William Skey was born in London, England, probably on 8 April 1835, the son of William Fawcett Skey and his wife, Harriet Skey. William Fawcett Skey, a barrister, died about a year after his son's birth. Thereafter it seems that guardians were responsible for the boy's upbringing and formal education.
As a young man William worked on a farm, and made some study of the practical application of chemistry to agriculture. An attempt to distil alcohol from beetroot on a commercial scale failed, and he decided with his brother Henry to try his luck in New Zealand.
William and Henry Skey arrived in New Zealand in 1860, and William spent about two years prospecting on the Otago goldfields. In 1862 after passing a qualifying examination, William was appointed laboratory assistant to the Geological Survey of Otago by James Hector. He continued his chemical studies under C. S. Wood, whom he succeeded as supervisor of the laboratory when Wood resigned because of ill health. In 1865 Skey, with the rest of Hector's staff, transferred from Dunedin to Wellington to help establish the Colonial Museum and the Geological Survey of New Zealand. He was appointed analyst to the Geological Survey and spent 35 years in this post. In 1893 he was transferred to the Mines Department where he continued to work as the government analyst.
Throughout his career, Skey provided chemical analyses by which the economic potential of geological discoveries could be assessed. He made rapid analyses of natural resources – coals, oils, building stone – in response to enquiries from all over the country. His analytical data on important samples are said to have been meticulously accurate, and his clients, both government and private, had great confidence in his figures. From the wide range of rocks and minerals submitted to him for analysis, Skey was able to build up a picture of the major geological formations and mineral-bearing localities. An effect of this somewhat indiscriminate sampling, however, was that it encouraged an over-optimistic impression of the colony's mineral wealth.
In time Skey came to be regarded as an expert petrologist. He performed significant analyses of coals, and early in his career demonstrated the superiority of West Coast coals to the brown coals of Otago and Southland. He had a lifelong interest in the chemistry of gold and gold processing, and he carried out important research on the application of cyanide solutions in gold recovery techniques. This work assisted in the development of New Zealand's northern goldfields. He also recognised the importance of seepage oils from Taranaki and East Coast localities, his first report on Taranaki petroleum being dated June 1866.
Skey discovered and analysed the naturally occurring ferro-nickel alloy awaruite, from Westland, and a hydrated aluminium phosphate from New Plymouth, which he named taranakite. Later in his career he investigated the composition of Taranaki ironsands, and carried out studies in the commercial preparation of Phormium tenax (flax) fibre.
Skey had been appointed colonial analyst under the Adulteration of Food Act 1866, and under this and succeeding legislation he carried out analyses of foodstuffs and drinking waters. He exposed such abuses as the colouring of 'green' tea with potassium ferrocyanide and yellow lead chromate, and the marketing of 'sherries' made up of brandy and sugar. Sampling of beer seems to have been an enjoyable aspect of his work, and there is evidence that he was fond of after-hours conviviality.
During his working life Skey performed more than 10,000 analyses. He also showed considerable experimental ability and an enthusiasm to publish his findings on a wide range of topics – he produced more than 150 papers. Some of his work fails to stand up in the light of modern knowledge, but he did make major contributions to mineral chemistry, gold extraction procedures, electrochemistry, surface chemistry and natural product chemistry. James Hector, in an obituary, asserted that Skey had become a world authority in certain branches of his subject. This achievement is remarkable when it is remembered that Skey had a minimum of formal training. He laboured extraordinarily hard for long hours and low pay, and his work was carried out essentially in isolation, in primitive accommodation and with unsophisticated apparatus.
Some sources suggest that Skey was a 'difficult' character, and that his relations with New Zealand's more academically inclined scientists were not good. Outside of work, he maintained a strong interest in farming, and had a small property in the Carterton area. His other major interest was poetry. He would often stay late at the laboratory composing verse, which he printed himself on a small hand-press. Skey's verses – many of them parodies of the works of Shakespeare and Milton – are deliciously awful. One poem, 'On the electric lighting of Wellington', begins:
And where but yesterday night, the gas-lights flare
To strive for man against the murky air,
To night from lofty shapes in trappings gay,
The Empire City's bathed in mellow day;
To night a thousand suns resplendent shine,
From Lambton's curve to Newtown's far confine.
Skey published 97 verses in 1889 under the title The pirate chief and the mummy's complaint with various Zealandian poems, and produced Patriotic rhymes in 1900 to coincide with the departure of New Zealand troops to the South African war.
William Skey had married Louisa Francis in Wellington on 10 April 1866. There were at least two children, Henry Francis and Ernest Stanley. Skey died in Wellington on 4 October 1900. Louisa Skey died in 1922.