life stories

Robert Kemp Philp, 1819 – 1882

Robert Kemp Philp served on the Executive of the National Charter Association and co-authored the 1842 Chartist petition, but he was pushed out of the movement due to his association with middle-class reformers and his efforts to build a rival to the Northern Star.

Born at Falmouth on 14 June 1819, Robert Kemp Philp was the son of Henry Philp, a Cornish draper. His grandfather, also named Robert Kemp Philp, was a Wesleyan, and later unitarian minister and early supporter of ragged schools and city missions.

National Vindicator: ‘Edited, Printed and Published by Henry Vincent and Robert Kemp Philp.’ Click for larger image.

Leaving school in 1835, Philp was apprenticed to a printer at Bristol, and later moved to Bath to become a newsvendor, where he was sentenced to the pillory for two hours for selling papers on a Sunday; he avoided the punishment by paying a fine. Joining the Chartist movement, he edited first The Regenerator and subsequently joined Henry Vincent as co-editor of the Western Vindicator and then National Vindicator.

He was active as a Chartist lecturer, speaking at Monmouth in November 1840, becoming the first Chartist speaker in the town after the Newport Rising. He was arrested for his efforts, but released on bail.

Philp joined the Executive Council of the National Charter Association, where he co-authored the text of the 1842 Chartist petition with Peter Murray McDouall. Though the six points remained the same, the text differed significantly from that of the petition of 1838, with a greater emphasis on class, the financial burden of the monarchy and the established church, and on Irish grievances.

In April 1842, both Vincent and Philp signed a declaration drawn up by Joseph Sturge and other middle class reformers that many Chartists argued angrily was an attempt to undermine the cause and damage the petition. Philp defended his own integrity, and would serve as a delegate to the 1842 convention called to organise the presentation of the petition to Parliament. But he failed to win re-election to the Executive Council, and both he and Vincent drifted away from mainstream Chartism; in the autumn of that year he took part in the conference of Sturge’s Complete Suffrage Union.

Some years later, Feargus O’Connor accused Philp of having ‘made a tour, not to establish Chartism, but to establish the “Western Vindicator” in opposition to the “Northern Star”, and which paper completely divided us in the West of England’ (NS, 13 May 1848, p1). O’Connor was intolerant of his political opponents, but even more so of his business rivals.

In 1845 Philp settled in Great New Street, Fetter Lane, London, as a publisher, and was sub-editor of the People’s Journal from 1846 to 1848. He published, on his own account, the immensely successful Family Friend, successively a monthly, fortnightly, and weekly, and edited it from 1849 to 1852. Similar serials followed: the Family Tutor (1851 to 1853), Home Companion (1852 to 1856), and Family Treasury (in 1853–54).  He also edited Diogenes, a weekly comic paper (1853–54).

Enquire Within: first edition from 1856. Click for larger image.

Philp went on to compile cheap handbooks on practical everyday topics, often priced at just 2d a time. The most popular, Enquire within upon Everything, appeared in 1856; its sixty-fifth edition appeared in 1882, and by 1888 it had sold 1,039,000 copies. Supplements and spinoffs followed, and sold in huge numbers, with new editions of the main work continuing to appear until 1976. In a 2017 interview with Forbes magazine, Tim Berners Lee would recall: ‘When I first began tinkering with a software program that eventually gave rise to the idea of the World Wide Web, I named it ENQUIRE, short for Enquire Within upon Everything, a musty old book of Victorian advice I noticed as a child in my parents’ house outside London. With its title suggestive of magic, the book served as a portal to a world of information, everything from how to remove clothing stains to tips on investing money.’

Taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by an earlier technological innovation, the railway, Philp was responsible for guides to the Lake District and Wales, and to the Great Northern, Midland (1873), London and North-Western (1874), London and South-Western (1874), Great Eastern (1875), London, Brighton, and South Coast (1875), and South-Eastern railways (1875).

Philp died at 21 Claremont Square, Islington, on 30 Nov. 1882, aged 64. Though a wealthy man, he was buried in an unmarked grave at Highgate Cemetery. His portrait appears in vol I of his Family Treasury, published 1853.


Modern English Biography Containing Many Thousands of Concise Memoirs of Persons Who Have Died Since The Year 1850 (volume II), by Frederick Boase, 1897. Accessed on 18 November 2023 via Google Books

‘Philp, Robert Kemp’, by Charlotte Fell Smith, in Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, accessed on 18 November 2023 via Wikisource.

Enquire Within upon Everything, eighty-fifth edition (Houlston & Sons, 1891), accessed on 19 November 2023 on Google Books.