life stories

William Villiers Sankey, 1793 – 1860

Moral force Chartist, aristocrat, mathematician and medical man.

William Villiers SankeyWilliam Sankey was Edinburgh’s delegate to the General Convention of the Industrious Classes (the First Chartist Convention), and one of 12 delegates whose portrait (left) was drawn for The Charter newspaper.

Sankey was one of a number of medical men elected to serve as delegates. However, he appears to have been something of a polymath, having also made a name for himself in the study of Ancient Greek, astronomy and mathematics, on which he finally settled for a career.

Although initially one of the more outspoken delegates, he demurred when, after Easter 1838, the Convention asserted the legal right to bear arms, and in May of that year he introduced a motion condemning any mention by the Convention of the French revolution of 1789.

Sankey also opposed the Convention’s move to Birmingham, fearing it had set itself on a course of confrontation with the authorities. But none of this political activity appeared to prevent Sankey from his academic studies. In May 1840, for example, he published an article on the properties of equilaterial triangles in The Mechanics Magazine.

The following year, in May 1841, Sankey petitioned Parliament to complain about the use of the new police force to suppress dissent, and called for the impeachment of the Home Secretary, Lord

John Russell. For good measure, he also complained about “Prussian” educational reforms and the introduction of a French-style register of births, marriages and deaths.

During the general election of June and July 1841, Sankey contested hims home constitutency of Marylebone in London, taking just 61 votes. He subsequently returned to his academic career.

The Charter newspaper masthead




Portraits of Delegates No. 7: William Stephen Villiers Sankey

The subject of our present sketch, who is the delegate from Edinburgh and Mid-Lothian to the General Convention, furnishes, by his presence in that body, a remarkable illustration of the force of truth, in breaking down early and deep-rooted prejudices. Mr Sankey, though the representative of the working men of the northern capital and adjacent country, belongs not to this class, other than by the generous sympathies which unite him to them. He is one of several members of the Convention whom the present crisis has called out from the quiet of their domestic homes, and the studies to which they are strongly attached, and thrust forth into the arena of political strife, in the hope of arresting the progress of that legislative system which is so fatal to the interests of the country, and so menacing to its peace and safety, both at home and abroad. The delegate from Edinburgh descends from a family that has won for itself some distinction in by-gone times. It is noticed in a MS. in the Harleian Miscellany, made in 1645, and preserved in the British Museum, as Sankey of Sankey, in the county of Lancashire, a member of which distinguished himself as a Major, and subsequently as Colonel-Commandant, under the Commonwealth, as well as in his capacity as a member of parliament. For his eminent services both in Ireland and in Cheshire – where he defeated Sir George Booth – he received large grants of land in the sister kingdom. The grandfather of Mr Sankey married the heiress of the house of Villiers, daughter of John Villiers, Esq, of Hanbury Hall, Staffordshire, and he is therefore related to the member for Wolverhampton. He is also remotely connected with Lords Grey, Melbourne, Duncan and Durham. His father, being a younger son, was destined for the bar, and studied law under the celebrated Professor Miller, of Glasgow, where he formed a friendship with the witty Henry Erskine, afterwards Lord Advocate, and brother of the late Lord Erskine. He subsequently resided with Dr Priestly, in whose house he formed an intimacy with the family of the Aikins, of whom Miss Aikin, afterwards Mrs Barbauld, was so distinguished a member. Of his other personal friends, the more distinguished were Mr Fitsgibbon, afterwards Earl of Clare, and the celebrated Henry Grattan, the Emmett, Curran, and George Ponsonby. He became one of the volunteers of Ireland, and a captain in the corps. The part taken by Mr Grattan, relative to the Irish Union, led to an alienation of friendship between him and Mr Sankey, although no open rupture took place. In the Irish parliament, he sat as the colleague of O’Connor, for the borough of Philipstown. He had the promise of a judgeship and of a peerage, but his vote in favour of Catholic emancipation deprived him of both.

The delegate for Edinburgh is a younger son, and was destined for one of the liberal professions. After having made considerable progress in his education, he entered the university of Dublin, at the early age of fourteen, and soon distinguished himself amongst his contemporaries. He bore off prizes in general literature, science, and the classics, as well as in Hebrew learning. At the age of eighteen, he took his degree of AB, with the highest honours, obtaining the gold medal, and being placed at the head of the list of moderators. He also carried off the prize – the only time it was competed for – of the celebrated professor R Robinson, of Armagh, one of the first practical and scientific astronomers of the day. Mr Sankey’s predilection was for the law, and he studied the principles of science under his father; but having had his attention directed to the church, he applied himself diligently to the studies pertaining to the clerical profession, and read for a fellowship. Some doubts, however, having pressed themselves upon his mind, as to the consonance of the establishment with the sacred writings, he gave up this pursuit, and turned his attention to medicine, in the theory of which he made considerable attainments, and became an extraordinary member of the Medical Society of Edinburgh. He subsequently entered himself at the University of Cambridge, where he took his degrees, and soon formed an intimacy with most of the celebrated men then there; amongst others, we may mention Professor Farish and Dr ED Clarke. Shortly afterwards, Mr Sankey proceeded to Paris, where he formed an intimacy with the Chevalier Jomard and Monsieur Julien, the able editor of the Revue Encyclopaedique; and where also he became acquainted with the lady who subsequently became his wife, who is highly connected in Switzerland, a near relation having been Landermar of that country, being president of Berne when it was the presiding canton. Mrs Sankey is, in the true sense of the words, “a crown of rejoicing” to her husband, possessing, as she does, sweetness of temper, solidity of judgment, liveliness of imagination, and an extraordinary facility in expressing her thoughts and feelings. The fruit of their marriage is four children, two boys and two girls, who have the high advantage of being educated under the parental roof.

From what we have already said, it will have been seen that Mr Sankey is a man of considerable acquirements. As a philologist he ranks very high, and has published some valuable papers on the Greek language and mythology, in the Journal of Science and Art, of the Royal Institution. In the science of mathematics he has also distinguished himself by various contributions, amongst which was a paper published by Sir David Brewster, in his Journal of Science, on the Rise of Fluids in the Thermometer, to which mathematical investigations were applied, in a manner sufficient to merit the high encomium of the professor. Of his more ephemeral, but scarcely less valuable, works we have already noticed two or three in The Charter. They are the Portfeuille of Science, Literature, and Art – Universal Suffrage – The Right of Labour to Protect Itself – The Rights of Operatives – Popular Control over Hasty Legislation – Coronation Texts Reviewed – A Voice of the Operatives – Essays on the Origin of the Oriental Mode of Writing from right to left, deduced from the names and forms of the Hebrew characters, &c. Mrs Sankey has also contributed something to the stock of our useful literature, in a pretty little book, characterised by merit, taste, and judgment, called, “An Alphabet of Animals”.

We have been thus particular in sketching Mr Sankey’s character and career, because we perceive that some unfair and dastardly attempts have been made, by the Whigs in Edinburgh, to depreciate him in public estimation; and that the Courier, ever ready to catch up any thing capable of being turned to account against the Chartists – has not only republished what was found in one of its Scottish contemporaries, but has thought it worth while particularly to direct public attention to it. Thus speaketh the Caledonian Mercury – “Who is Mr Sankey, delegate from Edinburgh? A quick sense of the ludicrous almost deprives us of the power of answering the question. First of all, Mr Sankey has no more real connection with Edinburgh than Sir Robert Peel or Lord John Russell have with Timbuctoo. He may have spent a winter there – so did Captain Ross, in the immediate neighbourhood of the North Pole. Moreover, the Esquimaux were aware of the existence of Captain Ross, and would, ever and anon, receive from him with much gratitude the smallest donation of a few glass beads, or a couple of rusty nails. Whereas, from the airy eminence of Castle-hill to th slimy bottom of the pond of Canonmills, from Arthur’s Seat to Atholl Crescent, aye, from Libberton to Leith, or from Newington to Newhaven, one might have rambled fruitlessly and bootlessly inquiring after Mr Sankey.” If such balderdash as this pass for either humour or reasoning, the Whigs, for whose especial edification it is written, are easily satisfied. Mr Sankey has no connexion with Edinburgh! Possibly not; but is he not therefore fit to represent the people of Edinburgh in the Convention? What connexion has Lord Palmerston with Tiverton, or Mr Spring Rice with Cambridge? If these senators be disposed to measure their pretensions to represent the places for which they respectively sit, with those of Mr Sankey to represent Edinburgh, the Whig Mercury might find the tables most inconveniently turned upon its patrons. The editor of the Caledonian Mercury well knows that Mr Sankey’s connexion wtih Edinburgh is a substantial one, and of some years standing – that he enjoys the friendship and respect of some of the most eminent men in that city and its neighbourhood – and that the working men have done themselves great honour in the choice they have made of such a representative. He has been for many years an enlightened and zealous reformer, evincing a deep and generous interest in the condition of the poor, and labouring most zealously on their behalf.

Mr Sankey is about forty-six years of age, of great amenity of manners, and is about five feet ten inches in height. He has an open and ingenuous expression of countenance, greyish hair and whiskers, and a gentlemanly aspect withal. As a member of the Convention he is much respected for the soundness of his judgment, as well as for the zealous and conciliatory manner in which he discharges his duties. He is not what may be called “a speaker,” although he never rises without commanding attention. The earnestness of his manner and the honesty of his purpose are too obvious not to make an immediate and favourable impression upon all who hear him. Let us have but a few more such men amongst the Chartists – and we rejoice to know that their number is daily increasing – and their cause will progress at a railroad pace.

* Our next will contain a portrait and biographical sketch of Mr Smart, delegate from Loughborough and Leicester.
[Source: The Charter, Sunday 14 April 1839]