Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Skinner, William (1700-1780)

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SKINNER, WILLIAM (1700–1780), lieutenant-general, chief engineer of Great Britain, son of Thomas Skinner, merchant, of St. Christopher, West Indies, by his wife Elizabeth, was born in that island in 1700. His great-grandfather, William Skynner, was mayor of Hull, Yorkshire, in 1665, and a direct descendant of Sir Vincent Skynner of Thornton College, Lincolnshire. Skinner's father and mother died while he was a child, and he was adopted by his father's sister, Mrs. Lambert, who married, as her second husband, Captain Talbot Edwards, chief engineer in Barbados and the Leeward Islands, and afterwards second engineer of Great Britain. The latter educated young Skinner for his own profession, and on his death at the Tower of London on 22 April 1719 he bequeathed to him not only his maps and plans, but also those which had belonged to Sir Martin Beckman, some of them dating as far back as 1660; a sister of Talbot Edwards had married Sir William Beckman (d. 1702), chief engineer of Great Britain.

On 11 May 1719 Skinner received a warrant as practitioner engineer, and commenced his duties at the ordnance office at the Tower of London. In the following year he was employed at the gun-wharf, Devonport, under Colonel Christian Lilly [q. v.] In 1722 he went to Port Mahon, Minorca, where, under Captain Kane William Horneck, extensive fortifications were in course of construction. In 1724 he was employed under Captain Jonas Moore [q. v.] on the first general survey of Gibraltar, where he was long posted. He was promoted to be sub-engineer on 20 Feb. 1726. Throughout the siege of Gibraltar, from 11 Feb. to 23 June 1727, Skinner did good service. In 1728 he was appointed barrack-master in Gibraltar in addition to his engineer duties. On 10 March 1729 he was promoted to be engineer-extraordinary. In 1736 and 1738, during Moore's temporary absences, he held the appointment of acting chief engineer. On 7 Feb. 1738 he was promoted to be engineer-in-ordinary. After Jonas Moore was killed at Carthagena on 22 March 1741, Skinner was appointed chief engineer at Gibraltar by warrant of 1 July 1741. On 1 Jan. 1743 he was promoted to the rank of subdirector, and on 30 Sept. 1746 to that of director.

After the Jacobite rebellion was crushed in 1746, Skinner was ordered to Scotland to construct, as chief engineer of North Britain, such defence posts as would effectually control the highlands. On 7 Feb. 1747 he arrived at Inverness after an arduous journey, and at once started his work—surveying and planning. On 30 May he reported on Oliver's fort at Inverness, with an estimate and plans for building a new one on the same site. He surveyed the remains of Fort Augustus, as he found them after the demolition by the rebels of 1745, and on 23 May 1747 he sent in a plan of restorations and additions. He proposed a magazine for Dumbarton Castle to contain one hundred and fifty barrels of gunpowder. It was not until 1749 that, owing to difficulties in procuring land at Arderseer Point, he was able to commence the new Fort George from his own designs. Wolfe, the hero of Quebec, who was in 1751 stationed in the highlands, wrote on 3 Oct. that the new fort of Arderseer or Fort George would, when completed, ‘be the most considerable fortress and best situated in Great Britain.’ The estimate for the work amounted to about 106,000l. In December 1753 Skinner submitted his designs for barracks in Fort George for sixteen hundred officers and men, as well as plans of a pier at Fort Augustus, and for additional accommodation for two hundred and seventy men at Edinburgh Castle.

In 1752 Skinner had been appointed president of a committee of officers of engineers, in accordance with whose report (submitted 3 Dec. 1754) magazines were erected at Purfleet, as a depôt for military ammunition and combustibles. Purfleet remains one of the principal ordnance ammunition stores. Towards the end of 1755 Skinner, on the recommendation of the Duke of Cumberland, was sent to Ireland to survey and report upon the fortifications there. He submitted the following year an elaborate report, illustrating his proposals by numerous designs and drawings. No steps were taken for eight-and-twenty years, when Colonel Charles Vallancey [q. v.] was called upon to report on the defences of Ireland, and unearthed Skinner's proposals. On the completion of his service in Ireland Skinner resumed his duties in Scotland. On 1 May 1757 he received a commission as colonel in the army, and on the 14th of the same month he received the royal patent constituting him chief engineer of Great Britain.

On 24 Feb. 1758 Skinner reported to the master-general of the ordnance upon the new defences at Gibraltar constructed under James O'Hara, second lord Tyrawley [q. v.], the value and prudence of which he impugned. Fox endeavoured in parliament to screen his friend Tyrawley, and Skinner appeared at the bar to justify his adverse opinions, and held his own during a very brisk encounter with Tyrawley, who cross-examined him. Skinner was thrice called upon later to advise and report on the defences of Gibraltar in 1759, 1769, and 1770. In the last year suggestions made by Colonel Sir William Green [q. v.] were carried out, after the plans had been revised by Skinner.

Each summer he revisited the highlands. In July 1759 Fort George was practically completed, armed and garrisoned, and in 1762 Skinner suggested additions. In 1771 Skinner presented the board of ordnance with a finely executed model of Fort George and a book of thirty-three original plans of the fortress. The model was exhibited at the Tower of London for more than half a century, and was then removed to the model room of the royal engineers at Chatham. Meanwhile he was engaged on the survey and defences of Milford Haven (1758–9 and 1761), and reported on the garrisons and defences of Portsmouth and Plymouth. On 18 Feb. 1761 Skinner was promoted to be major-general, and on 7 March his patent as chief engineer of Great Britain was renewed by George III. On 30 April 1770 he was promoted to be lieutenant-general in the army. Among his later services were projects for the enlargement of the gun-wharf at Devonport, and the erection of new magazines, and the remodelling and augmentation of the lines at Chatham to ensure a better defence to the dockyard. He died in harness at his residence, Croom's Hill, Greenwich, on 25 Dec. 1780. He was buried in the churchyard of St. Alphage, Greenwich, where there is a stone slab to his memory.

Skinner left a widow (Margaret, born Caldwell, to whom the king granted a special pension) and an only son, William, a captain in the 94th regiment, who took part in the capture, in 1761, of Dominica in the West Indies, under Lord Rollo, and was drowned the same year on 27 Aug. at Coulehault on the coast of Dominica. The latter left by his wife Hester, daughter of Dr. Colin Lawder, of Berwick-on-Tweed, with other issue, Thomas Skinner (1759–1818), a colonel of royal engineers, who in 1795 raised a regiment of fencibles in Newfoundland. The latter's five sons all entered the army or navy, and a grandson, Thomas Skinner (1804–1877), is separately noticed; while a daughter, Harriet, wife of Captain George Prescott of the 7th fusiliers, followed her husband's regiment through the Peninsula, and, upon hearing of his death at Salamanca (12 July 1812), dressed herself in male attire and sought his body in the field (the incident formed the subject of a tragedy called ‘The Heroine of Salamanca,’ which was acted in London).

Skinner's drawings in the British Museum include a survey of the island of Belleisle (1761), various plans of Fort George (1750–1754), and views of the north and south Gibraltar (1740). Others of his plans and drawings were presented by Skinner's descendants in 1878 to the Royal Engineers' Institute at Chatham.

A portrait of the ‘chief engineer’ hangs in the convent (the residence of the governor and commander-in-chief) at Gibraltar; a copy is in the mess of the royal engineers at Brompton Barracks, Chatham, Kent, presented by his great-great-grandson, Major Thomas Skinner.

[War Office Records; Royal Engineers' Records; Conolly Papers; Thomas Skinner's Fifty years in Ceylon, 1891; Gent. Mag. 1780, 1789, and 1811; Wright's Life of Wolfe; Cat. of Maps, &c. in the Royal Library, British Museum; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. i. 168; Anderson's Guide to the Highlands; Walpole's George II by Lord Holland, 1846 ed.; Evans's Cat. of Engraved Portraits.]

R. H. V.