1. Joseph Skipsey:
A Brief Biography
by Basil Bunting.
A man's circumstances seldom matter to those who enjoy what he makes.
We buy our shirts without asking who the seamstress was, and should read our
poems without paying too much attention to the names they are printed over.
Things once made stand free of their makers, the more anonymous the better.
However, there are exceptions.
The poems JOSEPH SKIPSEY made stand in a territory of their own, fenced off
on one side from the nameless elaborators of ballad and folksong and on the
other from literary poets who have taken what advantage they could of ballad
and folksong conventions. Burns had a language and a whole literature
of forerunners, an album of tunes to find words for and an output of very
sophisticated satire to underpin his songs; but Northumbrian is only a
spoken language, with no recognisable spelling, as Swinburne found, and no
literature of its own within the last four centuries, except anonymous
ballads. The Scottish small-holder had an education, however brief:
the Northumbrian pitman had none. On the other hand, the process of
balladry had ended, at least in the pit villages, before Skipsey's time.
He had to speak with his own mouth even when he meant to speak for all his
Thus the facts of Skipsey's life are useful, not as Burne-Jones thought, to
excuse his shortcomings though his shortcomings are plain, but to define his
qualities, which, perhaps, the historians of literature have failed to
Joseph Skipsey was born on the 8th of July 1832  at Percy Main, near North
Shields, in the midst of a turbulent strike. The pitmen wanted two
shillings and sevenpence a day and a twelve hour day (with waiting time at
the shaft that would make at least thirteen hours on most days) but the coal
owners got the help of special constables to club such extremists back to
work. Joseph's father, Cuthbert Skipsey, overman at the pit, stepped
between one of the special constables and a man he was bullying, and was
shot dead by the constable for his intervention. The zealous ruffian
was sent to prison for six months and Mrs. Skipsey was left without
pension or relief to feed her eight children on nettle broth until they were
old enough to go down the pit. That was not long. The youngest,
Joseph, was set on as a trapper at the age of seven, to regulate the
ventilation by opening and shutting a door when the wagons passed through
for sixteen hours a day - the strike had failed. What Joseph earned is
not recorded, but can be inferred from the fact that ten years later, when
he was promoted to be a putter, he was paid five shillings a week.
The coal owners were much too thrifty to supply candles to trapper boys.
The children sat in the dark. Except towards midsummer they never saw
light at all except on Sundays (for they started before dawn and ended after
sunset) unless a passing hewer or putter might spare one of them a candleend.
By such occasional light Joseph taught himself to read and write, imitating
the print on playbills and throwaway advertisements in chalk or
finger-tracings on his dusty door. William Straker, president of the
Northumberland miners, told me that he had a similar education a score of
years later. My great-grandfather got no candles. He taught
himself to play the tin whistle when he was a trapper in the dark.
Some pits lowered and raised their men and boys in cages, as now.
Other coal owners thought that made men soft. They provided only
ladders, or else an endless chain with stirrups, to which weary children
clung as best they could. Skipsey saw another seven-year-old whose
grip slackened. He called to his brother behind him: "A'm gannen to
faal, Jimmy". "Slide doon to me, hinny", his brother answered, but
could not hold him and both were killed at the shaft bottom. William
Straker's first pit had ladders, up which the boys swarmed, each followed by
a man huddling up to catch him if he fell. At home, Skipsey told
Spence Watson, it was still nettle broth for supper, with a slice of bread
on lucky days.
Before he owned a book or had seen more than a glimpse of the inside of one
Skipsey made songs his mates picked up and sang. "I have never known
anyone who got more excellent enjoyment out of song", Spence Watson observed
many years later. Skipsey's first books, given him by an uncle when he
was fifteen, were a Bible, Pope's Iliad and a worn Paradise Lost.
Two years later when he became a putter he saved out of his weekly five
shillings to buy a Shakespeare. He had tried to get the Bible by
heart, but transferred the effort, more successfully, to Shakespeare from
whom he could still quote whole scenes verbatim in old age. He read
Burns too, translations of Greek dramatists and a little political economy.
That may be said to have been his whole education, though he went on reading
all his life and was certainly influenced both by Blake, and by Heine in
At twenty Skipsey walked to London - the train was too dear - but found no
other fortune there than a wife, whom he brought back to the north where
they tried to set up a village school. The fees were too small to live
on, so for the rest of his life bar three short intervals Skipsey worked in
the pits, though his friends tried several times to fit him into some more
comfortable trade. He was thought in Northumberland to be a very
strong and skilful hewer and a reliable man for deputy, but the deputy's
responsibilities lay so heavy upon him that he went back to his pick.
In 1859 his first book was printed at Morpeth. It was hardly noticed.
However, three years later, when the whole country was horrified by the
Hartley colliery disaster, Skipsey composed a ballad about it which he read
at many meetings to gather funds for the widows and orphans. Spence
Watson says: "It was not at all like the reading or recitation of other
men... He waited quietly until he felt the spirit of that which he was
about to do come upon him. Then he was as one possessed, everything
but the poem was forgotten, but that he made to live, or perhaps I should
more truly say that he incarnated it; he actually became the poem himself.
His features changed with every expression of the verse, his hands, nay,
even his fingers, expressed the meaning of the words, and that meaning
thoroughly revealed itself. It was far beyond what you had thought of,
but it stood out clear for you ever afterwards."
Robert Spence Watson of Bensham was then a young Newcastle solicitor of an
ancient Quaker yeoman family from Allendale. His wide sympathies with
the art and thought of his day and the great influence he gained behind the
scenes of the radical section of the Liberals brought him an immense
acquaintance ranging from Mazzini to the Pre-Raphaelites, from scholars to
cabinet ministers, most of whom, when they became his guests, sat at table
and conversed with Joseph Skipsey. Skipsey's table-talk is said to
have been trenchant and accurate. Spence Watson's guests listened and
marvelled, but usually did nothing to help the poet. He did not become
a part of the so-called world of letters, he was only brushed lightly by its
The other permanent friend Skipsey's early poems brought him was Thomas
Dixon, the Sunderland cork-cutter to whom Ruskin addressed the letters
published as Time and Tide. Dixon's own letters are extant but
have not been published, and I have not been allowed to consult them.
Ruskin's do not mention Skipsey.
Spence Watson had found a place for Skipsey as sub-librarian to the
Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society, but the pay was too meagre;
and another, as porter at the newly founded Armstrong College, now the
University of Newcastle on Tyne. There Spence Watson's own
middle-class marrow was curdled when Lord Carlisle, walking with the
Principal, paused to talk to Skipsey, who set down two scuttles of coal to
shake hands. "It was quite impossible to have a college", Spence
Watson wrote, "where the scientific men came to see the Principal and the
artistic and literary men came to see the porter." Burne Jones took
pains to have Skipsey made custodian of Shakespeare's house at Stratford on
Avon, just the job, he must have thought, for a poor man who knew almost all
Shakespeare's work by heart. The list of those who supported Skipsey's
application included "Browning, Tennyson, John Morley, Burne Jones, Dante
Gabriel Rossetti, Theodore Watts, Leighton, F.R. Benson, Andrew Lang,
Lord Carlisle, W.M. Rossetti, Austin Dobson, Brain Stoker, Lord
Ravensworth, Thomas Burt, William Morris, Wilson Barrett, Edmund Gosse,
Professor Dowden and many other men of mark." This battalion prevailed, and
the "tall, portly, well-proportioned man, with a fine grave face ... a
somewhat retiring and aloof expression" and a strong Northumbrian accent
moved to Stratford-on-Avon to usher a continual flow of mainly American
tourists through the rooms, answer their questions and put up, if he could,
with their continual assertion that it was Bacon who wrote the plays.
Skipsey could not endure it and returned to the pits after a year.
Burne Jones tried again and persuaded Gladstone to grant Skipsey a Civil
List Pension of £10 a year, raised later to £25.
Skipsey was master-shifter for a while, I think at Backworth, where he
helped to give the village its reputation as a centre of workingmen's
thought and education. Throughout the eighties he was editing
selections of Coleridge, Shelley, Burns, Blake, Poe and other poets in his
spare time for the publishing house of Walter Scott at Felling. His
prefaces, like those of his contemporaries, are too long and too verbose,
but sometimes unexpected or acute.
Three times in his later life Skipsey travelled for pleasure; once to visit
the Lake District with the Spence Watsons and once on a rich Australian's
yacht to sail up the Norwegian coast where he renewed his friendship with
Fridjof Nansen a little before the Fram sailed on its famous North Pole
voyage. The other time, a little earlier, he went to London with
Thomas Dixon to call on a number of Pre-Raphaelite poets and painters.
They probably met Ruskin too, but there is no record of it.
Skipsey lived to be 71. His wife  died more than
a year before him, and the dignified, rather austere old man was cared for
by his housekeeper, a grand-daughter, Jane Skipsey, just twelve years old. His son William was inspector of schools at Durham, his eldest son, James,
 master shifter at
the Montagu colliery at Scotswood, where Joseph Skipsey sometimes visited my
father, the colliery doctor there; but I was too young to have any memory of
him. He died at Harraton in September 1903. 
It will be seen that I have hardly been able to add anything to the account
Spence Watson gave of Skipsey in his memoir published in, I think, 1909,
though I sought out several of the survivors of his family. They
remembered him with awe, but not with knowledge.
Spence Watson wrote rather distrustfully of Skipsey's poems. Burne
Jones dismissed them: "Of course his poems are not much to us; only one
measures by relation', and sometimes the little that a man does who has had
no chance whatever seems greater than the accomplished work of luckier men -
on the widow's mite system of arithmetic. . ." Burne Jones and
Spence Watson were not poets. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was, saw
more clearly; "Joseph Skipsey, the Northern Collier Poet, a man of real
There had been nobody to point out to Skipsey where his improvised technique
failed him, so that his work is full of clumsinesses he could easily have
avoided if he had once been shown how. The reader must accept them,
for the sake of the admirable poems they are embedded in. Narrative
and rhythm alike sometimes seem to stumble where there is no real obstacle.
When Rossetti pointed out one of these failures of technique, Skipsey was, I
suppose, too set in the bad habit to change it.
Rossetti wrote: "I am gratified to know that my poems appeal at all to you.
Yours struck me at once. The real-life pieces are more sustained and
decided than almost anything of the same kind that I know, I mean in poetry
coming really from a poet of the people who describes what he knows and
mixes in. Bereaved is perhaps the poem which most unites poetic
form with deep pathos: the Hartley ballad is equal in another way, but
written, I fancy, to be really sung like the old ballads.
Thistle and Nettle
shows the most varied power of all, perhaps. In this, and throughout
the book, the want I feel is of artistic finish only, not of artistic
tendency: the right touch sometimes seems to come to you of its own accord,
but, when not thus coming, it remains a want. Stanzas similarly rhymed
are apt to follow each other, and the metre is often filled out by catching
up a word in repetition - I mean, as for instance, 'Maybe, as they have
been, maybe' etc.
"Other favourites of mine are Persecuted,
Willy to Lilly,
Mother Wept (this very
striking) and Nanny to Bessy. It seems to me that, as regards
style, you might take the verbal perfection of your admirable stanzas
Get Up as an example to
yourself, and try never to fall short of this standard, where not a word is
lost or wanting. This little piece seems to me equal to anything in
the language for direct and quiet pathetic force."
All Rossetti told Skipsey is just. But a twentieth century reader may
find faults that belong as much to the age he lived in as to Skipsey
himself, occasional intrusions of what Samuel Butler called 'Wardour Street'
into his vocabulary, for example. 'Wight' has no more place in modern
English or modern Northumbrian as a synonym for 'man' than 'gome' or 'freke',
though probably every voluminous poet of Victoria's reign hid a whole
population of wights in his pages. 'Maid' is good English and good
Devonshire, but we say 'lass'. Such deviations irritate only a little,
Skipsey was too ready to confuse his syntax in order to keep the stresses on
the theoretical beat of the metre, not knowing, or not noticing, how one
syllable drawn out beyond the metrical limit can keep the swing of the
rhythm yet introduce an expressive change of pace; but in this too, though
he was clumsier than many, he was following the usage of most poets of his
time. He does not use many dialect words nor many 'terms of art' from
the collieries, but now and again he seems to have funked setting down the
dialect syntax which was in his head and made clear sense to put in its
place something of which it is hard to make sense at all.
Since Skipsey's own pronunciation was always that of Tyneside (but of
Tyneside before the Irish navvy immigrants had made 'geordie' of it), I
think the way to read his verse is to give the word spelled as the
dictionary spells it the often unspellable sound it has between Alnwick,
Hexham and Tynemouth. If the page says 'called' I would read 'ca'd'
except where metrical propriety forbids it, and so on. But Skipsey
baffles me when he rhymes 'night' ('neet') with 'wight', which has, so far
as I know, no Northumbrian sound. Its Old English sound would have
fitted ('weet'), but it is not to be found in northern writers - once in Sir
Gawain and once in Pearl, meaning, in each case, a young girl; in Beowulf, a
But when all faults of technique, of vocabulary and of syntax have been
added to the difficulty of reading a dialect written in the spelling of the
capital Skipsey still has power to please and to move, sometimes, as
Rossetti told him, as powerfully as anything in the language. It is
easy to feel the strength of the pitman's fear of the pit when he expresses
it. It may be less easy for such city-dwellers as we have become to
acknowledge the truth of the pretty incidents of pit village courtship,
especially since there is a convention which must be observed. The
things you may publicly admire in a girl, the things you may compare her to
are fixed by what was originally a rustic tradition, withered in the towns
and apologised for by villagers aware of town scrutiny, but not dead in the
least. Only the ornaments change a little. The lad Skipsey's
lasses admired for dancing and wrestling plays football now. It is in
handling such matter that Skipsey comes nearest to the folksong, at times,
like it, practically anonymous. But always he is very close indeed to
the people and the life, as little embarrassed by its prettiness as by its
pain. Burns sees Ayr and Dumfries vividly but from outside. He
is not one with the people he observes. But Skipsey hardly sees Cowpen
and Percy Main at all. He is inside the pit village, part of it, and
but for a certain dignity of bearing, we might say he was the village itself
So this preface comes back to its beginning. Skipsey is the most
impersonal of poets, very close indeed to the anonymous ballad singers and
folksong singers, yet with his own voice and his own manner, holding a place
of his own between them and such poets as Burns. The best of his work
is utterly convincing, even when its faults are obvious. He ought not
to be forgotten. The general anthologists owe him a page or two.
Songs, and Ballads. Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1862.
Collier Lad, and Other Lyrics, 1864.
Poems. Blyth: William Alder, 1871.
A Book of Miscellaneous Lyrics. Bedlington: printed for the author
by George Richardson, 1878 .
from the Coalfields. London: Walter Scott, 1886.
and Lyrics. London: W. Scott, 1892 (limited edition of 250 copies).
Robert Spence. Joseph Skipsey, his Life and Work. London: T.F. Unwin,
Poems. Ed. Basil Bunting. Sunderland: Ceolfrith Press, 1976.
(Information provided by Skipsey's great grandson,
Roger J. Skipsey—
see also Family
1. The date of birth given by Bunting
is incorrect. Skipsey was born on 17th. of March 1832.
2. Skipsey married Sarah Fendley in December 1868
(after the deaths of five of their children.) Their three children
who survived into old age were:
Elizabeth Ann Pringle Skipsey b. 1860, married
Joseph Skipsey b.1869 married Sarah Leech (three
Cuthbert Skipsey b.1872 (one single daughter and
my father, Joseph Fendley Skipsey).
3. There is no record of sons James and William, or of
a granddaughter Jane.
4. Joseph Skipsey died on the 3rd. of September 1903
at my Grandfather`s home, 5 Kells Gardens, Low Fell, Gateshead.
Not with his daughter Elizabeth at Harraton.
2. Biographic Sketch
ROBERT SPENCE WATSON.
(Appended to 'Carols from the Coal-Fields').
I HAVE been
solicited to say a few words about the author of this book, and I think
that his readers will be sufficiently interested to wish to know something
about him. As we have been intimate friends for more than twenty
years, I have not much difficulty in the task.
The poems must stand or fall upon their merits. The
conditions under which they have been produced do not affect their
literary value. But so far as form and style go, the critic will
only be able to come to a sound judgment when he knows something of those
conditions. The author is a Northumbrian born and bred; his speech
is racy of the soil. Northumbrian pronunciation is other and older
than that which obtains amongst our south-country kinsfolk; this must be
borne in mind when in these poems a rhyme may seem uncouth or even
non-existent; it is probably only to our manner born. A
south-country Englishman may read even Robert Burns's finest verses as
though they had but little of the jingle of rhyme about them.
Joseph Skipsey has passed the greater part of his life in
coal mines; he comes of a mining race. Having lost his father when
yet a child in arms, and his widowed mother having seven other children to
care for, he had to begin work early. At seven years of age he was
sent into the coal pits at Percy Main, near North Shields. Young as
he was, he had to work from twelve to sixteen hours in the day, generally
in the pitch-dark; and in the dreary winter months he only saw the blessèd
sun upon Sundays. But he had a brave heart; he was paving his way,
and he was determined to get wisdom. When he went to work, he had
learned the alphabet, and to put words of two letters together, but
nothing more. He devoted such scanty opportunities of leisure as he
could get to learning to read, write, and cypher. He was his own
schoolmaster. He taught himself to write, for example, by copying
the letters from printed bills or notices, when he could manage to get a
candle end,—his paper being the trap-door, which it was his duty to open
and shut as the waggon passed through, and his pen a bit of chalk.
The first book he really read was the "Bible," and not
content with reading it, he learned the chapters which specially pleased
him by heart. When sixteen years old he was presented with an old
copy of Lindley Murray's Grammar, and by the aid of that unrivalled, if
old-fashioned work, he gained some knowledge of the structural rules of
his native tongue. He had already become acquainted with "Paradise
Lost," and was another proof of the truth of Matthew Prior's axiom, "Who
often reads will sometimes want to write," for he had begun to write verse
when only "a bonnie pit lad."
I need not follow his subsequent career in detail. For
more than forty years of his life he has laboured in "the coal-dark
underground;" he has had a short experience of storekeeping in a
manufactory, and of acting as assistant in a public library; and is now
the caretaker of a Board School in Newcastle-upon-Tyne,—an office of much
labour and small emolument, which affords its fortunate possessor little
opportunity of lettered ease.
I must say a word or two more about Joseph Skipsey
himself,—for we have in him a man of mark, a man who has made himself, and
has done it well. His life-long devotion to literary pursuits has
never been allowed to interfere with the proper discharge of his daily
duties. Whilst still a working pitman he was master of his craft,
and it took an exceptionally good man to match him as a hewer of coal.
When, after many long years of patient toil, he won his way to an official
position, he gained the respect of those above him in authority whilst
retaining the confidence and affection of the men. Simple, straight,
and upright, he has held his own wherever lie has been placed. Since
he left the mine he has, among other things, edited as well as written
several of the introductory biographies and critical notices of the
Canterbury Poets Series for Mr. Walter Scott.
For such work he has peculiar qualifications. He has
read much and has thought carefully; he has gone to the works themselves,
and has formed his conclusions upon them for himself; and his critical
judgments have a freshness and a value which are all their own. Few
men have a more thorough knowledge of our literature from the Elizabethan
period downwards; and by patient and diligent study of their best work, in
various translations, he has gained an intimate acquaintance with several
of the greatest writers of the Continent. It is an intellectual
treat to hear our pitman-poet discuss such questions as the comparative
merits of the "Jew of Malta" and "Shylock," the necessity of the second
part of "Faust," or the comparative value amongst poets of Wordsworth and
Shelley, with men of high and acknowledged literary position and
attainments, and more than hold his own.
It is not for me to enter upon a criticism of my friend's
poems, but I may perhaps be allowed to say that one great merit of many of
them lies in the fact that in them he is dealing with the most vivid
aspects of that strange, uncertain, hazardous, and interesting calling
with which he is practically familiar. He speaks in them as only one
who knows can speak,—straight from the heart to the heart. Take the
two verses named, "Get Up." How simple, strong, and true they
are—not a word which could be spared nor a word too few; and yet as
suggestive, as picturesque, as full of food for much thought, as any two
verses you will find, no matter who the singer. The life of the
miner is one of peril; he lives with his own and the lives of those dear
to him constantly in his hand; and Joseph Skipsey has had bitter and
painful experience of the cruel sorrows to which he is exposed.
He is personally known to not a few of the men whom, in
letters and art, England delights to honour, and I think I may truly say
that he is "honoured of them all." Perhaps, if we could see things
as they really are, Joseph Skipsey is the best product of the coal-fields
since George Stephenson held his safety-lamp in the blower at Killingworth
3. PALL MALL GAZETTE
11th July, 1889.
A POET FROM THE MINES.
AN INTERVIEW WITH JOSEPH
I PASSED through
the old pit Village of Percy Main an my way to visit Joseph Skipsey,
at Newcastle. It is now a pit village no longer, but a
populous suburb of North-Shields, inhabited by railway men, and
"trimmers" from the docks, and workmen from the shipbuilding yards.
There is one row of pit cottages still remaining—houses with perhaps
two rooms and a garret, with a long slope of brown-tiled roof, and
with small, trimly kept gardens in the rear. In one or other
of these cottages was born Mr. Thomas Burt, the member of Parliament
for the borough of Morpeth, and Mr. Joseph Skipsey, miner and poet,
who before this article appears in print will have been duly
installed as the custodian of Shakespeare's birth place.
Mr. Skipsey is a well-built, kindly-looking, grave-eyed man,
with a head reminding one first of Tennyson and then of Dante
Rossetti. A true Northumbrian, one who has seen little of the
world outside his native county, Mr. Skipsey's speech has scarcely a
trace of that famous "burr" which both Mr. Burt and Mr. Joseph Cowen
have failed to conquer.
"I want you to tell me," I said to him, "all about your early
life, and your means of education, and how you were led to the
writing of verse"—"I had no means of education to speak of," Mr.
Skipsey replied. "I was born on St. Patrick's Day, 1832.
Before I was seven years of age there was a colliery strike,
accompanied by rioting. My father was one of the leading men
among the miners, and endeavoured to make peace between the rioters
and the constables. While he was in the act of speaking to a
policeman he was shot dead, and my mother was left with eight
children, of whom I was the youngest. Then I went into the
mines. I was only seven years of age, but even such little
weekly sum as I could earn was of importance to a family like ours.
I became a trapper boy —that is to say, I sat all day by a door used
for the ventilation of one of the passages of the mine, opening it
and closing it as the trams and rellics went through. That was
when I taught myself to write. Mostly I sat in the darkness of
the mine, but sometimes I had a piece of candle, which I stuck
against the wall with a bit of clay. At such happy seasons I
amused myself by drawing figures upon the trap-door and by trying to
write words. I learned the alphabet, and the a, b, ab, before
going in to the pit. I learned to read on Sundays. This
was not at Sunday school, but in our own garret. My mother was
too poor to buy Sunday clothes for me, and I didn't like to go out
without them, so I sat in the garret and read. I found a few
books of my father's there. There was the Bible, of course,
and at ten years of age I must have known it all through. That
was my schooling, then; learning to read in the garret and to write
on the trap-door in the pit."
"And how was your love of poetry awakened?"—"In those days I
didn't know that there was such a thing as poetry; but the elder
boys in the pit, the putter lads, as they were called, had a habit
of ballad singing. It was seldom that they knew a ballad all
through, but they used to sing snatches of ballads and songs at
their work, and these fastened themselves in my memory. Their
incompleteness dissatisfied me. I wanted them all, and as I
could not obtain them, I used to fill them out here and there, and
piece the fragments together, and so give them a completeness of my
own. This patching of old ballads was my first effort at verse
"And the next step?"—"Well, the next step was the composition
of new words to the old tunes. I do not doubt at this day that
the lilt of the old ballads has given a tone to whatever music my
verse may be supposed to possess. There was, I think, more
love for ancient ballad poetry in those days than there is now."
"But you have been a great reader. When did you make
your way to more books than were to be found in the garret?"—"In my
fifteenth year I found that an uncle of mine had a small library.
I borrowed 'Paradise Lost'. They laughed at me when I took it
away. 'Why, Joe,' said my aunt, 'thoul'll nivvor be able to
understand that.' 'Well,' I said, 'I mean to try.' The
book was a new revelation to me. I was entranced by it.
I thought of nothing else night or day, and I believe I accepted the
book as a narrative of fact. My enthusiasm induced my uncle to
open his whole book-case to me. In this way I came across
Pope's 'Iliad' and Lindley Murray's Grammar. The grammar was a
great service to one in my situation, as you may believe."
"But how did you come to feel your grammatical
deficiencies?"—"I don't believe that I did feel them. One can
scarcely explain these things; it is too far off now; but I must
have convinced myself that there was a right way of writing and a
wrong one, and that this grammar was intended to teach the right
way. It somehow seemed necessary to learn."
"And when your uncle's books were exhausted how did you get
more?"—"I had made the acquaintance of a man named Turner, a
bookseller in Newcastle. One day he said, 'Joe, did you ever
read Shakespeare? I had never heard of him, and 'Paradise
Lost' I had read more as a fact than as a work of art. Turner
pressed Shakespeare upon me. He had a copy, for which he
wanted five shillings. I was then seventeen. All my
earnings were given to my mother, except a shilling a fortnight.
I saved up for ten weeks, and then took Shakespeare home. The
book altered the aspect of the world to me. Whole passages
rang in my mind. I used to recite them to the other lads in
the pit, and I was half crazed for the stage, though I had never so
much as seen a theatre."
"And in what order did you read Shakspeare's plays?" "I
began with the 'Tempest' and read right through. I think the
comedies and histories fascinated me most. It was from
Shakespeare that I obtained my chief knowledge of English history.
In fact I may almost say that now. There was another work that
was very useful to me, in a different way. Chambers'
'Information for the People' was coming out in penny numbers.
That suited my pocket very well, and I bought the whole set. I
bought Joyce's 'Scientific Dialogues' too, and the works of Thomas
Dick, the 'Christian Philosopher,' and Chalmer's 'Political
Economy.' Chalmers enlarged my views on questions of wages and
labour. He steadied my mind, made me weigh matters carefully,
gave me a dislike to strikes, and so kept me out of the movements of
that time. There were then no such men among the miners as
Thomas Burt and William Crawford. I knew Mr. Burt as a boy.
We were at Seaton Delaval together. We were never very intimate, for
I had no great intimacies; but though he was younger than myself I
respected him greatly, and I think that he liked me."
"And to come back to your writing and reading, Mr.
Skipsey."—"Well, at twenty I came across Emerson's 'Essays,' and
this was another great awakening, and sustaining force. Just
before this I began to note down some of the verses that I had made.
And here I ought to explain that I never wrote anything with a view
to publication. I made verses because it seemed a natural and
was a delightful thing to do. Sometimes a thing would be
months in shaping itself in my mind. I would write it out when
I got the opportunity. But I never sat down with any
deliberate intention of writing poetry. Writing was merely a
transcription of what had taken shape already. Many of my
smaller pieces were composed as I was walking to the pit, and some
of these these have been praised as among the best that I have
written. At twenty one I found that I had as many pieces as
would make a book, but after reading them over I put almost the
whole of them into the fire. Three or four songs were saved,
and are now to be found in my books. I have been told that
they were worth saving. One of them greatly took Dante
Rossetti's fancy afterwards."
"Did you read your verses to your mates in the pit?"—"No; I
had just one friend, now a well-known artist in Australia. One
day he said to me, 'Joe, I am going to take some of these verses
away.' He took them to Archdeacon Prest, at Gateshead, who
asked if there were any more, and wished to see the author. He
was the first educated man I had met. The verses were brought
out it a small pamphlet shortly afterwards. The late James
Clephan wrote a long article about them, and this made me known to
the public. Somebody asked one of the men at the pit if he had
known that I made rhymes. No, he said, he had worked beside me
ten years, and he knew nothing about it; but he knew I was a good
"You were constantly at work, I suppose?"—"I used to go down
the pit at four in the morning. We sometimes came up at four
in the afternoon, but more frequently at six. In winter we
never saw daylight except on the Sundays. That may be the
reason why my verses do not contain more descriptions of natural
scenery. When I saw the outer world I usually saw the skies
with the stars in them."
"But you did leave the pit for a while?"—"Yes. After I
had published my second book of verses, in 1873 I was offered
employment at the Gateshead Iron Works, and I accepted it.
Still later I became assistant librarian to the Newcastle Literary
and Philosophical Society; but, unfortunately, what I earned was not
sufficient for the maintenance of my family, and I again went back
to the mine. I became deputy-overman, and then master-shifter.
This last was a position of great responsibility, for it was part of
my duty to see that the mine was in a state of safety. My
'Book of Lyrics' was published in 1878. This attracted Dante
Rossetti's notice, and he wrote to me, asking me to go up to London.
Theodore Watts reviewed the book very favourably in the Athenæum,
and when I did visit Rossetti I found that I had already a great
number of friends, with William Morris, and Burne-Jones, and William
Bell Scott among them. Rossetti was very kind, and it was to
me that his very last letter was written. There is little more
that I need tell you, except of my delight in becoming the custodian
of Shakspeare's birthplace. The secretary, Mr. Savage, and
myself, hope to make some discoveries. Mr. Savage has
found—what do you suppose?—the name of Nicholas Bottom in an old
Stratford register. I wonder what Mr. Donnelly would make of
that!" and here Mr. Skipsey, with a pleased light on his face, fell
to dreaming of Stratford and of Shakspeare. The duties of the
new post will not be altogether strange to him. For some years
he and Mrs. Skipsey, a bright, pleasant woman, gentle-looking, were
caretakers at a Board school in Newcastle, and more recently they
have occupied similar positions at the new College of Science, in
the same city. These are strange uses to which to put a poet.
Even King Admetus did better to him who "stretched some chords, and
drew music that made men's bosoms swell." And what did King
—Well pleased with being soothed
Into a sweet half-sleep,
Three times his kingly beard he smoothed,
And made him viceroy o'er his sheep.