Skelton, John (1831-1897) (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 52
Skelton, John (1831-1897)

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SKELTON, Sir JOHN (1831–1897), author, born in Edinburgh in 1831, was the son of James Skelton of Sandford Newton, writer to the signet, sheriff-substitute at Peterhead, where Skelton's boyhood was spent. He was educated at the university of Edinburgh. In 1854 he was admitted a member of the faculty of advocates; but his interests lay in literature more than in law. In 1857 he contributed to a volume of ‘Edinburgh Essays’ an essay on ‘Early English Life in the Drama.’ So as not to interfere with his professional prospects, he assumed the pseudonym of ‘Shirley,’ after the heroine in Charlotte Brontë's novel of that name. He had previously received from Miss Brontë a letter of thanks for a critical notice of ‘Jane Eyre.’ Under the pseudonym of ‘Shirley’ he became a regular contributor of essays and reviews to the ‘Guardian,’ a short-lived Edinburgh periodical, and to ‘Fraser's Magazine.’ With the editor of ‘Fraser's,’ James Anthony Froude, he formed a close acquaintance. In 1862 appeared his first independent publication, ‘Nugæ Criticæ,’ a collection of essays which had appeared in various magazines, and in the same year he attempted a political romance, ‘Thalatta, or the Great Commoner,’ a sketch of a character combining resemblances to both Canning and Disraeli.

When the Scottish board of supervision—whose duty it was to administer the laws respecting the poor and public health—was reconstituted in 1868, Skelton was appointed secretary by Disraeli. It is said that the choice was due to Disraeli's admiration of his literary work. Within a year Skelton published a sympathetic sketch of the statesman, entitled ‘Benjamin Disraeli: the Past and the Future’ (London, 1868, 8vo). He retained the post of secretary to the board of supervision till 1892, when he was elected chairman. In 1894, when the board was replaced by the Scottish local government board, Skelton became vice-president of the new body. He finally retired on 31 March 1897, when the board recorded in a minute its sense of Skelton's services in diminishing pauperism throughout Scotland. His earliest official work had been to administer the Public Health Act of 1867, and to aid its operations he published an edition of the act with notes. In 1876 he published another official work of authority on ‘The Boarding-out of Pauper Children in Scotland’ (Edinburgh, 8vo). ‘The Handbook of Public Health’ (London, 1890, 8vo; supplement, 1891) and ‘The Local Government (Scotland) Act in relation to Public Health’ (Edinburgh and London, 1890, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1890) were valuable contributions to official literature. He also edited, with his friend Mr. William Ellis Gloag, now Lord Kencairney, a Scottish judge, the second edition of Dickson's ‘Treatise on the Law of Evidence in Scotland,’ 1864, 8vo.

Meanwhile Skelton was confirming his literary reputation. With ‘Blackwood's Magazine’ he opened in 1869 a connection which he maintained to the end of his life. In 1876 he published his first contribution to the controversy concerning Mary Stuart, entitled ‘The Impeachment of Mary Stuart’ (Edinburgh, 8vo), in which he espoused the cause of the unfortunate queen. This was followed in 1883 by ‘Essays in Romance and Studies from Life;’ in 1887–8 by ‘Maitland of Lethington and the Scotland of Mary Stuart’ (Edinburgh, 8vo), his most elaborate historical work; and in 1893 by ‘Mary Stuart’ (London, 4to), in all of which he defended Mary against her accusers with ability and careful restraint. Of Skelton's more purely literary works the best known are the ‘Essays of Shirley’ (Edinburgh, 1882, 8vo), and ‘The Table Talk of Shirley’ (Edinburgh, 1895, 8vo), of which a second series was issued in 1896 under the title ‘Summers and Winters at Balmawhapple.’ The table talk consisted chiefly of reminiscences of Froude, Dante Rossetti, and other personal friends or literary contemporaries. Quaint, almost eccentric, in treatment, Skelton's essays were always popular with men of letters, and his style won the admiration of authors so different as Carlyle, Thackeray, Huxley, and Rossetti. He is always happy in descriptions of scenery, in which he was aided by his skill as a sketcher and his intimacy with artists. Sir J. Noel Paton was one of his friends. His judgment of character is more open to question, but he wrote on subjects of heated controversy both in the past and present, and, with a chivalry which was part of his nature, often took what was at the time the unpopular side; but throughout his historical work he displayed something of the spirit of the advocate.

In 1878 he received the honorary degree of LL.D. from Edinburgh University; he was created C.B. in 1887, and K.C.B. in 1897. He died on 19 July 1897 at the Braid Hermitage, near Edinburgh. He married, in 1867, Anne Adair, daughter of James Adair Lawrie, professor of surgery at Glasgow. She survived him, with several children. Besides the works mentioned, Skelton was the author of a graphic picture of life at Peterhead, entitled ‘The Crookit Meg: a Story of the Year One,’ London, 1880, 8vo. It originally ran serially through ‘Fraser's Magazine.’ A volume of poems, ‘Spring Songs by a Western Highlander,’ is also attributed to him. He furnished introductions to the elaborately illustrated ‘Royal House of Stuart,’ 1890, fol., and to a similar work on Charles I (not yet published). Among his other publications were: 1. ‘John Dryden, “In Defence,”’ London, 1865, 8vo. 2. ‘A Campaigner at Home,’ 1865. 3. ‘The Great Lord Bolingbroke, Henry St. John,’ Edinburgh, 1868, 8vo. 4. A selection from Wilson's ‘Noctes Ambrosianæ,’ 1876, 8vo.

[Skelton's Works; Scotsman, 21 July 1897; Times, 1 April 1897 and 21 July 1897; Daily Chronicle, 22 July 1897; Men and Women of the Time, 14th edit.; List of Edinburgh Graduates, 1859–88; private information.]