Academic journal article John Clare Society Journal

Joseph Skipsey and John Clare: Two Labouring-Class Poets

Academic journal article John Clare Society Journal

Joseph Skipsey and John Clare: Two Labouring-Class Poets

Article excerpt

Five years before Clare went into Allen's asylum at High Beech, and far north of Clare's part of the world, a pitman's son was born in Northumberland on 17 March 1832, a man who was to share Clare's social status in the lowest class, but also to share his burning ambition to be a poet. His name was Joseph Skipsey.1

Like Clare, Skipsey had few advantages. He was only a few months old when his father, Cuthbert Skipsey, was shot by a policeman in a messy squabble in which Cuthbert was probably trying to keep the peace. The argument was about a strike for fairer conditions and pay, and the coal-owners had brought in blackleg labour and threatened to turn the pitmen out of their houses, bringing in some special constables to protect the imported pitmen. Unfortunately the emergency policemen were armed and, when a quarrel escalated, one of them fired a shot and Joseph Skipsey's father was killed, leaving a wife and seven children, of whom Joseph was the youngest.2

As soon as he was able-at the age of seven-he was put to work as a trapper boy in the pit to contribute to the family coffers. His twelve- to fourteen-hour shifts left little room for schooling which up until then had been rudimentary, even more rudimentary than Clare's. He had been taught the basic alphabet and how to put two letters together, but that was all.3 But with that drive which he shared with Clare, he determined to learn to read and write, and so taught himself from any printed papers he could find around the pit-announcements, advertisements, notices-practising his letters with a piece of chalk on the doors of the ventilation trap which it was his duty to manage, by the light of a discarded or donated candle end. Like Clare too, he listened to the songs being sung around him, often only fragmentary versions which he began to complete in his own words. Also like Clare, he ascended on steps of books borrowed from friends and relations, to a stage where he could begin to write his own poems. He began to attempt to learn the bible off by heart but was mocked out of his resolve after memorising a few books. He even parallels Clare's saving up over weeks to buy himself a copy of a book he wished to read. In Clare's case it was Thomson's Seasons-, in Skipsey's case it was Shakespeare. Friends and neighbours, and a bookseller in Newcastle, all helped him on his way.

An interlude in London, working on the expanding railways, did not bring him fame and fortune, but it did bring him a wife,4 who returned with him to Northumberland and was, as she would always be, a great support, although on her marriage certificate she signs her name with a cross, against which is written 'Sarah Fendley, Her Mark'.

His ambition to become a poet grew and he wished to see his work in print. Again in the same pattern as Clare many years earlier, he went about trying to get some of his work published, getting advice from a local archdeacon. The result was a privately printed booklet, so ephemeral that there is no copy extant, but it was reported and reviewed in the local paper, the Gateshead Observer, where the editor discovered talent in the young man who came to his office to offer it for review.5 This editor, James Clephan, did all he could to publicise Skipsey's work, giving him space on many a Saturday for a poem in his 'Poetry Corner',6 and reviewing the second edition of his poems which Skipsey was encouraged to publish. Not only that, Clephan stood up at a supper in Newcastle celebrating in 1859 the centenary of Burns's birth and told the audience in no uncertain terms that it would be hypocritical to lament the neglect and bad treatment of Burns by his contemporaries, and not recognise the existence of a genius in their midst, who at the time needed support and a job. Another speaker proposed spending all the profits of the evening to pay for copies of Skipsey's new book for all the Mechanics Institutes of the area, a proposal which was passed with acclaim. …

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