life stories

John Skevington, 1801 – 1850

Loughborough Chartist leader held in high esteem by Leicestershire Chartists

john skevington chartistJohn Skevington represented Loughborough and Derby in the General Convention of the Industrious Classes (the First Chartist Convention), and was one of 12 delegates whose portrait (left) was drawn for The Charter newspaper.

The son of a leading Loughborough Primitive Methodist preacher, John Skevington took up his father’s vocation at an early age, becoming known as “the boy preacher” in his home town before embarking on a series of preaching tours around the country in the 1820s.

Skevington left the conexion in 1836, according to the historian JFC Harrison over a dispute about the financial problems facing Dead Lane Chapel, of which he was treasurer (in Chartist Studies, ed Asa Briggs, Macmillan 1959).

By then, he was already well known in Loughborough as a democrat, and with the emergence of Chartism was seen as “a natural leader of the movement”. Through good times and bad, and through bitter division in the ranks of Leicestershire Chartism, Skevington would remain a prominent and honourable figure at the movement’s head.

As a delegate to the 1839 Convention, Skevington initially opposed but then voted for a National Holiday or Sacred Month (general strike) as a weapon to advance the Charter. Some time later, when the 1842 general strike broke out, Skevington would play a leading role in supporting the framework knitters of the district. As a result, he was arrested and imprisoned for a short time.

Between these two events, Leicestershire Chartism had divided between the followers of John Markham, a long-established moderate local Chartist leader, and Thomas Cooper’s Shakespearean Association of Leicester Chartists (so called after their meeting place in the Shakespearean Room).

Skevington appears to have tried to reunite the factions, chairing a meeting at which differences were aired. However, the split would not be finally resolved until the mercurial Cooper disappeared from Leicester in March 1843, eventually abandoning Chartism and converting to Baptism.

Skevington remained a committed Chartist to the end. He was held in high regard by his Loughborough comrades, who in 1848 presented him with a testimonial and his portrait in oils.

Charter masthead

Portraits of Delegates No. 12: John Skevington

The subject of our portrait this week, who is a native of Nottingham, represents Loughborough and Derby, in the General Convention. He is of comparatively humble circumstances, but has been for many years a consistent and zealous Reformer, and an able advocate of the rights of labour. In 1823, he took an active part in supporting the Barnsley weavers, during their turn-out; and has he generally been found amongst the foremost in his own locality, in the promotion of every good work. In conjunction with Mr Smart, he organized ten or twelve political unions in Loughborough and its vicinity, besides aiding the men of Nottingham and Leicester in similar work. At the great demonstration at Loughborough, in November 1838, he was unanimously elected to represent, jointly with Mr Smart, that district in the Convention, and in the January following he was also elected for Derby. He is a clear-headed, plain-spoken, man, and possesses considerable fluency of speech. He is no orator, however, nor is his voice or his enunciation pleasant. As a member of the Convention, his constituents have every reason to be satisfied with him. He is most punctual in his attendance, and equally assiduous in the discharge of his duties. He speaks but seldom, but when he does so, he has the happy knack of saying much in a short space of time, for he always addresses himself directly to the question under discussion, and does not suffer himself to be diverted from it to any collateral topic. He is nearly forty years of age is short in stature, and slightly lame. He is deservedly respected by all who know him.

[Source: The Charter, Sunday 19 May 1839]