William Henry Skinner
William Henry Skinner was born at New Plymouth on February 27, 1857, and died there on October 24, 1946. His earliest recollections, recorded in “Reminiscences of a Taranaki Surveyor,” which he wrote and published in his ninetieth year, were of armed settlers, tattooed Maoris, and Imperial troops. He was educated at Seholefield's and Richmond's schools. A prized possession was a commission in the volunteers at the age of 17, signed by Sir George Grey. About this time he represented Taranaki at Rugby football, playing in the three-quarter line in the first provincial match against Auckland. He entered the provincial Survey Department at the age of 16, paying an indenture fee of £80 and supplying his own horse and outfit, and he undertook responsible, though minor, field work in the following year. He was trained by Thomas Humphreys, afterwards Surveyor-General, and his standard of professional work was the highest. He became Commissioner of Crown Lands in succession for Marlborough, Hawke's Bay, and Canterbury, and he served on a number of interdepartmental committees and commissions.
Still under twenty, his survey parties were composed of Maoris, and he has recorded their invariable friendship, honesty, and loyalty, though among them were men who, only a few years earlier, had borne arms against the Crown, and several who had played a part in the White Cliffs massacre. At the end of his life he could say that some of his best friends had been Maoris. Among colleagues in the Department of Lands and Survey was Stevenson Percy Smith, through whose influence he became a foundation member of the Polynesian Society, becoming councillor in 1901–12 and again from 1921 till 1925. He collaborated in editorship of the Journal of the Polynesian Society between 1904 and 1906, and after the death of S. P. Smith he edited the Journal alone between 1922 and 1925. This period was crucial: had he not acted, the society would have ended. He shared the duties of secretary and treasurer between 1904 and 1906, and was secretary from 1906 till 1912. From 1925 till 1929 he was president of the society. At his death the Journal had reached its fifty-fifth volume and had won a world-wide circulation. With Augustus Hamilton he was joint-secretary of the Anthropology Section of the A.A.A. held at Dunedin in 1904. His status in Maori studies is attested by massive contributions to Percy Smith's “History and Traditions of the Taranaki Coast” and by eleven papers in the Journal of the Polynesian Society and one in the Transactions of the Royal Society of New Zealand. Much of his work on early colonial history appeared in the daily press and in periodicals, but in this field he published several illustrated volumes.
He held, and he exploited to the full, a strategic departmental position in securing State reservation of places of scenic, historic, and scientific interest. Thus he played the decisive part in a reservation
of the following areas in North Taranaki: Mount Messenger, Urenui and Onaero Rivers, Patua or Kaitake Range, Ratapihipihi, Meeting of the Waters, Everett Road Reserve, Kawau Pa, Okoke Pa, Pohokura Pa, Pukemiro Pa, Awai-te-Take Pa, Pukerangiora Pa, Paritutu Peak and Pa, Koru Pa, Tatara-i-maka Pa, Nga-weka Pa. Within New Plymouth itself, Western and Sanders Parks and Kawaroa Park owe their existence to his intervention. Seven years of strenuous secretarial effort combined with heavy manual labour resulted in the formation of the splendid sports ground at Pukekura Park. In Hawke's Bay he secured the reservation of the gannet colony at Cape Kidnappers, while in Marlborough the reservation of the two sites on which the British flag was hoisted was due to him. In Canterbury he secured the fencing off of a number of sites where ancient rock-paintings still exist. But in this case community interest was not with him, and the effort was fruitless. He was president of the Canterbury Branch of the Royal Society in 1918.
In New Plymouth he was associated especially with St. Mary's Church and with the Public Library and the Taranaki Museum. For many years he was chairman of both the latter bodies, and of both he was a unique benefactor. To the library he gave books, documents, maps, and pictures, and to the museum the finest provincial private collection of Maori material ever made. He was elected chairman of the first Conference of New Zealand Museums, held at Wellington in November, 1929, a conference attended by representatives of the Southland, Otago, Canterbury, Dominion, Wanganui, Taranaki, and Auckland Museums, and of the Geological Survey, the Rotorua School of Maori Arts and Crafts, and the Cawthron Institute.
Behind his record of public service there was a mental attitude essential if the Maori problem in Taranaki and elsewhere is to be solved. All his life he was immersed in the administration of land, the disposal of which had brought about the Maori wars. Yet throughout he retained the friendship of both parties in those wars. He had known personally every one of the earlier settlers of north and central Taranaki who survived into his time and almost every one of the Maori leaders—Wiremu Kingi, Hoani Pihama, Titokowaru, Te Whiti, Tohu, and many more—and he had made contributions to the written history of both sides in the struggle. He had been a principal mover in the erection of memorials to white settlers, and it was he who moved first in the erection of memorials to the Maoris who fell at Mahoetahi and in the attack on No. 3 Redoubt. The attainment of friendship between the two races was his aim, and the equal commemoration of the virtues of both. Both communities joined in his funeral, of which the most dramatic feature was the Maori farewell.
In conclusion, the final paragraph of the obituary notice in the Journal of the Polynesian Society (December, 1946) may be quoted: “Few men are remarkable without remarkable wives, and it is just to record the splendid qualities of the courageous and comely woman who shared his life even in those early surveying days when camp and bush life were strenuous enough for men.”
H. D. S.