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Lord Sankey

Full nameRight Hon. Sir John Sankey, 1st Viscount Sankey of Moreton, County Gloucester cr 1932 (Baron cr 1929), PC 1928, GBE 1917, Kt 1914, DCL (Hon.) Oxford, LLD (Hon.), Universities of Wales, Cambridge and Bristol
Born26 Oct 1866, Moreton, Gloucestershire, United Kingdom
Died06 Feb 1948, London, United Kingdom

After the early death of his father, John Sankey was brought up by his mother in South Wales. Through the charity of a local Anglican clergyman he attended Lancing College, then studied Modern History at Jesus College, Oxford, graduating in 1889. He was called to the Bar by the Middle Temple in 1892, appointed KC in 1909 and made a Judge of the King’s Bench Division in 1914. During WWI he chaired the Aliens Advisory Committee, and in 1919 chaired the Coal Industry Commission, with his casting vote recommending state ownership of mines, much to the consternation of his fellow Conservatives. Appointed Lord Justice of Appeal in 1928, in 1929 MacDonald raised Sankey to the peerage and appointed him Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain in the new Labour government.

Sankey was the Chair of the Federal Structure Committee throughout the conference and Deputy Chair of the final session of the conference.

For additional biographical information, see the official delegate Who's Who for the Second Session. See also Emery Kelen's caricature, from his portfolio of delegates at the Round Table Conference.


  • 27 June: Confirmed as one of two British members of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague, for a 6-year term.
  • October-November 1930: Chaired the Inter-Imperial Relations Committee of the Imperial Conference

First Session

  • George Schuster, Finance Member for the Government of India, later recalled of his first meeting with Sankey in November 1930 being “…profoundly shocked at his ignorance of even the most elementary facts about India.” (Schuster, 1979:106) Sankey himself had admitted to being disturbed at the prospect of the forthcoming negotiations when the British had given no preliminary consideration to the issues involved.
  • 28th November 1930: the Federal Structure (Sub)Committee was called in to being, with Sankey as its Chair. He suggested that there were several possible routes to federation: 1) two unions, one of British India and one of the Indian States, combining to make a federation 2) a federation of British India with the States entering separately, and 3) a federation with each element being separate British Indian provinces and States. (The Times)
  • 16th December 1930: the Federal Structure Committee’s interim report was presented to the whole conference, reported its provisional conclusions on the first three of the four heads it had been delegated to discuss, namely the components of federation (British Indian provinces and Indian States), the type of federal legislature (two chambers containing representatives from British and Princely India) and its powers (a selection of subjects listed as “central” under the 1919 reforms schema): “All parties of the sub-Committee were unanimous in preferring the welfare of India as a whole to the individual claims of the interests they represent and in the conviction that only in the larger unity can the diversity of interests and policies be completely harmonised.” (Sub-Committees' Reports; Conference Resolution; and Prime Minister's Statement)
  • 10th June 1931: Sankey replied to a letter from Hailey, who has resumed his post as Governor of the United Provinces, who had proposed focusing on provincial autonomy, given the uncertainty over Congress or Princely support for federation. Sankey suggested that this was the logical route, building a federation up from the provinces, but the Prince’s declaration had forced the conference, and the Prime Minister, to declare in favour of federation. (University of Oxford C539)
  • Summer of 1931: Sankey presided over committees considering federal structure and finance. (University of Oxford C539)

Second Session

  • 5th October 1931: Sankey privately advocated the division of constitutional reform into two stages, provincial autonomy being promised at once, while the Federal Select Committee would work on proposals for central responsibility. (Moore, 1974:232)
  • 9th October 1931: Sankey attended a silent prayer meeting with Gandhi at Friends House, Euston. The Friend journal reported on the event: “Here, in the softened light, about a hundred people had come together by eight o’clock, and had settled at once into prayer and meditation, each in his different way laying the problems of the Round Table Conference and the needs of India before God. No explanations were necessary, and by agreement no word was spoken. They sat together in deep silence, broken only by traffic outside and occasional movement—on the part of westerners—within, until after a final handshake, the little company rose, warm greetings passed, and the room was empty again.” (The Friend)
  • Early November 1931: Sankey seemingly received the agreement of Gandhi to a two stage model of constitutional advance, although Gandhi recanted in a letter of 6th(Moore, 1974:234)
  • Sankey chair of the Federal Structure Committee.
  • 11th November: Sankey and MacDonald put the two stage proposal to Sapru, who vigorously rejected it two days later. (Moore, 1974:236)
  • 18th January 1932: on arriving at Bombay Dr Moonje gave a public speech, in which he stated that if any statesman in England had got a soul in him and would really do something to help India, it was Lord Sankey. All others were shrewd politicians who would yield nothing unless they were forced. (National Archives)
  • 30 Jan 1932: Sankey raised to Viscount
  • 16th April 1932: Sankey published a letter in “The Newsletter”, the National Labour Fortnightly, suggesting that while the Princes were reaching agreement on the federal issue, an Indian communal agreement was far off, which might necessitate a British Communal Award. He insisted that no Labour government could have acted otherwise: “NO Labour Government, moreover, could have ignored the recent attempt of Congress to establish a rival and revolutionary Government in India; no Labour Government could have capitulated to a campaign of sedition, violence and murder. I have never liked the Big Stick… But, meanwhile, revolutionary violence has forced this Government, as it would force any Government, to meet it with adequate weapons.” (University of Oxford C539)
  • 2nd May 1932: Gandhi sent a handwritten letter to Sankey from Yervada Gaol, responding to the newsletter piece of 16th April, which had been reprinted in the Indian press: “I have just read your newsletter reproduced in the Indian press. The reading of it has made me sad. You have given judgement against me on evidence of which I have been kept in ignorance and you have given it after rendering me incapable of defending myself.” (University of Oxford C539)

Third Session

  • 14th November 1932: The Manchester Guardian reported Lord and Miss Sankey’s greeting of Indian delegates arriving at Victoria Station: “He did not wait for them to alight, but, towering above his companions, he stood by the open door and greeted with a handclasp each delegate as he appeared. It was clear that his pleasure in meeting his old colleagues once more was shared by them.” (Manchester Guardian)
  • Sankey acted as Deputy Chairman of the conference and chaired the concluding discussion in 24th December 1932
  • 28th November 1932: Hoare wrote to Viceroy Willingdon that he was glad to have the conference nearly over, having done most of the work himself: “The Prime Minister, as you saw, could not attend at all owning to his chill and Sankey virtually collapsed about ten days before the end of the Conference.” (British Library: E240.2)


  • 1935: when Stanley Baldwin replaced MacDonald as Prime Minister, Sankey lost his post as Lord Chancellor. MacDonald’s son, Malcolm, secured a place in the cabinet and wrote to Sankey on 8th June 1935: “I remember that I had the honour to serve you during the first Indian Round Table Conference, when you showed the very highest statesmanship and were largely responsible for the fact that the crucial conference ended successfully. If the Indian reforms work well, and relations between India and Gt. Britain are close and friendly in future, instead of troubled and bitter, you are one of the first half-dozen men whom we have to thank… So you have played a great part in two of the most fateful enterprises of modern times: saving Great Britain from the crisis of 1931, and creating friendship between the new British Empire and the new India.” (Heuston, 1964:528)
  • 1935: Treasurer of Middle Temple
  • 1940: Chaired the ‘Sankey Committee’ than developed the ‘Sankey Declaration of the Rights of Man’, listing eleven fundamental human rights

Sources used


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Images Photograph of Lord Sankey, from the published biographical guide to delegates at the second session of the Round Table Conference, 1931

"The Right Hon. Lord Sankey, G.B.E., Lord Chancellor, 1931, and Chairman of the Federal Structure Committee of the Indian Round Table Conference; 1st Baron, created 1929, of Moreton, Co. Gloucester; John Sankey, G.B.E., created 1917; Knight, created 1914; P.C., 1928; LL.D. (Hon.), University of Wales; Lord Chancellor in the Labour Government, 1929-31." From Indian Round Table Conference Second Session 1931: Biographical Notes and Photographs of the British and Indian Delegates (London: St. James's Palace). By permission of the British Library (shelfmark T 11187). Reproduced under Open Government Licence v3.0 (

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