John Sankey, 1st Viscount Sankey

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The Viscount Sankey
Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain
In office
7 June 1929 – 7 June 1935
MonarchGeorge V
Prime MinisterRamsay MacDonald
Preceded byThe Viscount Hailsham
Succeeded byThe Viscount Hailsham
Personal details
Born26 October 1866 (1866-10-26)
Died6 February 1948 (1948-02-07) (aged 81)
NationalityUnited Kingdom British
Political partyLabour
Alma materJesus College, Oxford

John Sankey, 1st Viscount Sankey, GBE, PC (26 October 1866 – 6 February 1948) was a British lawyer, judge, Labour politician and Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, famous for many of his judgments in the House of Lords. He gave his name to the Sankey Declaration of the Rights of Man (1940).

Background and education[edit]

He was the son of Thomas Sankey, of Moreton, Gloucestershire, by his wife Catalina (née Dewsbury), and was educated at Lancing College, Sussex and Jesus College, Oxford, graduating with a second-class BA in Modern History in 1889 and a third-class Bachelor of Civil Law degree in 1891. He was called to the Bar, Middle Temple, in 1892.[1][2] In 1909 he was appointed a King's Counsel.[3]

Political and legal career[edit]

Sankey became a judge of the High Court, King's Bench Division, in 1914. He was appointed a Lord Justice of Appeal in 1928.[4] He was raised to the peerage as Baron Sankey, of Moreton in the County of Gloucester, in 1929 [5] on being appointed Lord Chancellor in Ramsay MacDonald's Labour government. He was one of the few Labour politicians to follow MacDonald into the National Government in 1931, and served as Lord Chancellor until 1935, when Stanley Baldwin re-entered office.[1] In 1932 he was created Viscount Sankey, of Moreton in the County of Gloucester.[6]

Several of his judgments in the House of Lords have become landmark statements of law. Of particular note are his statements in Edwards v. Canada (Attorney General) (often referred to as the Persons Case) which dealt with the eligibility of women to be appointed to the Canadian Senate. In his decision, Sankey set out the living tree doctrine of constitutional interpretation that has become a foundation of Canadian constitutional law.

Sankey's judgment in Woolmington v DPP [1935] AC 462 is famous for iterating the duty inherent on the prosecution to prove the prisoner's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In pertinent part, his judgment stated:

Throughout the web of the English criminal law one golden thread is always to be seen – that it is the duty of the prosecution to prove the prisoner's guilt subject to what I have already said as to the defence of insanity and subject also to any statutory exception...

This judgment is usually referred to as the "golden thread".[citation needed]

Sankey Declaration[edit]

Sankey's name was associated with the Sankey Declaration of the Rights of Man,[7] the product of the Sankey Committee, which was set up in 1940 by the Daily Herald and the National Peace Council, and which Sankey chaired. The most active member of the committee was H.G. Wells, who prepared the draft that the Declaration was based on. It identified eleven fundamental human rights:

  • right to life
  • protection of minors
  • duty to the community
  • right to knowledge
  • freedom of thought and worship
  • right to work
  • right to personal property
  • freedom of movement
  • personal liberty
  • freedom from violence
  • right of law-making.

The Sankey Declaration was widely publicised by its sponsors at the time, but has since been largely forgotten, having been overtaken by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Sankey played a key role in establishing the legal framework of the newly disestablished Church in Wales.

Personal life[edit]

Sankey never married. He died in February 1948, aged 81, when the barony and viscountcy became extinct.[1] A house at his former school Lancing College is named after him.[citation needed]


Coat of arms of John Sankey, 1st Viscount Sankey
Coronet of a British Viscount.svg
Sankey Escutcheon.png
In front of a dexter cubit arm vested Gules cuffed Ermine the hand grasping by the beam a pair of scales Proper a martlet as in the arms.
Gules a fess Ermine between in chief two martlets and in base a salmon Or.
On either side a lion Sable gorged with a collar Or suspended therefrom on the dexter an escutcheon Azure charged with a Paschal lamb Gold and on the sinister an escutcheon Vert charged with a stag trippant also Gold. [8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c John Sankey, 1st and last Viscount Sankey
  2. ^ Stevens, Robert (2004). "Sankey, John, Viscount Sankey (1866–1948)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 28 March 2007.
  3. ^ "No. 28255". The London Gazette. 28 May 1909. p. 4060.
  4. ^ "No. 33356". The London Gazette. 14 February 1928. p. 1044.
  5. ^ "No. 33508". The London Gazette. 21 June 1929. p. 4118.
  6. ^ "No. 33795". The London Gazette. 2 February 1932. p. 703.
  7. ^ "A Declaration of the Rights of Man; A charter prepared in 1940, under the Chairmanship of Lord Sankey, and originally drafted for discussion by H. G. Wells". Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  8. ^ Debrett's Peerage. 1936.
Political offices
Preceded by
Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain
Succeeded by
Peerage of the United Kingdom
New creation Viscount Sankey
1932 – 1948
Baron Sankey
1929 – 1948