by Christopher Draper
JOHN Sketchley’s name pops up in numerous labour histories but never accompanied by an adequate biography so who was this man – the only anarchist whose activism stretched back to Chartism and forward into the twentieth century? William Morris appreciated John’s significance, reminding readers in his flattering introduction to Sketchley’s magnum opus of, “his career so important and instructive for us."
Road to DamascusSketchley was born in 1823 in Hinckley, Leicestershire to parents William and Elizabeth. His father was a stocking maker and John followed him into the trade. Although it was less than a decade since Ned Ludd visited Leicester, John’s dad was no frame-breaker, with a political outlook conditioned by Roman Catholicism.
When John was 16 he went with his father and friends to hear the Reverend Simmons preach at a nearby village and it changed his life. John recalled, “the Rev. gentleman dwelt at great length on the sufferings of the poor and very ably expounded the principles of Chartism as the one thing needed. I felt pleased with the sermon and when he announced that he should preach there again the following Sunday I was delighted.”
As a Catholic choirboy John naively expected his own parish priest to also preach the charitable gospel of the Charter but was rapidly disabused:
“Father Proctor on entering the pulpit, took for his text the well known words, 'ALL POWER COMES FROM GOD' etc, etc. His sermon was a political one. He commenced a violent attack on the French Revolution; condemned the Republicans as atheists, robbers and murderers, declaring that they were the scourge of France, accursed by heaven, and abhorred by every good man. He next came to Chartism, which he condemned as synonymous with atheism and infidelity and concluded by calling on every member of the congregation not to attend another Chartist meeting.”
John’s dad insisted he attend that afternoon’s Catechism class and forbade further attendance upon the Rev. Simmons but John disobeyed… ”I hastened to Earl Shilton and at 3 o’clock was listening to the Rev. Mr Simmons. A second sermon was given at 6 o’clock, after which a committee was formed for Hinckley and district. I was appointed Secretary of that Committee."
Facts Before FaithAs a Chartist militant, John didn’t immediately abandon the Catholic Church but throughout the following decade carefully compared and contrasted the gospels of each. “I left the Church only when I was thoroughly convinced that its claims were incompatible with human liberty and human dignity.”
Enduring loyalty, careful study and sombre reflection remained defining characteristics of Sketchley’s libertarian politics throughout his long and active life.
Although John recorded that many feared Chartists were on the verge of violent revolution in truth the movement was inadequately organised. “The storm of 1842 closed with arrest of large numbers of the leaders; the people became more or less demoralised, the movement collapsed for the time and the people found that something more was needed than resolutions, cheers, petitions and even threats of violence.”
John continued to campaign for the Charter and was warned that his arrest was imminent but he refused to desist.
The Next StepSadly the movement disintegrated around him until John had to admit:
"Chartism is a thing of the past…reaction everywhere triumphant, the people everywhere again in chains…nothing left but to give to Chartism a decent burial in the hope of a more glorious resurrection.
“In 1850-1 I began to study the writings of the immortal Mazzini and the documents sent for by the Central European Democratic Committee and in the latter year I organised a republican group…”
At that stage the twenty-eight year old John Sketchley was living in Chapel Street, Hinckley with his young wife Lucy and their infant son, Julian, named after “Red Republican”, George Julian Harney. Both John and Lucy worked as stocking makers and in 1855 John was called to give evidence on the trade to a Parliamentary committee.
Woollen stockings were made on frames supplied by manufacturers who charged workers “rental” plus other costs and paid for each completed “piece”, minus “expenses”. Workers complained of onerous charges and unfair distribution of profits. Serving as secretary of the local Stocking Makers Committee, in 1859 Sketchley’s militant opinions of the exploitative nature of the trade prompted one local manufacturer to sue for libel the owner of the Midland Express newspaper in which they were published. Sketchley further accused the manufacturer, a “Mr Homer”, of operating an illegal “truck” system of payment whereby workers received vouchers exchangeable only for goods from his wife’s shop instead of currency. Despite the detailed, objective evidence Sketchley submitted, the court ruled in favour of the manufacturer against the publisher. The case cost Sketchley nothing but he had his own problems.
On the night of Sunday 13th November 1859, John’s wife, Lucy was suddenly taken ill and died before morning. Sketchley’s obvious distress at being left alone with two young children increased after it was suggested she may have been poisoned. The Coroner said the symptoms suggested strychnine and ordered an inquest. A post mortem revealed that, “the brain was affected by chronic disease and the upper part of the spinal marrow injected with blood” but the examining surgeon, “did not consider this sufficient to account for death." The inquest jury accordingly requested that Lucy’s “stomach and other internal organs were sent to Professor Taylor for analysation."
Mrs Frances Wathers, a neighbour, and little Julian Sketchley were both questioned before the analyst finally pronounced, “That the deceased did not die of poison but the precise cause there is no evidence to show.”
New Wife, New CareerA year after Lucy’s demise, on the 23rd December 1860, John walked down the aisle at St Michael’s Parish Church, Coventry with 23 year old, Mary Ann Osborn. Sketchley had given up stocking making and become an “Insurance Agent”, with other sidelines including acting as sales rep for, “JOHN CASSELL’s COFFEES – Celebrated for their Great Strength and Fine Aromatic Flavour”!
John escaped the factory system but his son ten year old Julian wasn’t so lucky, he was employed as a “winder”. Besides selling coffee and insurance, John occasionally received payment for his journalistic contributions and the punchy tone of his style is evident in a piece submitted to The Midland Workman in 1861, which concludes with this stirring call to arms: “The interests of employer and employed are said to be identical; yet they are arrayed against each other as antagonists in war. Political economy may sanction this but morality condemns it and it will yet have an end. The just and moral will yet be triumphant.”
Brought to BookIn 1865 morality triumphed against him when he was in trouble for not paying the baker’s bill for refreshments he’d served up to members of his insurance scheme. “The plaintiff sued for the sum of £1 1s. 8d. as due to him for bread and plum cake, which had been ordered by the defendant to supply a tea party held at the Town hall, in connection with the National Mutual Assurance Society." Judgement was given against John who was ordered to pay off 5s. a week.
The following year he was back in court after refusing to settle an account totalling £4 11s. for stationery supplied to him. Having ignored the legal deadline for submissions the court let him off lightly and accepted a belated offer to repay 12s. a month.
Adding another string to his bow, John began retailing books and pamphlets but it did nothing for his finances. Sketchley found getting books on account easy but settling the account was impossible. London publishers proved less willing to be fobbed off with hapless promises of future payment, and owing £23 4s. 8d to Messrs. Dean & Sons was the last straw. After giving the Court the run around for six months, in July 1867 Sketchley was committed to Leicester County Gaol and his wife and children sent to the workhouse. As no-one came forward to settle his debts, he remained in prison until the end of the year when Deans finally accepted that they weren’t going to get their money and agreed to his release.
Radical RepublicanThroughout the late 1860’s, Sketchley was Secretary of the local branch of the “National Reform League”. Through the pages of the Leicester Chronicle he rhetorically asked - “working men of Hinckley and district, are you willing to remain political slaves – mere political ciphers in the land of your birth?”
In 1870 John and his family moved to Birmingham. A voracious reader he became increasingly aware of and in touch with continental revolutionaries and their political ideas. During 1872-3 John was one of the main contributors to W H Riley’s, “International Herald” where the advanced nature of his politics was obvious, “The term Republicanism in its modern or European sense, embraces the social as well as the political emancipation of the People… A mere political revolution, leaving the great social questions unsolved leaves the great mass of the People in social degradation, still victims of social tyranny and oppression…."
In 1875 Sketchley founded “Birmingham Republican Association”, and campaigned for the abolition of the Monarchy, House of Lords, State Church and Standing Army as well as the nationalisation of the land and the currency. Two years later he renamed the organisation, “The Midland Social Democratic Association”, which EP Thompson describes as, “The first English society of the modern Socialist movement.”
International SocialistBy 1879 John Sketchley was part of an advanced guard of European socialists anxious to replace workers’ affection for Liberalism with revolutionary ideas. His 36-page booklet, “The Principles of Social Democracy: an exposition and a vindication” was published and broadcast by the revolutionary internationalists of London’s Social Democratic Club, Rose Steet, Soho. As English anarchist Frank Kitz later recorded in his memoir, “Many thousands of this pamphlet were sold, the German section bearing the major portion of the cost, in order to aid propaganda among our own working class.”
The following year, with backing from, “The Land Restoration League”, John published a four-page tract entitled, “Land Common Property”. Next came longer, locally published pamphlets on, “The Workman’s Question: why he is poor” and, “The Funding System, or how the people are plundered by the bond holding classes.”
In 1884, Sketchley joined the Marxist “Social Democratic Federation” and was appointed Secretary of the Birmingham Branch, which met at the Bell Street Coffee House. Although
John was happy enough with Marx’s diagnosis of society’s ills he never swallowed Marx’s statist solution. It’s significant that when Sketchley published a hugely expanded (238pgs), version of his original “Social Democracy” booklet in 1884 he asked libertarian, William Morris, rather than SDF party-leader, H M Hyndman, to write the introduction. When Morris’s anti-parliamentary faction split at the end of the year to found the “Socialist League” Sketchley joined the Birmingham Branch and wrote regularly for the SL’s newspaper, “Commonweal”.
Lessons from HistorySketchley’s writings were superbly well-informed and his prose crystal clear. Consider the inspirational clarity and anarchist analysis evident in this short extract from one of his 1885 Commonweal pieces:
"The gullibility of the English is great and their credulity almost unbounded. After centuries of misrule and generations of cruel deceptions they are again becoming the victims of designing politicians. Ignoring the past they have learnt nothing by experience. They are as thoughtless today as though the facts of history have no lessons for them. It is strange that the working classes should be so easily gulled, so easily deceived for the thousandth time” (this assertion is then copiously illustrated with specific examples drawn from English and European history of the manipulations and cynical duplicities enacted by politicians…), I have said that the whole political life of England is based on expediency and not on principle and that the third Reform Bill will accomplish nothing for the toiling masses. But it will do one thing. It will undeceive them to a great extent. It will show them that the vote will not give them political power.”
Sketchley was keen to explain, illustrate with evidence and promote anarchist ideas but preferred to label himself a Socialist and maintain relationships with all progressive elements of the local community and labour movement.
Rebel Without a PennySketchley’s expertise in political economy wasn’t reflective in his domestic economy and before the year was out John and his family were again penniless. An “Appeal” was published in November’s “Commonweal”: “As it is the wish of many friends that comrade Sketchley the veteran Chartist, Republican and Socialist should resume more active work, where his well-known abilities and great experience will be of the greatest services and where he can devote his future years to the furtherance of the Socialist movement, we ask everyone to assist us in making the testimonial a success. All who have received subscription lists etc might kindly remit to the treasurer, William Morris.”
With financial support from comrades John was soon back in action and in 1886 delivered several lectures away from Birmingham, travelling in May and September to Sheffield. In June 1886 John journeyed north to Blackburn to deliver a series of lectures under the auspices of “Darwen Progressive Society”. What he didn’t do was follow the hackneyed path down to London, despite the blandishments of comrades including George Odger.
Socialism Begins at Home
Despite his concern for humanity Sketchley neglected his wife and children. Mary Ann stuck with him for almost three decades, despite the indignity of the workhouse. Poverty killed half of their numerous offspring in infancy and her life was a constant struggle to keep the family together. At the end of 1886 they finally separated and John left Mary Ann to look after the family on her own. Although John’s propaganda spoke eloquently of the rights of women his personal politics appear unconvincing.
Mary Ann stayed in Birmingham, in their old home at 348 Cheapside, with seven of their surviving children. John moved out, first to 8 Arthur Place, Birmingham, then after making several further propaganda trips to Sheffield, at the end of 1888 he settled there, initially at 299 Shalesmoor.
Sojourn in SheffieldSheffield had obvious attractions for Sketchley; a Socialist Club, a tradition of labour militancy and an emerging anarchism. In 1889 John campaigned alongside Edward Carpenter and Fred Charles, in a series of Sheffield street meetings organised to raise support for the striking London dockers. In July John visited Nottingham to stand on a platform in the Market Place with seven comrades and deliver what the local paper described as, “extravagant tirades against Royalty…round the platform a large crowd of men and boys collected and if they came for the purpose of hearing members of the Royal Family insulted they must have gone away fully satiated."
Having settled in at Sheffield in April 1890 John placed a notice in “Commonweal” seeking comrades to start a Sheffield branch of the Socialist League: “As the study of Socialism from a revolutionary or international standpoint is absolutely necessary, it is intended by several friends to form a branch of the League. I have therefore to ask all those who are willing to join in forming such branch and who are willing to help in propagating the principles of true Socialism to communicate with me as early as possible – J. Sketchley, 165 Gibraltar Street, Sheffield.”
Hull, Gateway to AnarchyJohn’s ad proved unproductive, so he decided to move on. Hull looked promising as it had long been a key access route for smuggling anarchist and advanced Socialist propaganda between Britain and the continent, especially Germany. Hull’s socialist club, “Club Liberty” was a haunt of International Anarchist ideas and personalities with the two leading lights anarchists Gustav Smith and Conrad Naewigger.
Now aged 67, John Sketchley, “Bookseller & Stationer”, lodged at 41 Porter Street with 24 year old Emily whom he described as his wife. Meanwhile, back in Birmingham, his legal wife, Mary Ann Sketchley, described herself as a “widow”. In Hull, John established, “The People’s Bookstores, 52, Salthouse Lane” where besides selling his own booklets he supplied a range of socialist and other progressive titles. From Salthouse Lane, in 1896, John published a new title, as the anarchist newspaper “Liberty” announced, “Shall the People Govern Themselves? is full of facts, figures and statements in favour of an affirmative reply to the question… Sketchley always puts his case clearly and generally with considerable force: he has been very successful in this instance and his pamphlet should have a wide circulation.”
In August 1895 “Liberty” published Sketchley‘s own account of, “How and Why I Became a Socialist” which although eschewing the epithet “Anarchist” revealed the libertarian nature of his politics, “What are the elected but gods of the people’s creation, to whom the electors humbly pray and promise ever to pray for some paltry favour… The basic principle of Socialism is the sovereignty of the people, but that sovereignty rests upon the sovereignty of the individual. The individual can never be absorbed in the state…."
Sketchley and his local comrades founded, “The Hull and District International Socialistic Association” which held open-air meetings every Sunday at 11am on Drypool Green, where, according to the anarchist journal Freedom, “Comrade Sketchley always lectures on one or other of the great questions of the day.”
Comrade Sketchley was already a grand old man of the movement and as unsectarian as ever. In 1895, according to the “Hull Daily Mail” John gave members of Hull Labour Church, “some personal recollections of the Chartist movement”. The following year John chaired a public meeting at St George’s Hall where George Lansbury, chief organiser of the SDF, “delivered an interesting address on Social Democracy”.
A Long and Winding RoadHaving put politics before personal well-being it was no surprise that as he approached eighty, John was again penniless and in 1900 a fresh public appeal was launched by his old Birmingham comrades, Emile Copeland and Henry Percy Ward. A huge range of people contributed from Marxist party hack, Dan Irving (8s) to George Cadbury (of chocolate fame, £1.00). Solvent and rejuvenated, from his new base in Birmingham in 1901 John once again ventured forth. He delivered two talks at St James’s Hall Burnley and another at Colne, after which a correspondent in “Justice” declared, “taking into account Sketchley’s age, I think his pronunciation and voice wonderful.”
In the Edwardian era jingo politics eclipsed Socialism and as the First World War approached, John Sketchley was back, living alone in Leicester. His views hadn’t changed but the audiences had. He’d never attained a sustainable lifestyle but his politics remained constant; sensible, strong and well informed. Unlike fellow anarchist militants he was never tempted to over react to either opposition or defeatism, or diverted down the electoral route. Although his writings have never been assembled they’re worth searching out for information and inspiration.
Sketchley doesn’t easily fit political categorisation. I claim him for anarchism but he didn’t do so himself. He sometimes served as paid organiser for the Marxist SDF but rejected that party’s statist objectives. Worst of all he was never part of the London bubble so seldom reported by “National” newspapers and now he’s overlooked by academics who regurgitate the same anarchist “names” and ignore anarchist activity in the “provinces”.
John Sketchley, perhaps Britlain’s most underrated anarchist, died in 1913 in Billesdon Workhouse.
Christopher Draper - Number 12 in a monthly series of “Northern Anarchist Lives”