Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Skipsey, Joseph

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SKIPSEY, JOSEPH (1832–1903), the collier poet, born on 17 March 1832 at Percy, a parish in the borough of Tynemouth, Northumberland, was youngest of the eight children of Cuthbert Skipsey, a miner, by his wife Isabella Bell. In his infancy his father was shot in a collision between pitmen and special constables during some labour disturbances. Skipsey, who worked in the coal pits from the age of seven, had no schooling, but he soon taught himself to read and write. Until he was fifteen the Bible was the only book to which he had access. After that age he managed to study Milton, Shakespeare, Burns, and some translations from Latin, Greek, and German, particularly the poems of Heine and Goethe's 'Faust.' In 1852 he walked most of the way to London; and after finding employment connected with railway construction, and marrying his landlady, returned to work first at Coatbridge in Scotland for six months, then at the Pembroke Collieries near Sunderland, and subsequently at Choppington. In 1859 he published a volume of 'Poems,' no copy of which seems extant (cf. pref. to Miscellaneous Lyrics, 1878). The book attracted the attention of James Clephan, editor of the 'Gateshead Observer,' who obtained for him the post of under storekeeper at the Gateshead works of Hawks, Crawshay, and Sons. In 1863, after a fatal accident to one of his children in the works, he removed to Newcastle-on-Tyne, to become assistant librarian to the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society. The duties proved uncongenial, and he returned in 1864 to mines near Newcastle, remaining at work for various coal firms until 1882. Subsequently he obtained fighter employment. From 1882 to 1885 he and his wife were caretakers of the Bentinck board schools in Mill Lane, Newcastle. From September 1888 to June 1889 he was janitor at the Armstrong College (Durham University College of Science).

Meanwhile his poetic and intellectual faculty steadily developed, and his literary ambitions were encouraged by his friend Thomas Dixon, the working-man of Sunderland to whom Ruskin addressed the twenty-five letters published as 'Time and Tide by Weare and Tyne.' Skipsey published 'Poems, Songs, and Ballads ' (1862); 'The Collier Lad, and other Lyrics ' (1864); 'Poems' (1871); and 'A Book of Miscel- laneous Lyiics' (1878, re-issued with additions and omissions as 'A Book of Lyrics,' 1881). There followed 'Carols from the Coalfields' (1886); and 'Songs and Lyrics' (1892). Skipsey's published work soon received praise from critics of insight. D. G. Rossetti commended his poems of mining life. 'A Book of Miscellaneous Lyrics' was appreciatively reviewed in the 'Athenaeum ' (16 Nov. 1878) by Theodore Watts-Dunton. Oscar Wilde likened his 'Carols from the Coalfields ' to the work of WiUiam Blake. In 1884-5 Skipsey acted as first general editor of the 'Canterbury Poets' (published by Walter Scott of Newcastle), and wrote rhetorical and disciu'sive but suggestive prefaces to the reprints of the poetry of Burns (two essays), Shelley, Coleridge, Blake, and Poe. A lecture, 'The Poet as Seer and Singer,' was delivered before the Newcastle-on-Tyne Literary and Philosophical Society in 1883, and was published in 1890.

Meanwhile in 1880 Dixon brought Skipsey to London and introduced him to Burne-Jones, to whose efforts the grant of a civil list pension of 10l. (raised in 1886 to 25l., with a donation of 50l. from the Royal Bounty Fund) was largely due. On 24 June 1889 Skipsey and his wife were appointed custodians of Shakespeare's birthplace at Stratford-on-Avon on the recommendation of Browning, Tennyson, Burne-Jones, John Morley, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, and other literary men of eminence. But he soon grew impatient of the drudgery of acting as cicerone to miscellaneous tourists, and he resigned the post on 31 Oct. 1891 (cf. Henry James's story, 'The Birthplace,' in The Better Sort, 1903, which was suggested by a vague report of Skipsey's psychological experience at Stratford-on-Avon). Thenceforth Skipsey and his wife subsisted in the north on his pension and the assistance of his children, with whom they lived in turns. Visits to the English Lakes and to Norway (with Newcastle friends, Dr. and Mrs. Spence Watson) varied the seclusion of his last years. He died at Gateshead, in the house of his son Cuthbert, on 3 Sept. 1903, and was buried in Gateshead cemetery. In 1854 he married Sara Ann (daughter of Benjamin and Susan Hendley), the proprietress of the boarding-house at which he was staying in London. His wife died in August 1902. Two out of five sons and the eldest of three daughters survived him.

Skipsey's poems were mainly lyrical, although he occasionally attempted more sustained flights, and they show the influence of Burns and Heine. He is at his best in the verse which was prompted by his own experience as a pitman. He acquired the habit of carefully revising his work, but he failed to conquer a native ruggedness of diction. De Chatelain translated his 'Fairies' Parting Song' and other shorter poems in his 'Beautés de la poesie anglaise,' vol. iii. A projected 'History of Æstheticism' proved beyond his powers. For a time he put faith in spiritualism, conceiving himself to be a clairvoyant, and he left some unpublished writings on the subject.

A portrait of Skipsey was painted by a German artist for Wigham Richardson, a member of a firm of shipbuilders of Walker-on-Tyne, and hangs in the Mechanics' Institute there.

[Joseph Skipsey, by R. Spence Watson, 1909; Autobiographical preface to A Book of Miscellaneous Lyrics, 1878; W. Bell Scott's Autobiographical Notes, 1892; A. H. Miles's Poets and Poetry of the Century, vol 5; Athenæum, 16 Nov. 1878 and 12 Sept. 1903; Lady Burne-Jones's Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, ii. 107–8; Shakespeare's Birthplace records; private information.]

E. S. H-r.