Molesworth Phillips, who sailed on the Third Voyage in Resolution, was born in Swords, near Dublin on 15 August 1755. He was the son of John Phillips, himself an illegitimate son of Robert Molesworth, first Viscount Molesworth. Phillips joined the Royal Navy but, apparently on the advice of Joseph Banks, transferred to the Royal Marines.
Phillips joined Resolution on 12 June 1776 as lieutenant of marines. He was from the Chatham Division of marines whereas his men joined a month later at Plymouth. Phillips was part of the shore party at Kealakekua Bay when Cook was killed. Phillips, himself, was wounded but managed to save one of his privates, John Jackson. He is reported to have fought a duel with John Williamson in connection with Williamson’s perceived inaction and failure to save Cook at Kealakekua Bay. After the voyage, Phillips was promoted to captain in November 1780.
On 10 January 1782, Phillips married Susanna Elizabeth, sister of James Burney who had sailed on the Second and Third Voyages. The couple moved in 1784 to live in Mickleham in Surrey, where they had three children (Frances born 1782; Charles Norbury in 1785; and John William James in 1791). Through the Burney family, Phillips met and became friends with members of London’s literary society.
Living at Mickleham, the Phillips and Burneys encountered French refugees, including Talleyrand, with whom Phillips became friends (his sister-in-law, Fanney Burney, married one of the French emigres, Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard D’Arblay in 1793). Phillips was promoted brevet major on 1 March 1794, and then brevet lieutenant-colonel on 1 January 1798.
As early as 1787, the Phillips’s marriage had begun to fail. It was nearly over by 1795 when Phillips left England to live at his estate at Belcotton in Louth, Ireland, taking their son, Charles Norbury, with him and Susanna was forced to follow in 1796 to be with her son. By then, Phillips was openly conducting an affair with a cousin. Phillips had proved to be a gambler and womaniser, who mistreated his wife. Susanna’s health suffered badly and, faced with the behaviour of her husband, she left Ireland, dying near Chester on 6 January 1800 shortly after reaching England.
The Phillips children had had a tutor during their time in Dublin, Henry Maturin. On 4 October 1800, Molesworth Phillips married Maturin’s sister, Anne Maturin. The Maturins were children of the Reverend Charles and Elizabeth (née Denson).
The Phillips visited France without visas and were detained by the French government from 1802 until 1804. Phillips appealed to Talleyrand, at first without success. But he was eventually paroled and the Phillips returned to Britain where a daughter, Elizabeth, was born in 1805. Back in Britain, seemingly forgiven by the Burneys, Phillips re-entered the whist playing circle of his former brother-in-law, which included Robert Southey and Charles Lamb. Lamb described Phillips as “the high minded associate of Cook, the veteran colonel with his lusty heart still sending cartels of defiance to old Time”.
Phillips eventually died of cholera at his home in Lambeth, London, on 11 September 1832. He is buried in St. Margaret’s, Westminster. There is a short biography in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The National Portrait Gallery in London has two portraits of Phillips.
The Hampshire Telegraph reported his obituary in September 1832, “Died Tuesday last, of cholera, at his house in Lambeth, Molesworth Phillips, Lt Colonel of Marines, the last surviving companion of the illustrious Circumnavigator Cook, of whose death he was an eye witness and, to a certain extent, the avenger.”
Of Molesworth Phillips’s children, Charles Norbury Phillips died in 1814 and John William James Phillips died in 1833. Frances Phillips married Charles Chamier Raper in 1807 and they lived at Chelsea. Frances Raper remained close to her aunt Fanny Burney. Frances Raper died in north Norfolk in 1860. Elizabeth Phillips married a cousin, Washington Shirley Maturin, in Paris on 26 December 1836. Elizabeth and her half-sister must have remained friends as they both died in the same Norfolk village, Thurgarton, as Frances. Elizabeth Phillips died in 1873 and Washington Maturin, rector of Thurgarton, died in 1876.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 13, volume 37, number 3 (2014).
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