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SKIRROW, John

Born: ?
Died: 1846 01 30

Engineer / Architect / Surveyor


His training is still obscure; he probably trained in England before he was brought to the Cape in 1825 by the Admiralty in England to act as contractor and to superintend the erection of the Royal Observatory, Cape Town; he was clerk of works. He arrived unannounced in Table Bay on 22 February, to the pleasant surprise of His Majesty's Astronomer at the Cape, Reverend Fearon Fallows, who handed responsibility for the construction over to him. Skirrow immediately realised that the existing specifications for the building were inadequate and renegotiated the building contract. Among others he provided clear specifications relating to the quality of mortar and building stone, and the methods of construction to be used. He also introduced the practice of allowing the wooden roofbeams freedom of play (by resting their ends on plates protruding from the walls) so that their expansion or contraction would not place stress on the structure. His work at the Royal Observatory had a lasting effect on building practices at the Cape, particularly on the standard of masonry work.

By April 1826 the work on the Observatory was well advanced; the Admiralty planned to send Skirrow to work in India but were prepared to release him from their service should he have preferred another job at the Cape. As early as 1826 the acting governor, Sir Richard Bourke, recommended to the secretary to the colonies in England that Skirrow be appointed as government architect and civil engineer on the basis of the high quality of his work at the observatory. In September 1826 the Lieutenant Governor of the Cape recommended to the Secretary for the Colonies that Skirrow be made Civil Engineer and Architect to the Cape Government. Skirrow wrote to the Admiralty a week later to say that the Cape Government would give him a job as Surveyor of Government Buildings and he took up this post. In January 1828 the Secretary of State suggested that Skirrow be made Assistant Engineer, a post he appears to have held for six months before being appointed Government Architect in June 1828 (cf HW REVELEY). He was officially appointed as government architect and superintendent of the Cape Town water works, in the office of the surveyor-general, CC MICHELL, towards the end of 1828. Soon thereafter he was also assistant civil engineer to the government, holding these positions to 1834. From 1838 to 1840 he served as government civil engineer, while he still (or again) functioned as government architect in 1845.

In between his official duties he developed an extensive private practice as a land surveyor, architect and building contractor. In 1826-1827 he and H SCHUTTE prepared the specifications to build St Andrew's Church, Cape Town. According to the Records of the Cape Colony, Skirrow was closely connected with the design and erection of St George's Church, Cape Town from 1827 when he examined the site and made proposals about foundations, preparing plans for the building in July 1828; the church was certified complete in June 1836. He was appointed architect of the Anglican Church, Wynberg in July 1832; the design (by Skirrow?) was apparently based on Sudely Chapel, Gloucester, England. The church was completed in July 1834, but collapsed during a storm a week later. A replacement building was completed by April 1839. Skirrow's duties were many but he found time to design several private houses in about 1834 to 1835 and from 1838. In 1842 he designed and supervised the building of a wooden bridge across the Liesbeek River between the Royal Observatory and Cape Town.

Skirrow appears to have been interested in natural history, for during 1825-1826 he presented 20 birds and a few reptiles to Dr Andrew Smith, curator of the newly established South African Museum. He was a member of the South African Literary and Scientific Institution from 1832, the year of its formation, and served on its council from about 1839 to his death. In 1827 he was a member of the newly founded Cape of Good Hope Horticultural Society and had an interest in astronomy. During 1843 he stayed at the Royal Observatory for a few days to assist CP Smyth with observations of the Great Comet of 1843. He served on the Council of the South African Literary and Scientific Institution from 1838 to 1844.

Initially Skirrow lived in a cottage on the grounds of the observatory but late in 1827 he moved to Cape Town, when he started taking on other work, where he resided for his whole career. He was respected as being able, zealous and indefatigable by the Admiralty and the Lieutenant Governor. He was regarded as a man of integrity both competent and careful in his work. He was still listed as a sworn land surveyor in the Cape of Good Hope almanac for 1846, the year of his death. He was also a Freemason and one of the two Grand Superintendents of Works in the Provincial Grand Lodge of Freemasons from 1838 onwards. He died in January 1845 at Riversdale, Cape and was buried, it seems, at Somerset Road, Cape Town. He was never married.

(DSAB 3:740; Greig 1971; Langham-Carter MS; Lewcock 1963:264-67; Radford 1979; Rennie 1978a)

All truncated references not fully cited in 'References' are those of Joanna Walker's original text and cited in full in the 'Bibliography' entry of the Lexicon.

Books citing SKIRROW

Fransen, Hans. 2004. The old buildings of the Cape. A survey of extant architecture from before c1910 in the area of Cape Town - Calvinia - Colesberg - Uitenhage. Johannesburg & Cape Town: Jonathan Ball Publishers. pp 49, 127, 590

Lewcock, Ronald. 1963. Early Nineteenth Century Architecture in South Africa : a study of the interaction of two cultures, 1795-1837. Cape Town: AA Balkema. pp 253, 264-267, 269, 271n, 287, 319, 354, 377, 444 (bio)

S2A3 (Plug, C - Project Leader and main compiler). 2002-. S2A3 biographical database of southern African science. Webspace: WWW. pp Accessed 12 January 2016

Walker, Michael. 2012. Early architects of Cape Town and their buildings (1820 - 1926) with postcard illustrations, The. St James: Michael Walker. pp 11-12

Walker, Michael. 2010. Simon's Town : An historical review with early postcard illustrations. Cape Town: Michael Walker. pp 25