SKINNER, THOMAS, military engineer; b. 1759 in England, son of William Skinner and Hester Lawder of Berwick-upon-Tweed; m. a Miss Power, and they had five sons and three daughters; d. 6 Feb. 1818 at Le Havre, France.
A grandson of William Skinner, chief engineer of Great Britain in the mid 18th century, Thomas Skinner joined the engineers as an ensign on 27 May 1774. He was stationed for many years at Gibraltar, where the eldest of his children were born. In the late summer of 1790, now a captain, he arrived in Newfoundland as chief engineer. For the next 13 years, serving successively under six governors, he was responsible for maintaining Newfoundland’s fortifications and other military works so far as funds pried from the Treasury would permit.
Following the outbreak of war with France in 1793, the departure of an expedition to occupy Saint-Pierre and Miquelon seriously depleted the garrison at St John’s [see James Ogilvie]. Skinner then raised at his own expense four companies numbering some 150 officers and men and named the Royal Newfoundland Volunteers. In the summer of 1796 the appearance of a French squadron off the coast put St John’s in a state of alarm, and the Volunteers acquitted themselves with credit when called out to strengthen the regular garrison. A year later they seized the opportunity presented by a mutiny aboard the Latona in St John’s harbour to proclaim their readiness “to sacrifice their lives and property in defence of King and Country and their present glorious constitution.”
But no such demand was to be made of them, and some time after 1796 the Volunteers quietly disbanded. In the mean time, in April 1795 Skinner had been promoted lieutenant-colonel and authorized to raise immediately a regiment of fencible infantry for service in North America only, similar to those already raised in Nova Scotia by Sir John Wentworth and in New Brunswick by Lieutenant Governor Thomas Carleton. His vigorous recruiting quickly brought the Royal Newfoundland Fencible Regiment to its full strength of 650 men. In 1796 the warlike preparations put in hand by Skinner and Governor Sir James Wallace persuaded the French admiral to abandon any idea of an attack.
Soon afterwards, however, the fortunes of Skinner’s regiment went into a decline. In its ranks were many who had taken the oath of the Society of United Irishmen, which pledged to achieve Irish independence, and there is evidence that the mutineers on the Latona commanded considerable sympathy from the troops on shore. The strict disciplinary measures taken by Brigadier-General John Skerrett, who was placed in command of the garrison in 1799 over the head of Skinner, brought increasing disaffection, many desertions, and a plot to mutiny and assassinate Skinner and his officers. The uprising, planned for 20 April 1800, failed, and the ringleaders were tried by court martial, eight of them being hanged. All of the regiment except two picked companies was transferred to Halifax, and a regular British regiment was sent to garrison St John’s for the remainder of the war. With peace in 1802 the Royal Newfoundland Fencible Regiment was disbanded. Skinner, who while in command of the Volunteers and the fencible regiment had continued to serve as chief engineer, relinquished that appointment on being recalled to England in 1803. He retired with full pay on 1 July 1807.
As chief engineer of Newfoundland Thomas Skinner brought the defences of St John’s to a high level of efficiency. As a regimental commander his task was not an easy one, and his tendency to act independently of Governor William Waldegrave during the 1790s more than once brought him a sharp reprimand. The governor of Newfoundland was also, by virtue of his commission, commander-in-chief of the troops on the island, and successive governors had upheld this position against the claims of the senior army officers in North America. In 1799 Waldegrave’s refusal to recognize the authority of Prince Edward Augustus, commander-in-chief of the army in North America, over the troops in Newfoundland, placed Skinner in the unenviable position of trying to serve two masters. While Waldegrave censured him for withholding information he had received from the prince, Skinner was threatened with a general court martial by the commander-in-chief for not following his orders. “All the officers of my own Regiment, nay, the officers of the Navy themselves,” he mournfully informed the prince, “have witnessed my chagrin in not being allowed to follow your Highness’s commands.”
Thomas Skinner’s departure from Newfoundland did not end the military contribution made by his family to the island. His eldest son served there as senior officer of the Royal Artillery from 1821 to 1827, and his third son, Robert Pringle, was a captain with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment that fought in the War of 1812. A daughter, Harriet, was married to an officer of the 7th Foot, and on hearing of her husband’s death in the battle of Salamanca dressed herself in male attire and sought his body on the field. The incident formed the subject for a tragedy performed on the London stage, The heroine of Salamanca.
PANL, GN 2/1, 12–15, 17. PRO, CO 194/43 (mfm. at PAC); WO 40, bundle 6. Gentleman’s Magazine, July–December 1812: 297. DNB (biog. of William Skinner). G.B., WO, Army list, 1775. Roll of officers of the Corps of Royal Engineers from 1660 to 1898. . . , ed. R. F. Edwards (Chatham, Eng., 1898). G. W. L. Nicholson, The fighting Newfoundlander; a history of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment (St John’s, [1964?]). Thomas Skinner, Fifty years in Ceylon: an autobiography, ed. Annie Skinner (London and Calcutta, 1891). [This biography of a grandson of Skinner has brief details about the latter’s family. g.w.l.n.] D. A. Webber, Skinner’s Fencibles: the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, 1795–1802 (St John’s, 1964). [This work reproduces much of the correspondence dealing with the affairs of Skinner’s regiment. g.w.l.n.]
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