A Photographer for Royalty: John Phillips

Over the summer of 2023, members of Clifton Street Orange Hall were hard at work sorting through a room on the top floor of the building. ‘Room 7’ as it is known, had been a storage room that had accumulated all sorts of historic artefacts, from Lodge Bibles and Minute books to old portraits and banners. It was in this room that skeletal remains were found in 2022. As members sifted through the artefacts, they uncovered a large portrait of a man, dated November 1912, in memory of John Phillips. This research was conducted by our archivist and then first used during the Belfast Orange Hall tours on the 23rd February 2024 as part of the ‘Look North’ Festival.

John was the eldest son in the family, born in Belfast in 1851 to John Phillips Sr (a labourer) and Mary Anne Cameron. John would initially ply his trade as a porter and would marry Margaret Canning on 10th May 1869 in Trinity Church Belfast. Together, they would have 7 children: John (b.1870), Henry (b.1872), Anne (b.1874), Margaret (b.1877), Rachel (b.1879), Evangeline (b. 1881) and Albert (b, 1882). During this time, John would make a drastic career change, abandoning his job as a porter and labourer to become one of the foremost photographers in Belfast.

Tragedy would strike the family in 1882. Margaret had been suffering from Valvular Heart Disease, likely diagnosed around the birth of their youngest daughter Rachel.[1] Albert was born on the 3rd of September 1882, with Margaret passing away just over two weeks later. The death certificate cites Chronic Bronchitis and Valvular disease of the heart, in conjunction with Dropsy (oedema) and exhaustion. Albert would also not survive, dying on the 3rd of October 1882.

In the wake of his wife’s death, John would quickly remarry, marrying Agnes Neill in a ceremony on New Years Day 1883 in Mariners Parish Church, with a daughter, Olive, being born the following year. Agnes would tragically pass away on 18th April 1885, aged 34 after a bout of Rhuemetic Fever.

John would marry his third wife, Mary Anne Malcolmson on 30th October 1885, again in Mariners Church. They would have a further 3 children: Mabel (b.1888), William (b.1890) and Raphael (b.1891). Mary Anne would pass away from cirrhosis of the liver in March 1901 aged 49. John would then marry his fourth wife, Annie Elizabeth Frew on June 30th 1903. [2]

John had been established himself as one of the foremost photographers in the country, with a premises at 143 Royal Avenue in 1901 and 45 Donegall Place in 1907, having later enlisted the help of son Henry in the running of the business. The Phillips photography business was clearly well respected, as a photograph Mount Stewart House by Phillips is currently in an album formerly owned by Queen Mary. This photograph is currently held by the Royal Collections Trust, and has “J. Phillips, Belfast” clearly written in the bottom corner. Another example of his work is in the collections of National Museums of Northern Ireland.

John died on 22nd July 1912 of a heart attack, aged 60 and was interred in City Cemetery where he is buried alongside his first wife. Active in several organisations, he was a member of the Orange Order and well-respected member of the Royal Black Preceptory, as well as the Free Gardeners; the insignia of which can be seen in the photograph on the knot of his tie. Attendees from all organisations were present at his funeral. The photograph of John Phillips was later acquired by his Royal Black Preceptory Chapter in November 1912.

From consulting the minute books of RBP 21 which are housed in the Belfast Orange Hall archives, we are able to find out more about John Philips and the high esteem his brothers in the Britannia RBP held him. A former Past Master, he was elected Chaplin just days before his passing. Plans regarding the funeral of John Phillips were recorded in the Minute Books, stating the intention to purchase a wreath and to send a letter to Annie in the wake of John’s death. A copy of the letter of sympathy sent by the Preceptory is also recorded in the minutes, dated 24th July 1912:

                “Dear Mrs Phillips & Family:

                                It was unanimously passed, and I was instructed to convey to you the sincere sympathy of the officers and members of RBP 21 towards you in your sad bereavement in the loss by death of your dear husband and partner in life…

                                                                                                Signed on behalf of the preceptory:

                                                                                                                                Yours Faithfully and Fraternally

                                                                                                                                                Hugh Hill, Register.”

Also recorded in the minutes is the commissioning and acquisition of the portrait which first caught the eye of our archivist:

                “It was proposed by Sir Knight Ferguson that 8/4 be paid by 21(21st November) towards the late Sir Knight Phillips Photo. Seconded by Sir Knight Wells and passed.”

In the wake of John’s death his photography business fell to his son Henry who passed away from cancer just a few years later in 1915. After Henry Phillips’ death, the photography business slips from public record. While his photography business has been long forgotten, the rediscover of his portrait and the archival records of his time spent as officer of the Brittania Royal Black Preceptory 21 has allowed us to tell his story once more.

Whilst this story began with the discovery of items found at the Orange Hall, photographs from Phillips Studios can be found in any attic or family photo album. In the weeks since this research was completed, photographs from the Clifton House archives were discovered, which prominently display the Phillips name.

Old photographs offer a glimpse, albeit carefully posed and poised, into someone’s life. Seeing the face of a relative or a complete stranger helps humanise a person we will never know, or a period of time which we will never experience.

If you have any old photographs, and the stories behind them, let us know at info@greatplacenorthbelfast.com.

[1] On Margarets death certificate, it is noted as a cause of death: Chronic Bronchitis and Valvular Disease of the Heart- 3 years, which coincides with the birth of Rachel.

[2] Of the Phillips children, William is a noteworthy individual. William, as of 1911 was cited as being ‘deaf and dumb’, an outdated term which referred to deaf individuals who were unable to speak. He was boarding with a family on Cumberland Street, William and Isabella Richardson, both of whom were also deaf. Whilst their two sons were not deaf, between the family and boarders, 4 deaf adults were living in this house not far from the Shankill.  This has identified an area that needs further research, namely around living with disabilities in Victorian Belfast. We hope to look further into this over the coming year.

About the archivist:

James Cromey is the Archive Coordinator for the North Belfast Heritage Cluster. He has a background in Victorian, Industrial and Medical History and has received degrees from the University of Glasgow and Queens University Belfast. All research has been conducted to a high academic standard and has been fully referenced. If you would like to know more about a story or piece of research, or if you wish to tell us about your own story, email us at: archiveproject@nbheritagecluster.org

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