JOSEPH SKIPSEY (1832-1903)
I think that I have never known a greater man (Robert Spence Watson)
I found him a stalwart son of toil and every inch a gentleman (Dante Gabriel Rossetti)
Joseph Skipsey was born on March 17, 1832, in Percy Main, Northumberland, the eighth child of Cuthbert and Isabella Skipsey. When he was just four months old, his father was killed by a special constable during an industrial dispute. He began colliery work at seven years of age as a 'trapper,' opening and closing ventilation doors. During the long shifts, he taught himself to read and write and soon began to compose his own poetry, publishing his first book of poems in 1859. Several other volumes followed, including Miscellaneous Lyrics (1878), Carols from the Coalfields (1886) and Carols, Songs and Ballads (1888). Perhaps his most famous poem was The Hartley Calamity, written in response to the tragic events at Hartley Pit in January 1862.
His work was praised by the Pre-Raphaelites Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne Jones, and he was asked to be the editor of volumes of poetry by Coleridge, Shelley, Blake, Burns and Poe. Skipsey worked as a miner for most of his life, later becoming caretaker of a school in Mill Lane, Newcastle. In 1889, on the recommendation of Rossetti and others, he was appointed curator of Shakespeare's Birthplace in Stratford, but left after two years to return to the north-east. In 1880, he was awarded a small annual civil list pension in recognition of his literary work. He and his wife, Sarah, had 8 children, only 3 of whom survived them. He died in Low Fell, Gateshead, on September 3rd, 1903.
Please click here for a more detailed chronology of Joseph Skipsey's life.
Please click here to see a list of Joseph Skipsey's poems.
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Links and references
All the poems and some of Skipsey's other writings - including his introductions to volumes of the Canterbury Poets series - can be found at Ian Petticrew's excellent website devoted to the work of 19th-century working-class poets: Minor Victorian Poets and Authors where there is also some further biographical information.
A new book has recently been published, which includes a selection of the poems, a short biography and a very thorough reference list:
Joseph Skipsey: Selected poems. Edited by R K R Thornton, Chris Harrison & WIlliam Daniel McCumiskey.
This is an updated version of the original (edited by WIlliam Daniel McCumiskey & R K R Thornton), with additional biographical detail. Available from R K R Thornton, The Rectory Press, 2 Rectory Terrace, Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne NE3 1XY or via email@example.com
This is a limited edition. All profits go to the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne, where Joseph Skipsey delivered his lecture on 'The Poet as Seer and Singer' in 1883.
Many of the poems are still available through companies specialising in facsimiles and reprints. However some, such as those produced by General Books, Memphis, use Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software which produces an unsatisfactory result. These are not included below.
Miscellaneous Lyrics (1878) is available as A Book of Miscellaneous Lyrics from Dodo Press ISBN 978-1-4099-6623-4 www.dodopress.co.uk
Joseph Skipsey: A Memoir, written by his friend Robert Spence Watson in 1910 is also available as a reprint.