Page 1: Biography
This biography, written by Jinty Rorke, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol. 3, 1996
Arthur Skinner and his brother Lewis both had lengthy careers in the New Zealand Police Force. Although their talents were quite different, each made a distinctive contribution to the maintenance of law and order in the early twentieth century. They were the 8th and 11th of 12 children of Arthur Skinner, a stone-cutter and labourer, and his wife, Jane Grant. Arthur, born on 3 January 1874 in Fetternear, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, arrived in Dunedin in 1888 with an older brother to join four siblings who had emigrated in 1883. The rest of the family, including Lewis, born in Fetternear on 15 March 1882, left Scotland for Otago in 1890.
Arthur Skinner joined the New Zealand Police Force in 1899 and was appointed to Auckland. During five years with the wharf police he rescued four people from drowning; his reward was one year's seniority. He was transferred to the detective branch in 1907 and married Winifred Leydon at Auckland on 3 June the following year. He reverted to the uniform branch at his own request in 1909 and was given charge of the two-man Tauranga station. Here he served until his retirement in 1935, refusing chances of promotion in favour of a settled life.
Arthur Skinner was, nevertheless, involved in many famous incidents, including the hunt for Hare Matenga in 1907. During the 1912 Waihi strike he earned a reputation as Commissioner John Cullen's right-hand man. Arthur is said to have followed Cullen's orders to intimidate and beat up striking miners. He was also a mounted policeman during the 1913 waterfront and general strikes and the 1913–14 Huntly coalminers' strike. In 1916 he was a prominent figure in the armed expedition against Rua Kenana, during which two Maori were killed by police.
Despite his notoriety outside Tauranga, Arthur was greatly respected by the people of the town, where he and his wife, who had no children, were noted for their good works. They took in young people in need, providing them with food, shelter and clothes; even on occasion catering for their weddings. The Skinners farmed two properties near Tauranga at Ohauiti, where they bred fine horses and Jersey cattle. Arthur was a member of the Bay of Plenty Racing Club, the Tauranga Club and the Tauranga Orphans' Club. When he retired because of ill health in 1935 his farewell in the Tauranga Town Hall was attended by over 500 people.
Arthur also became renowned for his athleticism and physical presence: he was 5 feet 9¾ inches tall, and was described as being 'of exceptional physical fitness'. Appointed physical training instructor soon after joining the force, he was responsible for the establishment in Auckland of the first police gymnasium in the country. He achieved fame as an athlete, competing with distinction in Caledonian games for 17 years. At the Auckland games in January 1902 he won six first prizes on one day: for throwing the hammer and weights, tossing the caber, putting the shot (Irish and Scottish styles) and wrestling. Two achievements in particular attracted comment in newspapers in England and Australia: throwing the 16 pound 7 ounce hammer 167 feet 11 inches, and the 56-pound weight 40 feet 5 inches. He was an outstanding wrestler, drawing with the Australian champion Harry Pearse in Auckland after a contest lasting four hours. On one occasion Skinner actually defeated the New Zealand champion, Jack Sutherland. He won over 100 medals.
Arthur Skinner died in Tauranga on 20 June 1940; his funeral at St Mary's Catholic Church was attended by many high-ranking police officers. He left money to the Catholic church towards the establishment of a school in Tauranga. When St Mary's School was built his wife donated the Arthur Skinner Memorial Cup, which is still awarded for good conduct.
His brother Lewis, although less well known, also made his mark in policing history. After leaving school he worked on a farm, before going to the Central Otago goldfields in 1900. For a period he helped assemble machinery for the Sailor's Bend Dredge, then he was employed by a private company to help build a dam and assemble a gold dredge. This venture ended in financial failure in 1901. That year Lewis enlisted for the South African War, sailing from Lyttelton on 8 February 1902 as a member of the Eighth New Zealand Contingent. After peace was declared on 31 May, Lewis joined the Transvaal police. He served for one year before returning to Dunedin, where he joined the New Zealand Police Force in 1905.
On 4 September 1912 at Dunedin, Lewis married Anastatia Catherine Carroll, and in 1913 he was moved to Napier as district clerk at the Napier police station, a position he held for four years. In 1917 he was transferred to Woodville, a sole charge station, where he remained until his retirement in 1947. Like Arthur, Lewis preferred to settle in a small town, refusing promotion for the sake of his five children. He was the archetypal country policeman: versatile, capable, and with a strong sense of duty. When his son was killed in an air accident in 1941 he took six hours leave to identify the body, then returned to four hours of night shift.
Lewis Skinner's tangible contribution to the police was his book, A digest of selected English & New Zealand cases bearing on the criminal and licensing laws, published in 1916 and for many years used as a text for police examinations. The profits from royalties were put towards the purchase of a car: he was one of the first policemen to be granted a motor vehicle allowance. As a justice of the peace he was said to have been instrumental in having an amendment added to the Motor Vehicles Registration and Licensing Regulations 1949 to prevent car number-plates being changed for illegal purposes.
Lewis Skinner moved to Palmerston North on retiring in 1947. A keen tramper and an avid student of New Zealand flora, he planted many species of native trees in his garden. He died in Palmerston North Hospital on 12 January 1970, survived by his wife and four children, and was buried in Woodville.