York Civic Trust plaques

John Phillips (1800-1874)

Geologist and first 'Keeper of the Yorkshire Museum'

Location of plaque: St Mary’s Lodge, at the Marygate entrance to Museum Gardens

If you've enjoyed the Jurassic World exhibition at the Yorkshire Museum, why not spare a few moments to think of the man who was the museum's first 'keeper', or curator.

The son of a Wiltshire excise officer, John Phillips was orphaned at seven but went on to become one of the most respected figures in British geology.

When both his parents died in 1808, he was supported by his uncle William Smith - the 'father of English Geology' and the man responsible for the first geological map of the country. Phillips moved into his uncle's London home and, after leaving school at 15, began to work as Smith's assistant, joining him on geological field trips.

He accompanied his uncle on surveying commissions in Yorkshire and, in 1824, helped with Smith’s series of lectures to the Yorkshire Philosophical Society. Such was the impression that the young geologist made that in 1825 he was appointed the first 'Keeper of the Yorkshire Museum'.

His was in many ways a colourful life. In one famous incident in 1831, he was chased around the Museum Gardens by a bear that had escaped from the Yorkshire Philosophical Society’s menagerie. The bear was captured and offered to the newly opened Royal Zoological Gardens in London.

Much later in his life, in 1860 - by now an established and hugely successful geologist - Phillips engaged in a scientific debate on the age of the earth with Charles Darwin. The Church insisted the Earth was 6,000 years old. Darwin argued that it was much older - at least 300 million years. Drawing on his geological expertise, however, Phillips insisted it was older still, putting the age of the Earth at an unimaginable 1billion years.

It was a courageous position to take - even though we know today that the Earth is far even older than that, at about 4.6 billion years.

Phillips, who for many years lived with his sister Anne at St Mary's Lodge in York, held many of the most prestigious positions in British geology during his life: Chair of Geology at King's College, London; Professor of Geology at the University of Dublin; Professor of Geology at the University of Oxford; and President of the Geological Society of London. He made countless geological field trips in Yorkshire, and published detailed geological maps and guides of the county.

When he died in Oxford in 1874, following a fall, his body was accompanied to Oxford railway station by 150 mourners. After arrival at York, he lay in state overnight in the Yorkshire Museum. The next day, the Minster bells tolled for 90 minutes before his funeral. He was buried in York Cemetery alongside his sister, under a modest gravestone.

Stephen Lewis

To read the stories behind more York Civic Trust plaques, visit yorkcivictrust.co.uk