Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Skinner, James (1778-1841)
SKINNER, JAMES (1778–1841), lieutenant-colonel, born in Bengal in 1778, was the son of Hercules Skinner, a Scotsman in the East India Company's military service, who became a lieutenant-colonel in 1800, and died at Burragong, Bengal, on 12 July 1803 (Asiatic Register). The elder Skinner, when an ensign, had taken under his protection a Rajput girl, daughter of a landholder. She bore him six children, and died in 1790 by her own hand, in despair at seeing her daughters removed from her care and sent to school. In 1794 James and his younger brother Robert (d. 1821) were sent to a Calcutta boarding school; and in 1796 James was apprenticed to a printer there, but at once ran away. His godfather, Captain W. Burn, then introduced him to M. de Boigne, Sindhia's French general, who gave him a commission in the Mahratta army. During the next ten years he took an active part in various expeditions and forays, in which M. Perron, De Boigne's successor, was perpetually engaged, including the capture of Delhi in May 1798, and the storming of Hansi, the stronghold of George Thomas [q. v.], the Irish adventurer, in 1799. In 1803, when the French state, which Perron had founded between Delhi and Aligarh, was attacked by General Gerard (afterwards Viscount) Lake [q. v.], Skinner, with several of his brother officers, was dismissed from the Mahratta army. Skinner joined the English camp, and, after the capture of Delhi, was appointed to command a body of horsemen who had deserted from the enemy. At the head of his irregular cavalry—soon to be famous as ‘Skinner's Horse,’ a designation inherited by the 1st Bengal cavalry—he greatly distinguished himself in the campaign against Holkar (1805) and in the Pindari war (1817–1819). In 1825 he was present with his cavalry at the storming of Bhurtpore. The Indian government rewarded his services by grants of land in the newly acquired territory, and, having purchased other properties, he became master of a large estate. He spent considerable sums on irrigation works, was well spoken of by government officials as a good landlord, and was respected by the natives, who still say of him ‘Wúh ta bádsháh tha’ (‘Ah! he was a king!’). His swarthy complexion, habits of life, and early training were those of an Asiatic; but his friend, Sir John Malcolm [q. v.], wrote: ‘I do not mean to flatter you when I say you are as good an Englishman as I know.’ Bishop Reginald Heber [q. v.] described him as ‘a modest and good as well as a brave man.’ Successive governors-general, from the Marquis Wellesley to the Earl of Auckland, spoke of him in the highest terms; and, his military services being brought to the notice of the home government, he was given the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the army, and created a C.B. (1828). In one of his early campaigns with the Mahrattas, when wounded and hard pressed by the enemy, he had vowed, if his life were spared, to build a Christian church. In fulfilment of this pledge, he built, at a cost of 20,000l., the church of St. James at Delhi. The building was consecrated by Bishop Daniel Wilson [q. v.] of Calcutta on 22 Nov. 1836, and Skinner and his three sons were confirmed there on the same day. The headquarters of Skinner's corps were at Hansi, and there he died on 4 Dec. 1841, and was buried with military honours, his remains being taken to Delhi two months afterwards and deposited in his own church. He is said to have had at least fourteen wives, and left five sons: Joseph (1796?–1855?); James, a colonel in the Indian army (1805–1862); Hercules, major in the Indian army (1813–1852); Thomas (1828?–1864); Alexander (1825–1885).
On the death of his youngest son, Alexander Skinner, who had managed the estate for some years, it was divided among Skinner's surviving descendants. There is a portrait of Colonel James Skinner, by an unknown artist, in the India office; another, believed to be by W. Melville, is in the vestry of the church at Delhi; and a third is in the possession of his granddaughter, Mrs. Fargus, of Strawberry Hill.
[Military Memoir of Lieut.-colonel James Skinner, C.B., by J. Baillie Fraser, 1851; District Gazetteers of Kurnaul and Hissar; information supplied by Mrs. Fargus, a granddaughter.]