William Henry Skinner was born in New Plymouth, New Zealand, on 26 February 1857, the son of Prudence Veale and her husband, Thomas Kingwell Skinner, a butcher. Both were among the pioneer settlers who had emigrated from Devon to Taranaki in 1841. William was educated at Schofield's private school and H. R. Richmond's private school in New Plymouth, before embarking on a lengthy career as a surveyor, civil servant, local historian and Polynesian scholar. He was a member of the first rugby club in New Plymouth, formed in 1874, and represented Taranaki against Auckland.
Skinner began his survey cadetship in July 1872 under the supervision of Thomas Humphries, chief surveyor of Taranaki. In 1876 Skinner was appointed an assistant surveyor, and was engaged in surveying much of the bush-clad terrain of Taranaki. He worked on the Mountain Road from Lepperton to Normanby, and laid out the land where Inglewood now stands. Some of his early assignments in the bush were considered risky adventures. On completing his survey of the land leased at Mokau by Joshua Jones in 1879, Skinner was congratulated on his safe return. He also conducted a successful survey of the Waimate plain, an area from which surveyors had previously been driven by local Maori. Many of these experiences he later recorded in Reminiscences of a Taranaki surveyor (1946).
On 15 August 1880 Skinner married Margaret Bracken Devenish at New Plymouth. They were to have two daughters and a son. In 1888, due to failing health, William was transferred to office duties. He quickly rose through the ranks, holding the positions of land transfer draughtsman, chief draughtsman and inspecting surveyor for Taranaki. Work in the office offered Skinner a break from the harsh physical demands of field surveying, and provided him with time to devote to his family. From 1911 he was successively commissioner of Crown lands and chief surveyor for Marlborough, Hawke's Bay and Canterbury. He retired to New Plymouth in July 1919.
Field surveying had necessitated frequent contact with Maori. While on survey expeditions he endeavoured to collect and record information on the traditional history and culture of local Maori. He was particularly interested in the history of the Mokau region, where he found the ancient pa at Rangihoua. It was not until his retirement from field surveying, however, that he was able to devote adequate time to anthropological enquiry.
Skinner was a foundation member of the Polynesian Society in 1892. The society was formed largely to preserve the cultural remains of a race believed to be dying out, and provided a vehicle for Pakeha scholars to indulge in ethnographic speculation on the origins and nature of Maori culture. Skinner was one of its more active members. He was joint editor of its journal from 1901 to 1905, and was sole editor from 1922 to 1925. He then became president of the society, a post he held until 1929. A councillor of the society from 1901 to 1911 and again from 1921 to 1925, he shared secretarial and treasury duties from 1901 to 1905, and was secretary from 1906 to 1912. He was also a frequent contributor to the journal, writing on Maori architecture, religion and mythology. His contributions included articles on 'The ancient fortified pa', 'Canoe making in olden times', 'Decorative featherwork', and the 'Legend of Parahia'.
The history of the Taranaki region equally interested Skinner, and he published extensively on it. His Taranaki, eighty years ago (1923), Pioneer medical men of Taranaki (1933), and The establishment of the New Plymouth settlement (1940) documented aspects of European history and settlement in the area. He worked with Percy Smith on the latter's book about the Maori history of Taranaki, and he contributed to the History and reminiscences of the Okato district (1935).
As an active member of the New Plymouth community, Skinner enjoyed a high public profile. He was chairman of the New Plymouth Public Library and of the New Plymouth (later Taranaki) Museum, and a major benefactor to both. He donated his collection of Maori artefacts to the Taranaki Museum, and has long been considered the museum's founder. He worked hard to obtain pieces for the Maori section, and displayed a similar enthusiasm in developing the early settlers' collection. Skinner was closely involved with St Mary's Church in New Plymouth and was a member of the General Synod of the Church of the Province of New Zealand. He held the office of justice of the peace, sat on the South Island Representation Commission in 1917 and was a director of the Taranaki Land, Building and Investment Society from 1920.
Skinner harboured a fierce affection for the Taranaki region, and during his terms as member and president of the Taranaki Scenery Preservation Society he was successful in calling for the preservation of local sites of scenic and historical interest. He was also instrumental in the preservation of the gannet rookery at Cape Kidnappers, Hawke's Bay, and the pa site where Thomas Bunbury hoisted the Union Jack at Port Underwood, Marlborough.
William Skinner died on 24 October 1946 in New Plymouth and was buried in Te Henui cemetery; he was survived by his wife and children. As a surveyor and ethnographer he participated in the construction of a colonial cultural landscape, capturing the native land and people both in texts and on maps. Skinner was a respected Maori scholar whose observations – although influenced by the prevailing intellectual fashions of the day – contributed to the development of anthropology in New Zealand. His son, Henry Devenish Skinner, a professional anthropologist of note, became director of the Otago Museum.