Voices in the Coalshed: Pitman and Poet
One of our Volunteers, Dave, delves into life of Joseph Skipsey using Skipsey’s poem, “The Stars are Twinkling”:
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.
Not rest or peace, but toil and strife,
Do there the soul enthral;
And turn the precious cup of life
Into a cup of gall.
In writing this poem, “The Stars are Twinkling”, Skipsey had personal experience to draw on. Usually, when people think of nineteenth century poets the image is of a middle, if not upper, class writer. A collier would seem an unlikely composer of prosody.
However, Joseph Skipsey – born on Saint Patrick’s Day, 1832, in Percy Main, a colliery village in the borough of Tynemouth, Northumberland – was a remarkable exception. Just four months later his father, Cuthbert, was killed outside The Pineapple Inn, Chirton near North Shields, leaving a widow and 8 children.
Joseph was the youngest, but on becoming seven years old his time to go down the pit arrived. In Percy Main colliery, where his father had worked, he became a trapper. From the outset he showed his determination to improve his lot in life.
Collecting stubs of discarded candles, he sat in what would otherwise have been total darkness, undertaking his self-education. He developed his ability to write by copying playbills with a piece of chalk onto the back of his trapdoor.
In Sunday school he learned to read the bible, progressing to Paradise Lost, Shakespeare and Robert Burns. Then came translations of classical Greek and Latin, along with German writers Heine and Geothe.
Skipsey went on to develop his own writing talents, publishing a volume of lyrics in Newcastle in 1859. 1860 saw fifteen of his poems included in “A Poetical Souvenir”, a national collection of contempory poets.
A disastrous tragedy in 1862 at a pit in New Hartley, near Whitley Bay, left over 200 men and boys dead. Joseph, living with his wife and children in Gateshead, penned what became his celebrated poem, “The Hartley Calamity” which he read at a number of public gatherings to raise funds for the bereaved families.
Twenty five stanzas in ballad form, the poem proved a popular reflection on the accident that became a national scandal. Queen Victoria would press politicians to take action and they went on to legislate to outlaw single shaft mines like the one at New Hartley.
The last two verses are:
And fathers, and mothers, and sisters, and brothers,
The lover and the new made bride –
A vigil kept for those who slept,
From eve to morning tide.
But they slept – still sleep – in silence dread,
Two hundred old and young,
To awake when heaven and earth have sped
And the last dread trumpet rung.