The Skelton family were stationers, printers, publishers, booksellers and owners of circulating libraries in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Their business lineage can be traced back to Thomas Skelton (c.1757-1816) through his widow Elizabeth (?1768-1841), daughters Mary Mabella (1783-1859) and Elizabeth (born 1785), sons William (1787-1828) and Thomas Henry (1800-56), daughter-in-law Elizabeth (died 1846) to his grandson Augustus Henry (1832-1904). A closely related line in Havant embraces the brothers Henry (1787-1824) and Isaac (1800-61) Skelton. The two branches of the family have a common ancestor in the Reverend Isaac Skelton (1707-73), vicar of South and North Hayling.

Thomas Skelton moved to Southampton in the late 1770s or early 1780s. Apprenticed as a stationer to Thomas Baker he served out his time as a journeyman in the employ of Thomas Ford. Skelton set up his first shop, in the High Street adjoining the Star Inn, in August 1781. This was in partnership with William Mills, a bookseller since 1779. Skelton and Mills originally traded as booksellers, stationers and binders. They immediately acquired the Southampton agency for the Hampshire Chronicle, formerly printed in the town but now printed by John Wilkes in Winchester. The partnership ended by mutual consent in 1784, after which Thomas Skelton continued as sole trader until his death in March 1816. He continued as agent for the Hampshire Chronicle, published a new edition of the Southampton Guide in 1784, acquired a circulating library in 1790 and began selling lottery tickets. He also printed poll books and was an agent for the Royal Exchange Assurance. He married twice and had seven children.

Thomas Skelton died at Springfield in Millbrook on 20 March 1816: according to the Hampshire Courier, 25 March 1816 he was suddenly taken ill when returning in his chaise from his farm. "He was a man who had been indefatigable in business, and was highly respected for his integrity". Thomas was buried in St Mary's five days later. The Southampton business, at 22 High Street, was carried on by his widow Elizabeth Batt Skelton and his two eldest daughters by his first marriage: Mary Mabella and Elizabeth, trading as E. Skelton and Co. They continued publication of The Southampton Guide, specifically acknowledging in the preface to the 1823 printing
"the various Gentlemen with whose assistance they have been favored in preparing the present Edition".

The circulating library - containing upwards of 30,000 volumes and heavily puffed in the 1823 Guide- was continued, along with a reading room restricted as was custom to gentlemen only. The co-partnership subscribed to the revived Southampton Races. They continued to print poll books (in which they could not, being female, appear). They printed election publicity for Abel Rous Dottin, Tory candidate for the borough in 1820. Above all, the Skeltons were part proprietors (some believed wrongly that they were sole proprietors), publishers and printers of the Southampton Herald, a pro-Canning Tory newspaper first published on 28 July 1823.

The Skelton influence was extended a year after Thomas's death when his eldest son William set up as a bookseller, stationer, printer, binder and circulating library proprietor at 160 High Street. The earliest advertisement in the Hampshire Chronicle is dated 19 May 1817. He traded independently of his step-mother and elder sisters, although he was similarly active in the Tory cause. The relative lack of newspaper advertisements suggests that it was a smaller concern. A potentially terminal fire on the premises in July 1823 was survived with only trivial damage. His early death in June 1828, aged 41 years, left his widow Elizabeth (nee Etheridge, who he had married at Fawley on 29 January 1818) with two young children, Elizabeth, aged 8 years, and William, aged 3 years. She had little option but to continue the business.

Both concerns ended badly. The first and most spectacular collapse was that of the co-partnership headed by Thomas's widow Elizabeth. The business went bankrupt in 1826 and their remaining assets sold off. The business at 160 High Street run by the youngest of the three Elizabeth Skeltons was liquidated in 1830.

Deliverance from irredeemable catastrophe came in the person of Thomas Henry Skelton, youngest son of Thomas Skelton by his second marriage. He was set up independently as a bookseller, stationer, binder and printer at 180 High Street in February 1826, a mere seven weeks after the first commission of bankruptcy against his mother and step-sisters. He was able to convince the courts that his business was not connected to that of his relatives and so avoided bankruptcy himself.

His marriage to Helen Pether on 7 August 1829 was dynastically significant. It brought Thomas Henry into the family of the "Moonlight Pethers", landscape painters of note in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. It was probably this artistic connection that persuaded Thomas Henry to branch out into lithography. A short-lived but productive collaboration in 1830 between T H Skelton as lithographer, printer and publisher and his artist brother-in-law Henry Pether spawned arguably the finest engravings to be published of early/mid-nineteenth century Southampton. These included commercially viable prints of the Assembly Rooms, the Royal Victoria Archery Grounds and Assembly Rooms, the Custom House on Town Quay, the French Church, the West Gate and St Michael's Church.
T H Skelton continued to trade at 180 High Street until December 1839, through which period his name appears on a wide selection of local lithographs, for some of which he was both artist and engraver. He relocated to 48 Above Bar Street in December 1839, trading as bookseller, stationer, bookbinder, letter press, lithographic and copper plate printer.

Financial troubles deepened. Sometime between 1839 and 1843 Skelton lost the lucrative sub-distributorship of stamps, relinquished to his business competitor Isaac Fletcher. In 1844 Skelton was imprisoned for debt in Southampton gaol and was facing a double bankruptcy. The whole of his printing equipment was sold a few weeks later by order of his assignees, a sale which Skelton witnessed from his prison cell. Fearing that self-imposed insolvency was a ruse to escape the worst consequences of financial collapse, his main London creditors instituted separate proceedings in the Court of Bankruptcy in June 1844.

Skelton was discharged from insolvency in August and from bankruptcy in December 1844. He resumed business as printer, engraver, lithographer and bookbinder based in Spa Road until c.1848 when he moved to Vincent's Walk. He died in late 1856.

The family business was taken over by his eldest son Augustus Henry Skelton, but he soon abandoned the business to become a stock broker and later clerk to Southampton Harbour Board.

see also

Further reading:

‘A Precarious Business: the Skelton Family of Stationers, Printers and Publishers….’, by Richard Preston, in Southampton Local History Forum Journal, no. 21, Autumn 2013, p3-14. (HS/h)


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