FEW people in Yorkshire have ever heard of John Phillips (1800-1874) yet he was one of the most notable scientific figures of the 19th century, a brilliant polymath, one of the first great interpreters of the Yorkshire landscape, especially of the Yorkshire Dales and Yorkshire coast.

He first came to Yorkshire as a penniless 19-year old with his uncle, the great pioneering geologist, William Smith (1769-1839), producer of the first geological map of England and Wales. Smith had been made bankrupt and thrust into debtors’ prison unable to pay his debts. His nephew rescued him, and the great geologist and his apprentice travelled up to Yorkshire to seek work in estate surveying and map making.

After Smith was invited to York to give a series of lectures on geology to the newly-formed Yorkshire Philosophical Society in 1824, the society were not only impressed by Smith, but his gifted nephew, John Phillips. So much so, John was asked to stay in York to become the society’s secretary and first keeper of their new museum.

But whilst in York he was given freedom, firstly with his uncle and later on his own, to carry out some of the most remarkable geological survey work in Yorkshire, producing the first accurate geological section of the entire Yorkshire coast and then doing pioneering work in the Dales which resulted in the discovery and description of the great Craven Faults and both the Mountain (Great Scar) and Yoredale limestone series.

Phillips was also a gifted teacher and lecturer. During the next 30 years he produced a series of brilliant scientific papers, not only in geology, but the sister discipline of palaeontology (study of fossils). He is now regarded as one of the world’s greatest early palaeontologists, helping to unravel the secrets of early life on planet Earth. He also did major work on meteorology and astronomy, taking only the second ever detailed close-up photograph of the moon from a telescope in his back garden, and produced remarkable observations of Mars. Many papers were given or published with the British Association for the Advancement of Science, established in York in 1831 with Phillips as its first Secretary. But he also lectured to voluntary groups throughout Yorkshire such as mechanics institutes, free of charge.

If that were not enough, Phillips had a passion for the Yorkshire countryside, and produced one of the best ever guidebooks The Rivers, Mountains and Sea Coast of Yorkshire with scientifically accurate details of geology and land formation. His section on Airedale for example contains a fine description of the Aire Valley around Keighley, Bingley and Shipley, noting the ‘remarkable elevation known as Baildon Hill’.

However, even if he has to admit that the mills, looms, waterwheels and chimneys that crowded the banks of the Aire spoiled the landscape, he notes that the valley’s steam railway also connected readers to many other places of unspoiled beauty.

Phillips was one of the first topographers to celebrate the ability of railway to allow people living in cities like Bradford and Leeds to escape to the countryside, using the new lines still being built as he was writing. In 1853 Phillips published what is probably the world’s first popular railway guidebook, Railway Excursions from York, Leeds and Hull, selling for just one shilling from the new station bookshops.

Phillips understood that the railways offered ordinary working people from West Riding cities such as Bradford a wonderful chance to reach the countryside and all that the natural environment could teach them.

Rather than getting upset about the smoke of factories and mills, he suggested industry brought wealth, education and chance for ordinary people, not just the wealthy, to travel:

...’we who live in Yorkshire know too well their value in augmenting the comforts of the people to join in the rude and thankless cry. Rather let us attend a meeting of the Institute, or the Philosophical Society, and learn how earnest a love of literature, science and art is fostered under this dingy atmosphere; let us enter the factory, and, with unselfish sympathy, invite the hardworking children of the West Riding to accompany us on a railway excursion.’

In this respect, Phillips was looking forward to the creation of national parks as a huge educational resource.

In 1854, now a nationally celebrated scientist, Phillips left Yorkshire to be appointed, despite lacking any formal academic qualifications, as Professor of Geology at Oxford.

His last visit to Yorkshire in 1873 was to Bradford where he gave a typically generous lecture at the British Association meeting in the city, recognising the achievements of his old friend and adversary Charles Darwin describing him as “that great naturalist”. But in truth, in some important respects, he can be described as Darwin’s equal.

*John Phillips, Yorkshire’s traveller through time by Colin Speakman, is published by Gritstone Publishing at £15. Visit: gritstonecoop.co.uk/books/john-phillips/

*Colin Speakman is a poet and author or co-author of many books about walking and the countryside.