Episode two of the Working Class Literature podcast about Joseph Skipsey, a poet and coal miner from the North East of England. After entering the mines as a child, he would grow up to become a nationally-renowned poet, respected by some of the most famous artists of the nineteenth century. In this episode, we speak to researcher Dr Gordon Tait and musician Chris Harrison, both of whom have been doing lots of work around Skipsey’s life and poetry.
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You can listen to the podcast below, or on any major podcast app. Links to a few below.
- E2.1: Joseph Skipsey bonus episode – with more information about the murder of Skipsey’s father during the 1832 miners’ strike as well as the comparisons made between Skipsey’s poetry and that of William Blake and John Milton. We also talk more about inter-class boundary-stepper, Thomas Dixon, play more of Chris Harrison’s songs based on Skipsey’s poetry and talk to him a bit more about his Carols from the Coalfields project (available exclusively for WCL/WCH patreon supporters)
- Chris and Gordon’s Guide to North East Miners’ Literature – the link above will also take you to a reading guide put together by our guests about the rich tradition of miners’ literature from the North East of England (available exclusively for our patreon supporters)
- Chris Harrison’s Carols from the Coalfields – link to Chris Harrison’s website with more information about his music based around the poetry of Joseph Skipsey
- Minor Victorian Writers on Skipsey – website with Skipsey’s poems and biography, as well as his introductory essays on William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Burns and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
- Joseph Skipsey, the ‘peasant poet’, and an unpublished letter from W. B. Yeats – A journal article by Dr Gordon Tait on a previously unpublished letter from WB Yeats to Skipsey, which gives new insight into Yeats’ early career and a deeper understanding of the capabilities of the Victorian working class.
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[Intro music – ”The Hartley Calamity” sung by Chris Harrison]
Matt: On 8th July 1832, during a period of rebellion in the Northumberland and Durham coalfields in the North of England, Cuthbert Skipsey, a striking miner, was shot dead leaving behind a wife and eight children. The youngest, Joseph, was only three months old. Yet despite having to enter the mines as a child himself, Joseph Skipsey would grow up to become a nationally renowned poet, respected by some of the greatest artists of his time. This is Working Class Literature.
Welcome to episode 2 of the Working Class Literature podcast. It’s been a while since the last episode, so sorry about that. It’s been a tough year in terms of work, kids and an international health crisis. In this episode, we’ll be discussing the life and work of poet and coalminer, Joseph Skipsey. In many ways, Skipsey is emblematic not only of the brutal hardships faced by the Victorian working class but also of how many often strove to lead creative lives despite those hardships; not to mention the beauty they created when they succeeded. I spoke to Chris Harrison and Dr Gordon Tait who have both been doing lots of work around Joseph Skipsey. Unfortunately, there were some issues with Gordon’s sound quality which couldn’t be sorted out, so apologies in advance for that.
Chris: I’m Chris Harrison. I’m a musician and music educator. One of the projects that I’ve embarked upon recently, over the last ten years, is to set some of Joseph Skipsey’s poems to music as a way of reviving interest in him and re-evaluating and getting a new perspective on his work. The reason that I got involved with this in the first place is that Joseph Skipsey was my great-great-grandfather. I’m descended from his eldest daughter.
Gordon: My name is Gordon Tait. I recently finished a PhD in English Literature at Hull University where I was studying the life, work and letters of the poet, Joseph Skipsey.
Matt: The song at the beginning of this episode was Chris’ version of Skipsey’s poem, ‘The Hartley Calamity’. We’ll be playing that as well as other songs by Chris based on Skipsey’s poems later in the episode. There will also be a few more in the bonus episode for patrons. If you want to hear more of Chris’ music, check out the links in the show notes.
Chris: Joseph Skipsey was born in 1832 in the Northeast of England in a place called Percy Main which is on Tyneside between Newcastle and Tynemouth. It was very much a mining community. The most significant thing about his life was that his father was actually killed during the miners’ strike of 1832 when he was only a few months old and so he never knew his father. It meant that the family was surviving without a main breadwinner. He had older brothers but at the age of seven, he had to go down and start working. He started working underground at the age of seven. The 1841 census, when he was nine, describes his occupation as a coal miner and to me, that says it all. There doesn’t seem to be anything unusual in somebody recording a nine-year-old as being occupied as a coal miner. In fact, he wasn’t digging coal at that age but he was opening and shutting trapdoors to let the coal trucks through.
Gordon: He entered the pit, for the first time, as a trapper boy which involved him sitting in darkness for up to 16 hours a day, opening and closing a wooden door in absolute darkness. Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, in his novel Sybil, or The Two Nations, compared this role to solitary confinement and he wrote:
‘Their labour, indeed, is not severe for that would be impossible but is passed in darkness and in solitude. They endure that punishment which philosophical philanthropy has invented for the direst criminals, and which those criminals deem more terrible than the death for which it is substituted.’
While he was working in the darkness, Skipsey managed to teach himself to read and write.
Chris: He taught himself, basically, to read and write. Nobody is quite sure exactly what process he went through but he does talk about practising writing while he was working underground by chalking things or writing it on the doors in the coal dust and practising his writing. Certainly, by the time he was a teenager, he could read and write pretty well and he was able to tackle the Bible, obviously, but also Shakespeare and some of the major poets.
Matt: From teaching himself how to write against the light of donated candle ends, it was also within the mine that he developed into writing verses.
Chris: This is an interview he gave to The Pall Mall Gazette in 1889. The interviewer said to him, ‘How was your love of poetry awakened?’ and he says, ‘In those days (a teenager), 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-making.’ The interviewer then says, ‘What was the next step?’ and he said, ‘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 me a tone to whatever music my verse may be supposed to possess.’ That’s quite a clear routine in that he’s heard ballads and songs being sung and the people who were singing them didn’t know them all the way through. He’s realised that he can fashion them into complete stories and then that he doesn’t have to actually use the old words as a basis for what he does. He can make up completely new ballads. The connection between poetry and music is very clear all the way through his writing.
Matt: This musical influence can be seen in the titles of his published collections of poetry, such as Carols, Songs and Ballads, A Book of Miscellaneous Lyrics and Carols from the Coalfields. But Skipsey’s poetry would also be informed by the wide breadth of his reading which was incredible by any standards but even more so given the many obstacles in his way.
Gordon: Skipsey’s poetry is informed by his reading. It’s informed by Paradise Lost. It’s informed by Shakespeare. It’s informed by even Wordsworth, the great canon of English literature, but in these references that he uses, these are often outdated, in a way. He doesn’t have access to the absolute contemporary high culture and as a result, his writing can seem a little archaic. The critic, Jonathan Rose, describes this as ‘a cultural lag’ where working-class artists and writers only had access to cultural artefacts that were deemed out-of-date. They were deemed unfashionable. A working-class writer may only have access to a volume of poetry, or a volume of criticism even, that may be 50 or 60 years old because it’s become sufficiently cheap.
Matt: One poet who readers often compared Skipsey to, or who they claimed he was influenced by, was the canonical, romantic poet, William Blake. Oscar Wilde, for example, said Blake and Skipsey shared a metrical affinity and a marvellous power for making simple things seem strange to us and strange things seem simple. In our bonus episode, we go into a little bit more detail about the similarities between Blake and Skipsey, as well as their shared relationship to John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost. Arguably, Skipsey’s most famous poem, however, is ‘The Hartley Calamity’ inspired by the shocking events of the Hartley Colliery disaster of 1862.
Chris: The Hartley Calamity referred to in the poem and the song took place in January 1862. There had been a new beam installed to work the mechanism that brought the miners up and down the mineshaft to and from work. That cast-iron beam snapped, fell into the shaft and blocked it at a time when there were 200 miners underground.
Gordon: This resulted in hundreds of tons of debris falling into the pit and blocking the shaft. This pit had only one shaft and so there was only one way for the men to escape. The fact there was only one shaft had been recognised as a danger for centuries but because it was economically more expensive to sink a second shaft, the common practice was to sink just one.
Chris: It was an event that caused shockwaves throughout the region and actually, throughout the country because it was the biggest loss of life at the time. Of course, it was avoidable and this was a health and safety issue. There was only one way in and out of the mine with only one shaft and when that was blocked, the miners were just trapped. The reason there wasn’t a second shaft was that the people who owned the mines wanted to maximise their profits and didn’t want to put some of the profits into providing an alternative. The miners weren’t crushed by falling rock or anything. They just suffocated to death and by the time the rescue parties could get down to them, they had died. Obviously, there was foul air and gas down there which contributed. Skipsey used to recite this at benefit events to help raise money for the bereaved families and descriptions of how he recited it show that it was obviously a very powerful recitation. This is Spence Watson writing about Skipsey, saying, ‘When on rare occasions he recited ‘The Hartley Calamity’ to a large audience, the emotion it awakened was almost painful to witness. I think I’ve never known a reader recite or an actor who could be compared with him for his power over words.’ That’s Spence Watson, Skipsey’s friend, writing about him.
Matt: In a moment, we’re going to listen to Chris’ reworking of Skipsey’s poem. In it, we see the sweat and dirt of mining work interrupted suddenly by the shock of disaster. As mentioned before, the 200 men and boys, some of them as young as ten, suffocated to death and Skipsey, who himself had worked the mines as both an adult and a child, ends his poem recording how sons died alongside their fathers with lines like ‘Sleep my son, close by I’ll stay and a watch over thee I’ll keep. To stay awake the father strives but he knows he too must sleep.’ Chris explains the vividness of the poem is no doubt the result of Skipsey’s own experiences down the mines himself.
Chris: One of the differences between Skipsey’s poem and other mining disaster poems, of which there is quite a number, is that he actually tells the story from the inside and he does that, of course, because he could as he was a miner. He imagines how they felt while they were trapped underground and that’s what makes it such a harrowing story. They start off shocked. They’re then full of hope and determination and they start hacking away and digging away. At one point, they think they might hear noise outside and that the people are going to get through. It then goes to despair because there’s not an explosion but a second fall of some sort. They then start again and off they go but can’t get anywhere. Eventually, it’s resignation, despair and they just have to give up. I’m in the scenes where they know they’re not going to be able to stay awake and they just pass the responsibility on to other people near them. It’s just terribly – it’s harrowing.
The Hartley men are noble, and
Ye’ll hear a tale of woe
I’ll tell the tale of the Hartley men
The year of sixty-two
Twas on a Thursday morning
In the first month of the year
When there befell an event which well
May rend your heart to hear.
Before the day when most folk lay
Still sleeping in their beds
The Hartley men are up and off
To earn their daily bread.
On they toil, in heat they broil
And streams of sweat and glue –
The stour to their skins, till they
Are black as the coal they hew.
Now back and forth the putters go
The wagons to and fro
And clang and clang of wheel and hoof
Ring in the mine below.
The din and strife of human life
Awake in board and wall
When suddenly they feel a shock
And terror grips them all.
Each bosom thuds as each his duds
He snatches and away.
Towards the distant shaft he flees
With all the speed he may
They flee, they flee, by two, by three
Towards the shaft, and seek
An answer in each other’s face
For what they dare not speak.
Are we entombed? They seem to ask
For the shaft is blocked, and no –
Escape have they to God’s bright day
From out the night below.
So stand in pain the Hartley men
And swiftly o’er them comes
Fond thoughts of their families
And memories of their homes.
Despair at length renews their strength
For they the shaft must clear
And soon the sound of mall and pick
Drowns out the voice of fear.
And hark to the blow of the mall below
Do sounds above reply?
Hurra, hurra, for the Hartley men
For now their rescue’s nigh.
But even as for their escape
The men to hope did dare
A further rumble shakes the mine
And drives them to despair.
Yet as they kneel, again they feel
Their strength renewed, again
The ring and swing of the mall attest
The might of the Hartley men.
And hark to the blow of the mall below
Do sounds above reply?
Hurra, hurra, for the Hartley men
For now their rescue’s nigh.
But the beam that collapsed has blocked the shaft
There’s nowhere left to crawl
One by one the lights go out
And darkness covers all
Dear father, till the shaft is cleared
Close beside me keep
My strength is gone, my eyes are tired
I know that I must sleep
O, sleep, my son, close by I’ll stay
And a watch o’er thee I’ll keep
To stay awake the father strives
But he knows he too must sleep.
Dear brother, till the shaft is cleared
Close beside us keep
My strength is gone, my eyes are tired
I know that I must sleep
Sleep, brother, sleep, close by I’ll stay
And a watch o’er thee I’ll keep
To stay awake the brother strives
But he knows he too will sleep.
So down below the Hartley men
Prepared to meet their fate
While up above by the black pit-heap
People could only wait.
And fathers, brothers, sisters, mothers
The lover and the new-made bride
A vigil kept for those who slept
From eve to morning tide.
Yet still they sleep in silence dread
Two hundred old and young
To awake when heaven and earth have sped
And the final trumpet rung.
Gordon: Events such as The Hartley Calamity, in which 204 men were killed, were thankfully rare in the mining industry. The Hartley Calamity remains England’s most devastating mining accident. What was more prevalent amongst mining communities was the staggering level of accidents that claimed lives in ones or twos, or made men economically inactive through injury for periods of time or perhaps even permanently. One commentator described this phenomenon as being ‘a colliery disaster in instalments’. The statistics surrounding injuries and deaths that occurred in Britain’s coal mines is staggering. One historian has pointed out that between 1868 and 1919, a miner was killed every six hours; another was seriously injured every two hours; another injured badly enough to need a week off work every two or three minutes. When you see staggering statistics like that or when you read staggering statistics like that, it’s easy to see why miners would often be considered as hard-drinking and living for the moment because they might actually never see tomorrow. If they go to work, they may not come home again. There’s a song by another coal miner poet from the Northeast called Tommy Armstrong who wrote the poem The Trimdon Grange Explosion shortly after an explosion at Trimdon Grange Colliery where the opening lines read:
Let us not think of tomorrow
Lest we disappointed be
All our joys may turn to sorrow
As we all may daily see
Matt: Despite all this, Skipsey’s poetry, aside from occasional exceptions such as ‘Downfall of Mammon’ and ‘Reign of Gold’, tended to stay away from overtly political subjects, as Gordon here explains.
Gordon: Many mining communities only existed for the fact that they rose up around the mine itself. So, in a way, it’s very, very difficult for individual miners to actually criticise the mining industry because in doing so, they’re putting their livelihood at risk. Once strikes were finished, many of the early mineworker leaders and union leaders in the Northeast, like Thomas Hepburn, for example, were made examples of. They were refused work. They were isolated from communities and Thomas Hepburn became a travelling salesman in the end. As a result, for somebody like Joseph Skipsey, it’s very difficult for him to criticise the exploitation of people within the mining industry. This definitely wasn’t just a personal perspective or personal attitude. It was also an attitude that was fostered through his own poetry writing. Skipsey’s reviewers were the only real access that he had to a literary community to be able to improve his poetry. He wasn’t surrounded by a literary network. He was pretty much working in isolation and in early reviews, some of the reviewers dissuaded him from writing on more political subjects. This seems to have affected Skipsey’s writing and in later life, the overtly political is removed from Skipsey’s poetry.
Chris: There are a lot of other contemporaries of his that were pitmen or working-class poets. There was Geordie Ridley who wrote The Blaydon Races. There was Joe Wilson who wrote Keep Your Feet Still, Geordie Hinny. There was Tommy Armstrong, who was born a little bit later and lived in County Durham, who wrote a lot of ballads about strikes and pit life. Skipsey is not so much one of them, in a way. He’s more concerned with creating something that he thinks of as poetic and sometimes, I suppose, that dulls the message. Although, I’m not sure that he would see it like that. I’m not sure but certainly, he’s more concerned to be a poet than a chronicler of working-class life. Although he was very often referred to as ‘the Pitman Poet’ or ‘the Pitman Poet of Percy Main’. It trips nicely off the tongue. Actually, he just wanted people to say, ‘Look, you’re a poet.’ That’s it.
Matt: As such, Skipsey’s poetry covered a range of themes as well as those related to mining.
Chris: Yeah, there’s quite a lot about domestic life, courtship and relationships between young men and young women. There’s a section of the poems that are spiritual and he often refers to them as ‘psychic poems’. He doesn’t deal a lot directly with mining life and life down the mines. ‘The Hartley Calamity’ is the one poem that really talks about a disaster down the mine. Although, there’s another one called ‘Bereaved’ which relates to people losing their lives underground. There’s a select few. ‘Get Up!’ is a great poem that reminds people of the ever-present danger of working down the mine and the fact that people who worked underground were always aware of it.
Matt: As has often been said, the personal is, indeed, very much political. As such, distinctly social themes come through even in Skipsey’s personal poems about miners’ domestic lives. The poem, ‘Get Up!’, just mentioned by Chris and which we’ll listen to now, is one such example.
“Get up!” the caller cries, “Get up!’
And in the dead of night
To win the bairns their bite and sup
I rise a weary wight
My flannel dudden donn’d, thrice o’er
I kiss the bairns and then
With a sigh I close the door
I may not open again
Matt: In these two stanzas, Skipsey depicts a powerful scene. His miner is awoken by the caller, whose job it was to go around the village, waking miners for their shift. The miner gets dressed, kisses his children and leaves for work but as he does so, Skipsey closes the poem with the thought that he may never return to see the family for whom he goes to work. Given what Gordon said earlier about a miner dying at work every six hours in Britain around this period, the social significance of this highly personal scene is obvious. ‘Get Up!’ is also the first in a series of poems which, though never intended as a coherent sequence, Gordon explained that they could be read together as recreating the miners’ day. Unfortunately, we lost this bit because of audio issues and so I’ll do my best to capture it here.
Basically, after ‘Get Up!’ the sequence moves to another four poems: ‘The Stars are Twinkling’, ‘A Golden Lot’, ‘Willy to Jinny’ and ‘O! Sleep’. So after the miner gets up, in ‘The Stars are Twinkling’, we follow him as he looks at the stars during his journey from home to the pit.
The stars are twinkling in the sky
As to the pit I go
I think not of the sheen on high
But of the gloom below
No rest no peace but toil and strife
Do there the soul enthrall
And turn the precious cup of life
Into a cup of gall
Matt: Next, is ‘A Golden Lot’. Here, the gloom below returns as the gloom of the deep, deep mine but rather than vivid descriptions of mining labour itself, Skipsey describes how music and poetry allow him to escape, psychologically at least, from the grind of manual labour. As the reality of work dieth away, his lot is transformed from gloom into gold.
…and a Golden Lot is mine
Away from the deep, deep mine
And the din of the factory is far, far away
And a Golden Lot is mine
Matt: Next, in ‘Willy to Jinny’, Skipsey depicts a miner’s safe return home, closing the poem with his wife’s perspective that ‘nothing dark could Jinny see a-coming from the colliery’. Yet even here, the threat of tragedy is ever-present. Willy’s return home is shot through with the relief of seeing nothing dark; that is news of injury or death returning from the mine. The flip side of this, obviously, is the daily fear of seeing something dark; a possibility which actually forms the basis of ‘A Fatal Errand’, another of Skipsey’s poems in which news is delivered of a death down the mine.
Nothing dark could Jinny see
A-coming from the colliery
Matt: Finally, in ‘O! Sleep’, we see a mother rocking her baby.
O! Sleep my little baby
Thou wilt wake thy father with thy cries
And he into the pit must go
Before the sun begins to rise
O! Sleep my little baby…
Matt: Rest, then, is brief, precarious and ultimately interrupted by the mine itself and in its mention of going to the pit before the sun begins to rise, ‘O! Sleep’ links itself to the dead of night mentioned in ‘Get Up!’ And so, like the miner’s day itself, the sequence begins all over again. In these poems then, work is figured as a constant antagonistic and even threatening presence throughout the miner’s daily life; from the moment they get out of bed until they go back to sleep. Despite Skipsey’s avoidance of overtly political matters, the fact that his poetry’s personal scenes open up such clearly social themes show that no neat separation between the two is really possible. Skipsey would likely have remained a purely local poet had it not been for his association with a group of artists called the Pre-Raphaelites but Skipsey’s connection to the Pre-Raphaelites was only made possible by the efforts of a Sunderland cork-cutter called Thomas Dixon.
Gordon: Thomas Dixon was something of a pest to a number of people. He was a cork-cutter in Sunderland in the Northeast of England. He utilised the changes in the postal service to write to anybody and everybody he felt he had any kind of affinity with. Thomas Dixon crossed class boundaries with impunity. He didn’t seem to care about the name or the stature of the individual. He just wanted a shared interest and that was enough for him to be able to write to anyone. He had far-ranging interests from politics to art and communicated with such people as John Ruskin, the famous art critic, and even got the offer of painting lessons from John Everett Millais, the famous Pre-Raphaelite painter. As a result of this letter writing, he became notorious really. He was in communication with people like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and persisted in communication with these people often even if they didn’t want it.
Matt: The poet, Robert Browning, was one such person who didn’t appreciate this kind of cross-class correspondence. In a letter to his friend and fellow writer, William Rossetti, Browning wrote:
‘From time to time, I receive letters from Thomas Dixon, 57 Nile Street, Sunderland, who chooses to write them and embarrass me. He sends books as presents, thinking there is a lack of that commodity in London, apparently. I’m in no condition to guess whether he knows you or does not, whether you will be pleased with his loan or bothered, as I own myself to be. I pass on the thing to you. What you will do in turn, I shall not concern myself with. Only, I entreat, do not return them to me.’
Aside from his assistance to Skipsey at a crucial time in his career, Thomas Dixon led a very active life. He campaigned for safety in the shipping industry, developed cultural institutions in his native Sunderland and is credited with introducing the work of legendary American poet, Walt Whitman, to the United Kingdom. We talk a little bit more about Thomas Dixon in the bonus episode, available now for patrons. It was through Dixon that Skipsey made his connection to the Pre-Raphaelites.
Gordon: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, as they were initially known, was a group of artists working in the mid-19th century who sought to change the conventions of Victorian art by having an absolute dedication to an absolute accuracy in their representation. The three main artists of the group were William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. These three artists were the bad boys of Victorian art, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in particular. They changed Victorian painting quite significantly. Thomas Dixon introduced Skipsey’s poetry to this circle and he sent copies of Skipsey’s 1878 book, Miscellaneous Lyrics, to Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Rossetti was particularly complimentary about Skipsey’s poems and in one letter, he described Skipsey’s poem ‘Get Up!’ as ‘equal to anything in the language for direct and quiet, pathetic force’. The introduction to Rossetti would have a profound impact on Skipsey’s career. Prior to being introduced to Rossetti, he was limited to that of a local poet who had had some national reviews. After the introduction to Rossetti, Skipsey was exposed to a literary circle that was beyond what he could have imagined. The influence of Rossetti and his group of friends and fellow artists was unreal for a working man.
Matt: Skipsey’s association with the Pre-Raphaelites would be life-changing.
Gordon: Following his introduction to Rossetti, Skipsey’s career moved to a different level. He became someone who was known nationally. He was reviewed in publications such as The Athenaeum which was an influential art and literature paper at the end of the 19th century. He was always received positively. It is this access to an extended literary network that enabled Skipsey to develop as a poet, to gain a wider readership and to gain a more influential readership. It is largely through his connections to Rossetti that Skipsey is remembered today. Without that connection to this literary elite, it seems, in all likelihood, that Skipsey would have fallen into obscurity like so many other working-class writers, poets and artists. Within two years of having met Rossetti, Skipsey had left mining completely.
Chris: Once he became known as a poet, people tried to persuade him to find work that was less onerous and work where he might have a bit more time to write poetry. He got a job as an under storekeeper in the ironworks in Gateshead and he was there for about four years. Actually, what happened was one of his children was killed in an accident there and he found it too sad a place to stay, so he went back to mining and remained there until the 1880s. Again, there were times when people tried to offer him other work. He became an under-librarian at the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society for a while but it didn’t pay very much. The story seems to be that he was so interested in all the books there, which you can imagine would be paradise for him, that he didn’t like serving the customers or doing the menial work around the place. In 1882, I think, at the age of 50, he got a job as a school keeper in Newcastle. He actually left mining at the age of 50 but we have to remember that at the age of 50, he’d already been working in coal mines for 43 years. He became a school keeper and that was probably good for him in the sense that in the 1880s, he was more active. He published some volumes of poetry and he was asked to edit collections of other poets for an edition, the purpose of which was to make poetry accessible to less well-off people. They were editions that you could buy relatively cheaply. He edited volumes by Coleridge, Shelley, Burns, Blake and Poe and obviously, they were important poets. He knew their work pretty well, otherwise, he wouldn’t have been able to do that. The most extraordinary thing I think was that when the school keeping work became a bit much for him and his wife, they were recommended for the job of curators of the Shakespeare’s Birthplace Museum in Stratford-upon-Avon. It is an extraordinary episode. He got many, many letters of commendation and the list of recommendations reads like a Who’s Who of Victorian literature and the arts.
Matt: Indeed, some of the famous names to send recommendations on Skipsey’s behalf were Oscar Wilde, William Morris, Bram Stoker, Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning, not to mention many others.
Chris: He got the job and they went down to Stratford. He stayed there for about two years between 1890 and 1892. In the end, he became a bit disillusioned about the nature of the work. I think he’d thought he would be able to have learned conversations with visitors about fine points of Shakespeare’s writing and it didn’t quite work out like that, being more of a tourist guide, let’s say. In the end, in 1892, he resigned and came back up to the Northeast. I don’t know if he lived completely on his own means but he did have an independent income by that time from the government. His work was recognised and he got a small annuity. He lived another ten years in retirement. Another thing, which I think I should mention and which is sadly not probably untypical in Victorian life, is that five of his eight children died before they reached adulthood and that was in the 1860s. One of them, as I mentioned, was killed in an accident at the ironworks and three of them died in a scarlet fever epidemic. So, at one time, having had six children, at the end of the 1860s, he and his wife were left with only one child who was his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, who was my great-grandmother. They went on to have two more boys and so they had three children who survived them but again, that is a big shock in your life that five of your children should die within a relatively short space of time. He had a hard life, didn’t he? He probably was a serious-minded person also. I mean to have that determination to teach yourself to read, to educate yourself, to write the poetry, to publicise it and be your own agent, in a way. To do all that requires very strong determination.
Matt: Skipsey’s writing career also highlights some of the difficulties which working-class writers have to navigate between the labels of their class and artistic activity; issues which exist just as much for a podcast called Working Class Literature as much as anything else, to be honest.
Gordon: When Joseph Skipsey wrote his first collection of poetry, he published it under the pseudonym of JS, a coal miner. In the very first review of that text, he was then given the label ‘Pitman Poet’ but this idea of the ‘Pitman Poet’ is both recognition and a trap. The working-class writer – the ‘Pitman Poet’, in this instance – is trapped within a set of conventions, a set of expectations, and they must write within the community from which they come from and the industry which they belong to. These are a set of expectations that wouldn’t necessarily be placed on a writer from a middle-class background or a different class background. In doing so, the working-class writer is denied access to the universal range of human emotions and the universal human experience. So exploring the wide range of human thought and feeling isn’t necessarily available to those who have got the prefix of their industrial label. One Scottish miner, who was also a poet and became an MP, James Welsh. He noted in a preface to his Songs of a Miner in 1918 that he rather disliked the fact that ‘there is a tendency already, in some quarters, to dub me a ‘miner poet’. Miner I am, poet I may be but let the world not think there is virtue in the combination. ‘Ploughmen poets,’ ‘navvy poets,’ ‘miner poets,’ appeal only to the superficialities of life. The poet aims at its elementals.’ In the label, it’s the elementals that are withdrawn from the working-class poet. So even in positive reviews of Skipsey’s poems, poems on speculative or imaginative subjects are ignored. Skipsey himself wrote about this to his friend Thomas Dixon and he said, ‘None of our reviewers, not even The Athenaeum, have given a critique of the philosophical poems which occupy full one-half of the book.’ That’s Miscellaneous Lyrics published in 1878. So here, Skipsey is complaining that even in a review that is heavily weighted in favour of him, the reviewer is unable to recognise poems outside of that narrow definition of what a ‘pitman poet’ should write.
Matt: However, as Chris explains, issues of class and artistry, in many ways, are impossible to separate.
Chris: There’s also a dilemma because you don’t want to pigeon him as a ‘pitman poet’ or a working-class writer but on the other hand, he is a working-class writer and the fact that, as a member of the Victorian working class, he was able to achieve what he did is just tremendously significant and needs to be validated and recognised. So we have to be aware of the origins, they have to come into the discussion and they have to be part of the equation. The fact that he wrote at all and the fact that somebody could come out of these circumstances that he was born into and succeed in becoming a poet, a good poet and a nationally recognised poet, is a testament to his humanity, his creativity and his aspiration. Although the poems stand up for themselves, I think if we read them in that context, we’re also becoming aware of the importance of them.
Matt: That’s all we’ve got time for in this episode. If you want to know more about Joseph Skipsey, you can check out the links in the show notes below. We’ve also got more info on Skipsey’s life, Chris’ music and stories of Thomas Dixon’s various shenanigans in the bonus episode, available for patrons now. Patrons also have access to a guide of suggested readings on the rich tradition of miners’ literature from the Northeast of England. If you enjoyed the show, do consider donating to our Patreon at patreon.com/workingclassliterature. If you can’t give us any money just now, don’t worry. A five-star review on your favourite podcast app would be much appreciated. That’s all for now and hopefully, you’ll be hearing from us again soon.