Viscount John Sankey, Lord Chancellor – Roath’s top brief.

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.

John Sankey

Viscount Sankey, Lord Chancellor

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.

Croxdale House, Moreton in the Marsh

Croxdale House, Moreton in the Marsh (Image: Google Street view)

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.

Castle Road, Roath, Cardiff

Castle Road, Roath, Cardiff. The Sankey residence was the second house on the left. The Roath Park Hotel can bee seen on the right.

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.

St Margaret's church Roath and Canon Beck

St Margaret’s church Roath and Canon Beck

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.

343 Newport Road, Roath, Cardiff home of John Sankey

The tram terminus outside the Royal Oak, Newport Road with the Sankey residence being just off picture to the left. 343 Newport Road today.

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.

John Sankey - Illustrated London News

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!

Ramsey MacDonald Socialist Cabinet 1929

Ramsey MacDonald Socialist Cabinet 1929. Sir John Sankey is sitting second from right.

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.

National Government of 1933

National Government of 1933 containing three Prime Ministers: , Neville Chamberlain (standing 2nd from rt), Stanley Baldwin (sat 2nd left), Ramsay MacDonald (sat centre), with John Sankey sitting bottom right.

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.

John Sankey portrait 1914

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.

John Sankey relaxing - Illustrated London News

John Sankey relaxing – Illustrated London News

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.

Souvlike, City Road, Cardiff

Souvlike, City Road, Cardiff, childhood home of Viscount John Sankey


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

The Newport Road Skeleton

Cardiff University Queens Building Skeleton

Newport Road isn’t where I was expecting to see a skeleton. There I was relaxing on the upper deck of the bus when I spotted it out of the window on Cardiff University Engineering Department.  It’s on the stone facade above the doors and looking very Gothic indeed.  The rest of the stone facade looked interesting too, comprising of two statues and four relief stone carvings of distinguished scientists.

Cardiff University Queen's Building

I did a bit of research, didn’t find a great deal, so went back and took some photos on a dank morning.  An ideal topic for a blog post I thought.  Four sculptured busts of scientists, Jenner, Lister, Hunter and Pasteur.  I could write a bit about each.  Then I did some more painstaking research and found a couple of blog posts.  One from Bob Speel looked at the sculptures in terms of the sculptor and style, the other from Pat English does pretty much what I going to do and looks at the scientists themselves.  Both blog sites are very good and I would recommend them.  I’ve little doubt that I can’t hope to add much to their blog posts in terms of knowledge.

The four scientists Hunter Jenner Pasteur Lister

The building in question is Cardiff University Queen’s buildings on Newport Road.  Much of the building is of modern construction but the old tower dates back to 1915. To give it it’s proper description it is gothic Revival tower-facade retaining high-quality sculpture and I’m glad to see is a listed building.  There are two plaques on either side of the oak doors that indicate the first stone was laid in 1915 and then the building was opened in 1921 by the then Prince of Wales. I say oak doors but that’s a guess but they are decorated with what appears acorns, so hardly likely to be eucalyptus.

Cardiff University Queen's Building foundation stones

So if it’s the engineering building, then why is it adorned with the statues and sculptures of four non-engineering scientists. Apparently the building was originally the Medical school which makes sense as it is close to the Royal Infirmary up the road. That would also explain the two life sized statues which are part of the Bath stone facade; Asclepius, Greek god of Medicine and I’d swear an oath that the other one is Hippocrates.  Asclepius is holding his staff and two cocks stand at his feet.  It was traditional to sacrifice a cock to thank Asclepius for being healed.  I would happily sacrifice a chicken or good piece of tofu if only I could get an appointment with my doctor.

Cardiff University Gods

There’s so much on this facade to help keep you or your kids entertained if you are ever passing by on a bus or waiting at the bus stop. Get them to see how many carved animals that can spot just above the doorway. Among them I spotted a squirrel, lizard and mouse. And there’s probably a live pigeon hiding away in there too.

Cardiff University Newport Road Carved animals

John Hunter

And so the scientists. Perhaps the least known is the 18th century Scottish surgeon John Hunter.  Now here’s and interesting character.

John Hunter

Throughout his career he collected many thousands animal and human corpses. It is said that his collection of live animals from around the world at his home in London may have led to the inspiration for the story of Doctor Dolittle. On the other hand his brother who obtained many of the human corpses for him has been accused of grave robbing and even worse, calling into question whether Hunter was more like Dr Jekyll than Doctor Dolittle.  To the top right of Hunter is a patient in a bed being watched over closely by a young man and a skeleton. Presumably this is to represent Hunter pioneering the importance of observations in medicine. But why the skeleton? I still don’t know.

Dr Dolittle or Dr Jekyll

 

Louis Pasteur

Pasteur in his laboratory

Representing France is Louis Pasteur. People no doubt know Pasteur mainly for his work as a microbiologist but he started his career as a chemist and even obtained his first professorship in that field in the University of Strasbourg.  His list of achievements are pretty staggering; vaccines for rabies and anthrax, inventing pasteurisation and an understanding of fermentation. After he died in 1895 he was buried in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, but his remains were reinterred in the Pasteur Institute in Paris. I’m not convinced that’s a move for the better if you ask me.  Would I want to be taken back to work after I die?  Before passing he asked for his laboratory notebook to be kept in the family and not shared. Only recently have historians gained access to them and are divided in what is revealed but seem to agree on the fact that a good summary would be “In spite of his genius, Pasteur had some faults”.  If I had an epitaph like that I’d be pretty happy.

 

Joseph Lister

Joseph Listeur and his impressive sideburns

Joseph Lister was born in Upton House, West Ham, London. I bet I can guess which football team he supported.  He’s the man who realised that washing your hands is so important. If he were alive in these days of Covid-19 I’m sure he’d be features on many public service advertisement.  As the ‘father of disinfection’ he hailed the use of carbolic acid to sterilise everything in sight.  Initially Lister’s ideas were mocked by others in the health field who proudly wore their blood stained aprons as a badge of honour. The medical journal The Lancet warned the entire medical profession against his progressive ideas. Next time I smell the phenolic odour of Laphroig whiskey I will think of Joseph Lister and drink to him as a testament to his ingenuity.

 

Edward Jenner

Edward Jenner

I suppose it’s a sign of the times that when you put Jenner into a popular search engine everything that turns up is about Caitlyn Jenner, who is apparently an American sex-reassigned ex-athlete and now TV personality.  A couple of pages down you come across our man, Edward Jenner, from the town of Berkeley, Gloucestershire.  His work on the smallpox vaccine has led to the much used quote that he ‘saved more lives than any other human’ and earned him the title ‘the father of immunology’.

 

The Unanswered Questions

And so we have it, what is probably a unique collection of sculptures of these four heroic scientists, Jenner, Pasteur, Lister and Hunter all in the same place.  Other than the outstanding question of the skeleton I have one other query.  Why is it called the Queen’s Buildings?