous rocks that make up the Malvern ridge were intruded before, rather than after, the Silurian sediments had been laid down.

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The Memoir was also praised for the clarity of its writing and the accuracy of its descriptions.  In August 1852, the geologist, ornithologist and naturalist, Hugh Strickland [1811 – 1853] (then William Buckland's [1784 – 1856] Deputy Reader in geology at Oxford University) spent a fortnight in the Malvern Hills, and wrote to Phillips to describe the use he had been making of the Memoir and to praise '... the accuracy of which I can bear willing testimony'

And he also had a suggestion:

"I have long thought it would be very desirable that you should publish an abridgement to serve as a geological hand book for visitors to Malvern.  This would be more portable and less costly than the large volume which you have already published, & would probably command a pretty constant if not very rapid sale."

Strickland went on to say that his letter was motivated by the receipt of a “...prospectus, by which it appears that you are in danger of being pirated by Mr E. Lees, who is a good botanist, but who knows little of geology & of whom I have no very high opinion in other respects. So I thought it best to write to you without loss of time, that you may take what steps seem best in the matter."


Mr Lees does not appear to have published his proposed Malvern guide – and neither did Phillips.  In Phillips's case, events may have overtaken him.  On 14 September, 1853, while geologising with Phillips after the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting at Hull, Strickland was knocked down and killed by a train near Retford while examining a section exposed in a cutting on the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway.  Just 15 days after Strickland's death, Phillips was appointed to take up Strickland's Oxford position. When Buckland died in 1856 Phillips became the first ‘Professor of Geology’ at Oxford, a post he held until his own death in 1874.

However, in 1853 Phillips did publish parts I and II of a book entitled, Railway excursions from York, Leeds, and Hull, which included excursions from York and Hull, and followed this up in 1854, with Part III, Excursions from Leeds which ran to two editions. A third edition retitled Excursions in Yorkshire by the North Eastern Railway, and including all three parts, appeared in 1855.

Although he makes no mention of Strickland in the text, it would be nice to think that Phillips was inspired by Strickland's comments and considered this book as a memorial to his friend.


I thank Philip Powell for drawing my attention to a letter dated 21 August 1852, from Hugh Strickland to John Phillips, which is held in the archives at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and the archivist Kate Diston for permission to quote from it. Other sources include: John Phillips and the Business of Victorian Science by Jack Morrell, ISBN: 1840142391; Anne Phillips and the Mystery of the Malverns by Nina Morgan, Geoscientist, 16/ 7 , pp 6- 7 and 12 – 15; the Wikipedia entry for Hugh Strickland; Geological Survey Memoir, Vol. II, The Malvern Hills, by John Phillips, 1848; and Phillips' Excursions in Yorkshire by North Eastern Railway, third edn, 1855 (available as a free ebook on Google Books).

  • Nina Morgan is a geologist and science writer based near Oxford.  Her latest book, The Geology of Oxford Gravestones, is available via