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R.A. Phillips papers

A Catalogue of the papers of R.A. Phillips, 1866-1945 [RIA MSS 4 B 50; 4 B 51] in the Library of the Royal Irish Academy with a note of other Phillips papers held by the National Museum of Ireland and the Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Academy papers comprise a large collection of letters, some notebooks, manuscripts of lectures and papers, offprints of scientific publications and a small collection of dried pressed ferns. These papers had at some time been grouped but most of the correspondence was only roughly sorted and the papers had not been catalogued.

The interest of the Phillips papers lies mainly in the correspondence; this has been catalogued in some detail in alphabetical order by correspondents. The papers provide little information which has not already been published in scientific papers by Phillips and his collaborators. However, the correspondence may be of interest to anyone examining the study of natural history during the 1890s to 1930s, in particular for the wealth of letters from certain correspondents: A.W. Stelfox, Augustine Henry, R.L. Praeger and A.S. Kennard, for example.

The papers were sorted in September 1981 and catalogued 1981-1982.

Biographical Notes

The post of an itinerant company representative in southern Ireland between the 1890s and 1930s probably offered the incumbent considerable free time. Evenings and weekends spent away from home, in small country towns, could be spent in several ways — in prayer, in bars, in dalliance. It is Ireland’s good fortune that one such representative chose to spend much of his free time studying the flora and fauna.

Robert Albert Phillips, born at Courtmacsherry in April 1866, joined the stationery company, Guy & Co. of Cork, at the age of 14. Quite when he went ‘on the road’ as their representative is uncertain, but between the early 1890s and the 1930s he travelled widely in the southern part of Ireland. He appears to have taken every opportunity during this time to study the natural history of his surroundings. He remained a bachelor until the age of 54, which doubtless contributed to his freedom to study natural history in the field at weekends and in the summer evenings.

Phillips died in 1945 aged 79. In his comprehensive obituary of Phillips, A.W. Stelfox (1946a) pointed out that he was unforthcoming about himself, rarely joined large organised natural history excursions or meetings and, after his marriage, contributed few papers to journals and became a less frequent correspondent. In reality, many of Phillips’ principal correspondents died when he was in his 50s and 60s.

From the fragments that are available — Phillips’ publications and correspondence, and Stelfox’s obituaries (1946a and b) — it is possible to build up an indistinct image of R.A. Phillips. He was an ardent field naturalist who began with an interest in flowering plants, but who later developed considerable expertise in Mollusca and went on to collect and record many other invertebrate groups. His field work was apparently limited by where his employment as a representative deposited him. He would then explore on foot in a careful and thorough manner a small area around the town where he was based; his meticulousness clearly exasperated Stelfox but resulted, inevitably, in the discovery of many apparently rare species in otherwise ‘unlikely’ areas. Stelfox and others seem to have benefited greatly from contact with Phillips, both in specimens and in ideas. Phillips was clearly not one to force himself on others, and benefited from these contacts mostly by reducing his inevitable feeling of working in isolation. Phillips’s contribution to Irish natural history was considerable, and has probably been underrated or overlooked. This contribution was not primarily in the form of collections or herbaria, or even his publications, but was as a collaborator, particularly as a collector and observer, with other, more reductive naturalists and professional scientists such as Stelfox, Praeger, Pack Beresford, Colgan, Scully, Scharff and Henry. One wonders what he might have achieved had he not had to earn a living by selling stationery all his life.

Little of Phillips’s personality or circumstances emerges from these papers, other than that his correspondents regarded him with esteem. He was clearly never a wealthy man and, as was commonly the practice at the turn of the century, he occasionally acted as a paid collector. Dissatisfaction with his work and conditions in Ireland led him to apply in 1905 for a position as representative in north and west Ireland for the stationers Hely Ltd. of Dublin, but he was not successful. In 1906 he wrote to his brother Henry suggesting that he might emigrate, but nothing came of this idea. As it was, he stayed with Guy & Co. until his death, although in later life he retired from his work as a representative and lived permanently in Cork. Increasing age and a fixed abode clearly led to reduced activity in the field. Phillips had little to correspond about to a circle of contacts which was constantly shrinking as correspondents died in the 1920s and 1930s.

Arrangement of the Papers and Catalogue

The Phillips papers have been arranged and catalogued in a sequence that is intended to cause the minimum disturbance to the provenance of the papers as they were received by the Royal Irish Academy. All the correspondence has been housed in labelled envelopes. Other papers have been grouped by document types — offprints, photographs, lecture notes, etc. The scientific nomenclature used by Phillips and his correspondents has been retained throughout.

This catalogue includes related material held by the National Museum of Ireland (Appendix II) and the Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland (Appendix III).

Download document here with references and catalogue


A.W. Stelfox, ‘Obituary: Robert Albert Phillips, 1866-1945’, Irish Naturalists’ Journal, 8 (1946), 391-4.

A.W. STELFOX, ‘Robert Albert Phillips, 1866-1945’, Journal of Conchology (1946), 22.

Paul T. Harding, 'A Catalogue of the papers of R.A. Phillips (1866-1945) [RIA MSS 4 B 50; 4 B 51] in the Library of the Royal Irish Academy with a note of other Phillips papers held by the National Museum of Ireland and the Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland', Royal Irish Academy: Special list / Liosta speisialta: A018

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