Joseph Skipsey

Joseph Skipsey Poems

Joseph Skipsey Biography

Joseph Skipsey was a prolific English poet, song writer and coal miner who wrote many of his poems about the north eastern area in which he was born, lived and worked.  His most famous piece of work was called The Hartley Calamity which was a poem to commemorate the terrible disaster at Hartley Colliery of 1862 where over two hundred men had died underground.  Although he didn’t write exclusively on coal mining themes he was, not surprisingly, dubbed “The Pitman Poet”.

He was born on the 17th March 1832 in a small pit village called Percy which lay in  the heart of the Northumberland coal field.  His father was also a coal miner and Joseph was the eighth child born to his mother, Isabella.  Tragedy befell the family when he was only a few months old.  His father Cuthbert tried to diffuse tension during a miners’ strike confrontation between pitmen and special constables.  He was shot by one of the specials, perhaps accidentally, although the policeman was tried and found guilty of manslaughter.

It was inevitable that Joseph would follow his father down the mines and, like many other boys of that time, he found himself working there at the tender age of just seven.  He had literary talent though and taught himself to both read and write by picking up scraps of written material wherever he could find them.  It was not long before he was writing his own poems and stories and sought an escape from the hell of the north eastern coal mines.  At the age of twenty he walked to London, alone, hoping to find employment and fame.  He briefly found a job on the railways and was lucky enough to meet a woman who would become his wife.  Once married they were soon heading back north where he once more took up employment as a miner.  His wife emulated his mother, producing eight children.  Tragically, five of them would die young, either through accident or illness.

Skipsey’s writing career had begun ten years earlier though, his first collection of poetry being published and attracting the attention of the editor of the Gateshead Observer newspaper.  Over the following decades he would write copious amounts of poetry along with stories about the hardships of north eastern life.  His work opportunities varied, including caretaker at a school and porter at a college but all were far too menial a position for a man of letters such as Skipsey.  He seemed to have acquired much better employment in 1889 with his appointment as joint custodian, with his wife, of Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon.  This lasted for only two years though and the family moved back to Tyneside.

Skipsey’s poetry was very much based on the places he lived and the people that he lived amongst for most of his life.  Some writers from the Northumberland region wrote in a much broader dialect than he did but, in poems like Away to the Fair, there are obvious references to his roots.  Here are the opening two verses, and the chorus, of this sad poem which is about a man waiting in vain for his boy to come home from the fair:
Joseph Skipsey died at the home of his son Cuthbert, in Gateshead, on the 3rd September 1903.  He was 71 years old.