I must admit I’d never heard of John Sankey, or Viscount Sankey, to give him his proper title, till a week ago, let alone the fact he was a Roath man. If like me you find all the wig and gown stuff rather pompous then read on, the man under it is rather an interesting character.
Before we get immersed in the details here’s some of his headline achievements:
- Lloyd-George appointed him Chairman of the Coal Industry Commission which became known as the Sankey Commission. Its surprise conclusion was that coal mines should be nationalised.
- Appointed Lord Chancellor in Ramsey MacDonald’s cabinet. The Lord Chancellor is the top legal man in the government and was also the presiding officer of the House of Lords, the head of the judiciary in England and Wales.
- He gave his name to the Sankey Declaration of the Rights of Man. This had strong input from H.G.Wells. This in turn led to the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights.
So how did a man who grew up on City Road end up as the top lawyer in England and Wales? Here’s what I’ve been able to piece together.
John Sankey was born on 26 Oct 1866 in the Cotswold town of Moreton in the Marsh, Gloucestershire in a house called ‘Croxdale’ on Evenlode Road. His father, Thomas Sankey was a draper originally from Canterbury, Kent and owned a shop on the High Street. His mother, Catalina Sankey neé Dewesbury was originally from Manchester.
In 1875, when John would have been 8, his father dies and mother Catalina moves the family to Cardiff where a number of her husband’s brothers already live and are in business as provision merchants and doing rather well for themselves. Catalina, John and his siblings live at 157 Castle Road, Roath. Castle Road is the former name for City Road, the road being reamed after Cardiff achieved City status. She called the house Croxdale, after their former Cotswold residence.
What was a bit more challenging was to pinpoint exactly where it was on City Road as renumbering of the properties has also taken place. Using old Directories it possible to ascertain it was two houses north of Northcote Road, now 171 City Road, the SouvLike Greek restaurant, and would you believe there is a decent old photo too.
In 1879 he won a scholarship to Cardiff Proprietary School, Dumfries Place which his uncle Charles Sankey had been involved in setting up a few years previously. Some of you may remember the building – it became the Cardiff Student’s Union for a time before being demolished.
It seems he didn’t stay at Cardiff Proprietary school for long as by 1881 John Sankey was attending Lancing College in Sussex paid for through the charity of Canon F J Beck, of St Margaret’s Roath. In 1885 he went to Jesus College, Oxford, graduating with an Honours degrees in 1891 in classics, history and civil law.
The 1891 census tells us that John Sankey, aged 26, a student of law, was living with his mother and Uncle’s family in Whitchurch, Cardiff. What was wrong with Roath I wonder? Don’t worry, they do return.
In 1892 John goes to London to further his legal training to become a barrister at Middle Temple.
After qualifying he returns to Cardiff and quickly makes a name for himself as a good barrister. For the next 15 years or so the newspapers are full of details of cases he was involved in. I was attracted by the amusing name for one case: Moses v. Solomon. William Moses, a traveller in silver plate, was bitten by a retriever dog in Canton, Cardiff, owned by Mr Solomon. Mr Moses was represented by John Sankey and won the case.
In 1897 he joined the freemasons in Cardiff, becoming a member of the Prince Llewellyn Lodge. That same year he is reported as chairing a meeting of the Cardiff Law student’s debating society at the Council Chamber in the Town Hall, all very much evidence of him integrating into Cardiff society.
In the 1901 census, we find John Sankey, Barrister of Law, living with mother and sister Edith at ‘Croxdale’, 239 Newport Road. Again, using street directories of the time and old maps it has been possible to pinpoint the house as being opposite the Royal Oak and tram terminus, with the athletic grounds behind them. The street has also been re-numbered and it is now 343 Newport Road. I haven’t been quite so lucky in finding a photograph of the actual house this time but it was close.
Although their house was opposite the Royal Oak I suspect he wasn’t regularly to be seen supping a pint of Brains Dark. He had strong Christian beliefs. He was for some years a sidesman at St Margaret’s parish church, Roath. In 1907 Roath Vestry were discussing the need to replace John Sankey as it was known he would soon be leaving for London.
This was a time for change in the Church. For many centuries the church and the state had been intertwined and the church had a certain say over legislation. The church in Wales was about to be disestablished i.e. separated, from the state, which had great support among the Welsh non-conformists. This wasn’t to the liking of many in the Anglican church and indeed in 1909 John Sankey was invited to speak in Cardiff at the Park Hotel at a protest meeting against the government’s Disestablishment Bill, alongside the Lord Bishop of St David’s. That made him a supporter of antidisestablishmentarianism (I hope you appreciate how I have been able to weave in that word, the longest in the English dictionary and one too long to use on a Scrabble board).
1909 also saw John Sankey leave Cardiff and move to London as he was appointed a K.C. (Kings Council), i.e. appointed by the monarch of the country to be one of His Majesty’s Counsel learned in the law. Called taking the silk on account of the silk gowns worn by a K.C. That same year he was appointed Chancellor of the Diocese of Llandaff.
At this stage it is evident that he harboured some political ambitions. In 1910 he stood in the Council election in Stepney, London for the Municipal Reformers, a party allied to the Conservative party and in support of competitive contracts.
Meanwhile his legal career is going from strength to strength. In 1914 he was appointed a High Court judge in London. During WWI he was Chairman of the Enemy Aliens Advisory Committee, reviewing cases of interned Irishmen. To top it all in 1917 he was knighted.
Returning to ecclesiastical matters, the Church of England and Wales was about to be separated. This was delayed by WWI but in 1920 the Welsh Church Act when English Ecclesiastical law ceased to exist as law of the land in Wales. In preparation for this a new constitution of the Church in Wales was required. John Sankey is regarded as being at the forefront in drawing up that constitution which is still in place today.
In 1919 Lloyd George appointed him Chairman of the Coal Industry Commission the findings of which were known as the Sankey Commission. It recommended that the coal mines be nationalised. This was quite remarkable coming from a man who until now had leanings to the Conservative party and for a man who grew up in Cardiff, a city based on wealth generated from a privatised coal industry. It is said that this experience turned him from being an orthodox conservative into a Labour Party supporter
Fast forward ten years to 1929 and we see John Sankey’s political and legal careers merge as he is appointed Lord Chancellor and a member of Ramsey MacDonald’s cabinet. He holds that position in the Labour and National governments from 1929 to 1935. The Lord Chancellor was also the presiding officer of the House of Lords and the head of the judiciary in England and Wales. Not bad for a man who grew up on City Road!
Let’s not stop there however. He becomes Chairman of the Indian Federation Committee of the Round Table Conference, part of a series of peace conferences organized by the British Government and Indian political personalities to discuss constitutional reforms in India.
In 1931 he was created a Viscount and in 1934 he was a awarded Freedom of the City of Cardiff.
In 1940 he gave his name to the Sankey Declaration of the Rights of Man. This had strong input from author H.G.Wells. This in turn led to the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights. Here are the suggested rights, in short. Right to nourishment, housing, health care and mental care : right to education : right to have home and private property protected : right to work and earn and be free from slavery : right to move freely about the world : right to public trial and to detention for a short fixed time only : freedom from torture and degrading or inhuman treatment : right not to be force-fed nor stopped from hunger strike if you so choose : and right to finite imprisonment terms.
At sometime too in these later years he was a British member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague.
He died on 6 Feb 1948 in London leaving in his will £85,000 to his devoted spinster sister Edith, his servants, his old school in Lancing, Jesus College Oxford (to be used for students progressing to the Bar) and the Church in Wales to be used at the discretion of the Bishop of Llandaff.
He never married and was a strong promoter of Anglo-Catholicism. He was devoted to his mother who in her later years moved from her house in Newport Road to live with him in his residence in Dean’s Court, next to Westminster Abbey.
He loved walking, twenty to thirty miles was nothing to him when he was in form. As a golfer it has been said he was one of the worst ever but a delightful partner on the links.
He is buried is buried not in Cardiff but in his place of birth, Moreton in the Marsh where his mother and father were buried.
Newspaper articles throughout a person’s life often fail to mention their character but obituaries do. Here’s some of his characteristics drawn from those obituaries: Gentle. Strict adherence to the rules of fair play. Popular. A large and solemn man. A man of strong opinions, but at the same time admired for his impartial application of the rule of law. He gained a great reputation for brevity and conciseness in exposition. A kindly courteous man. Never too busy to talk to old friends. Never in a hurry but always getting there in time.
So next time you are walking down City Road feeling a bit peckish, pop into the SouvLike Greek restaurant, order some halloumi or moussaka and imagine yourself in the room where the young Viscount Sankey, future Lord Chancellor, did his homework in front of a roaring coal fire.
I first picked up the achievement of John Sankey when watching a smashing video of Professor Norman Doe delivering a talk at St David’s Cathedral. Prof Doe’s paper was also illuminating: N. Doe, ‘The centenary of the Church in Wales: the formation of its Constitution remembered’, in Z. Horak and P. Skrejpkova, eds., Pocta Jirimu Rajmundu Treterovi (Prague: Leges, 2020) 115-126