I wanted to write a song about Cuthbert Skipsey, Joseph's father, who was one of two men killed during the miners' strike of 1832. The other was Nicholas Fairles, a magistrate who was attacked and left to die by two striking miners. Although this event happened some time before the killing of Cuthbert Skipsey, the trials of the two men charged with the killings took place within two days of each other. The disparity of the sentences was remarked on at the time, and I incorporated this into my song, though I focus on Cuthbert's killing. This took place on 8th July, 1832 and began when Alexander Clark, a striking miner, decided to protest at the constables as they went to the pit to guard the blackleg labourers. Many of the eyewitnesses describe Clark as sitting on his hat, and this is the image I use to start the song. The events of the trials were reported in detail in local newspapers and I have drawn on these when writing the song.
One Sunday evening in July a man was sitting on his hat
On the railway line that led down to the colliery
His name was Alexander Clark, he was a striking miner
It was 1832 and he was angry.
For the miners had formed a Union and to strike for better pay
They'd all withdrawn their labour, and stayed out for many days
And the coalowners had evicted them and cast them on the street
And brought in blackleg labour to work their mines.
So now beside the railway, when the constables came by
On their way to guard the blacklegs at the mine
Alexander Clarke he swore at them, said: Never a blackleg bugger
Should go past that way to work the pit that night.
The constables took hold of him and tried to take him in
But Clarke he resisted and created such a din
That his marras in the nearby pub came out and rescued him
And the miners and the police were in a stand-off
Twas then that Cuthbert Skipsey, a miner like the rest,
He intervened to try to calm things down
But a policeman drew his pistol and shot him in the chest
He staggered, and fell dead to the ground
The jury at the inquest gave a verdict of manslaughter
And George Weddell, the policeman, was sent for trial
And next day they buried Skipsey, at the age of thirty-nine,
With a wife and eight children left behind.
Now in an earlier incident, a magistrate had been killed
By two miners who begged for money as he rode by
And when he refused them, they beat him up and left him
With injuries from which he later was to die.
One of the men escaped but the other was arrested
William Jobling was his name and now on trial he did stand
And although he hadn’t meant to kill the jury found him guilty
And for murder he was sentenced to be hanged.
Two days later, Weddell stood on trial for killing Cuthbert Skipsey,
And the witnesses were called to give their evidence
The policemen said the miners had attacked them in a mob
And that Weddell had only fired his gun in self-defence.
But the miners said that Skipsey had just tried to keep the peace,
And others said there was no provocation.
So the jury found Weddell guilty, but they recommended mercy
And the judge gave him six months’ hard labour.
No mercy came to Jobling, and later that same day
He was hanged outside the county gaol in Durham
Then they stripped and blacked his body and stuck it on a gibbet
And displayed it as a warning to the miners
So where is the justice, and whose is the law
When people are punished differently because of who they are
So a miner who kills a magistrate is hanged and mounted on a stake
But a policeman gets six months for killing a miner.
Cuthbert Skipsey was born in Plessey, Northumberland, and baptised in St Mary's Church, Stannington on 16 April 1793. His parents were Cuthbert and Hannah (nee Wanless). He married Isabella Bell in Newcastle in 1816.
Cuthbert Skipsey's baptismal record, April 1793:
16. Cuthbert, son of Cuth[bert] & Hannah Skipsey, Plessey
One striking aspect of the story to emerge from my research is the general severity of the sentences to which ordinary people were condemned for relatively minor offences. George Weddell's sentence was one of the lightest awarded at the court session which included the trial.