SKINNER, ROBERT PRINGLE, army officer; b. 1786 in Gibraltar, third son of Thomas Skinner and a Miss Power; m. 6 Jan. 1810 Harriet McDonald at Quebec, Lower Canada, and they had at least one child; d. 3 May 1816 in St John’s, Nfld.
Robert Pringle Skinner came from a family that had close ties with the British armed forces. His paternal great-grandfather William Skinner had been chief engineer of Great Britain, and his paternal grandfather an infantry captain. His father was an engineer under Robert Pringle*, the commanding engineer at Gibraltar when Skinner was born and after whom he was named. Of his four brothers, three entered the army and one the navy. In 1790 the family came to Newfoundland, where Thomas Skinner had been appointed chief engineer. Five years later Thomas raised the Royal Newfoundland Fencible Regiment, which was disbanded in 1802. However, a successor unit, sometimes called the Royal Newfoundland Regiment of Fencible Infantry but more usually the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, was raised by Colonel John Skerrett the following year. Although Robert had been too young to serve in his father’s regiment, the family connection secured him a lieutenancy, dated 5 Nov. 1803, in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. The unit transferred to Nova Scotia in 1805, and then in 1807 to Quebec, where it spent five years in garrison. Little is known of Skinner’s life at this period save that he was in some minor trouble in 1806 and 1807 for his absence after a period of leave had expired. In November 1809 he was promoted captain.
After the outbreak of the War of 1812 the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was divided into detachments for service on sea and land, and its officers and men were present on several fronts. Skinner himself spent most of the war on the upper St Lawrence around Prescott, Upper Canada. In June 1812 he was ordered to take command of a detachment of gunboats sailing from Quebec to Montreal and he apparently continued upriver, since in October he and 40 Royal Newfoundlanders took part in the abortive assault on Ogdensburg, N.Y. His presence in that region was officially ordered on 23 March 1813, when he was appointed an acting deputy quartermaster general (a common occupation for officers of the regiment) at Prescott, with command of the gunboats and marines stationed there. During the campaign of 1813 the upper St Lawrence was a lively place, and although assigned to a non-combatant department Skinner managed to see some action. In October he and five men of his regiment captured an American Durham boat in a brief affair near Prescott, and the next month he was present at the battle of Crysler’s Farm. Despite the favourable notices given him by lieutenant-colonels Joseph Wanton Morrison* and George Richard John Macdonell*, Skinner received no reward for his services, and indeed the following year was criticized. A certain private in his company claimed that he had received “Extremely ill treatment” when he was arrested on a minor charge, and also that Skinner had withheld the company’s pay for six months. The latter charge may have been true – officers of the regiment had already been warned that their pay accounts were inadequate and late – but, since the complaints were about events as much as two years old, they do not appear to have been heeded by higher authority.
Skinner was more or less permanently stationed at Prescott during 1814, although by October he had ceased to be attached to the quartermaster general’s department. Most of his regiment had been ordered back to Newfoundland to recruit, but Skinner remained in Canada until after the conclusion of peace. Indeed, he was on his way to reinforce the garrison of Michilimackinac (Mackinac Island, Mich.) with a party of 50 Royal Newfoundlanders when news came that the war was over. By the fall of 1815 he had returned to the regiment, which was now at St John’s, but the stresses of the war had damaged his health. On 3 May 1816, just three weeks before his regiment was ordered to Halifax, N.S., to disband, he died, worn out with fatigue. His widow and family returned to Montreal, where they were able to obtain a pension.
ANQ-Q, CE1-61, 6 Jan. 1810. PAC, RG 8, I (C ser.), 187: 96; 224: 74–75; 231: 220; 506: 121–22; 678: 100–3; 679: 444; 695: 1–4; 721: 2–23, 72–75; 1219: 137–38; 1220: 355. PRO, WO 17/1516–18; 17/2356; 17/2361–63; WO 28/304: f.56; 28/307: f.18. DNB (biog. of William Skinner). G.B., WO, Army list. 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), 320.