Skinner Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Skinner Surname Meaning

Skinner in England and Scotland is an occupational name, for someone who stripped the hide from animals that was to be used for tanning into leather. The root is the Old Norse skinn meaning a hide or pelt.

In medieval records this occupation can be found in the form of “le skynner” or “le schimner,” written after the Christian name for the individual being identified.

Skinner Surname Resources on The Internet

Skinner Surname Ancestry

  • from England (southeast and East Anglia) and NE Scotland
  • to America, Canada, Australia and new Zealand

England.  The Worshipful Company of Skinners was one of the great medieval trade guilds, first recognized in 1327. Its early use as a surname, such as Ralph Le Skinnere in Hertfordshire in 1269 and Henry le Skyniar in Oxfordshire in 1273, was in a form to denote their occupation.

London and the Southeast.  The Skinner name and occupation was most common in large towns such as London. Thomas Skinner, for instance, was a London alderman and its Lord Mayor in 1596. His forebears may have been skinners; but he himself was a prosperous master of the cloth-workers’ guild.

His tombstone read as follows: “Here lies the corps of Thomas Skinner late citizen and alderman of London, born at Saffron Walden in Essex who in the 65th year of his age and on the 30th day of December 1596 being then Lord Mayor of this city departed this life, leaving behind him three sons and three daughters.”  

Skinners were recorded in the small town of Reigate in Surrey in 1445. In 1542 John Skinner Jr and James Skinner, “members of a long dynasty of Skinners,” represented this borough in Parliament. Their father, John Sr, had held the position of Clerk of the Peace there since 1488.

The 19th century distribution of the Skinner name showed that it was mainly concentrated in the southeast around London. But there was an outpost in the west country, with the largest numbers being in Devon.

Southwest.  One family began with the marriage of William and Anne Skinner in Newton Abbot in Devon around the year 1665. Another began with the birth of Alexander Skinner at Chittlehampton in 1688. John Skinner was recorded at Ermington in 1692. William and Catherine Skinner were married at St. Minver in Cornwall in 1726.

The Skynners of Thorpe in Lincolnshire were said to have originated in Devon (although this has been disputed):

“Being required of John Skynner in the county of Lincolnshire, receiver of the honor of Bollingbroke, son and heir to Robert Skynner of Exeter in the county of Devon. The gentleman to make search in the register and records for the ancient arms and crest belonging to that name and family whereof he is descended and found the same.”  

The line from John Skynner, mercer in Lincoln, led to Sir Vincent Skynner, the Elizabethan politician, and to William Skynner, the mayor of Hull in 1665. His son Thomas was a merchant in the Caribbean who died at a young age; his grandson William became responsible for Britain’s fortifications and was appointed its Chief Engineer in 1757.

The line from there moved to the Americas. William’s son, Captain William Skinner, drowned during a military engagement in the Caribbean in 1761. One of his sons William Campbell Skinner became a successful engineer in America. Another son Thomas came to Newfoundland in 1790 where he served as chief engineer. His son Robert fought in the War of 1812.

Scotland. Skinner, a surname found in the NE Highlands of Scotland, appears to have the same occupational origins as in England. The name here would have closer links with Viking-origin words. Alternatively, it has been suggested that the name Skinner derived from the word skene meaning in Gaelic a dirk or dagger.

Skinner has been a well-known name among the fishing communities at Avoch and Easter Ross in Ross-shire. The name has also extended into Aberdeenshire. Scott Skinner, the famous 19th century Scottish fiddler, came from the village of Arbeadie in Aberdeenshire.

Skinning was an occupation of the cattle trading clan Gregor of the Perthshire and Trossack Highlands. When the persecution of the MacGregor name began to be enforced in Perth in 1603, some MacGregors were thought to have adopted the Skinner surname.

This MacGregor-Skinner switching can be seen in the case of William MacGregor who renamed himself William Skinner after the Jacobite defeat in 1715 and left for Perth Amboy, New Jersey where he became the rector of St. Peter’s church.

His son General Cortlandt Skinner and grandson John MacGregor Skinner were both loyal to Britain during the Revolutionary War, the former departing for London in 1783 and the latter serving with the Royal Navy in the Caribbean where he lost first his arm and then his eye. John moved to Holyhead in Wales in 1793 and was a master on packet ships crossing the Irish Sea. He lost his life, aged 70, when he was washed overboard from his ship Escape in 1832.

America. Early Skinners came to New England and to Virginia.

New England.  John Skinner from Braintree in Essex was a member of Thomas Hooker’s company which came to America in 1635 and settled at Hartford, Connecticut a year later. Among later descendants were:

  • Justin Skinner, a seafarer who settled in Maine in the early 1800’s. His eldest son Austin also went to sea. After the Civil War Austin took command of a merchantman sailing between America and Europe.
  • Eugene Skinner who came to Oregon territory in 1846 and was one of its early settlers. He was the founder of the city of Eugene which was named after him.
  • and David E. (Ned) Skinner who co-founded the Skinner and Eddy shipyard in Seattle, Washington in 1916. This shipyard had a short life. But subsequent Skinners were to play a prominent role in Seattle’s civic life.

Sergeant Thomas Skinner left his home in Sussex for Malden, Massachusetts in 1650. He was for his times a remarkably long-lived individual (he died in 1702 at the age of 85).  He was the first person licensed to operate an inn which served “victuals and strong waters” in Malden.

His son Thomas made his home in Connecticut.  Skinners from his line moved to Susquehanna county, Pennsylvania in the 1840’s.  One notable descendant was B.F. Skinner, the renowned behavioral psychologist, who was born there in 1904.

Other Skinner descendants migrated north to Maine and Vermont:

  • Daniel Skinner came to Maine in 1793 and founded the Skinner settlement in Corinth. The farmhouse there has remained with the family until recently. From another line, via Joseph Skinner, came the Maine lighthouse keeper Charles Clement Skinner.
  • while Richard Skinner moved to Vermont and became Governor of that state in 1820. His son Mark settled in Chicago and served as its city attorney.

The whole family line from Sergeant Thomas Skinner was traced in Ira Skinner’s 2013 book The Skinner Family History.

William Skinner was a much later arrival, coming from London in 1843 and starting a silk manufacturing business which, from 1874, was based in Hadley, Massachusetts. Sons William and Joseph carried on the business after his death in 1902. At nearby Mount Holyoke the family legacies are Skinner Park, Skinner Hall and the Skinner Museum.

Virginia.  Skinners of Elizabeth city county, Virginia date from the 1670’s. Later Skinners here settled in Darlington county, South Carolina.

Richard Skinner, first recorded in Virginia sometime in the 1670’s, migrated in 1701 to Perquimans county, North Carolina where his descendants became prominent plantation owners and politicians. John Skinner’s Perquimans seat, known as Ashland, was located in the Harvey’s Neck section of the county. Considered one of the finest homes in northeastern North Carolina, it burned down in 1952.

Canada.  Robert Skinner from Essex was in the 1870’s a factor at the Hudson Bay Company trading post on Quesnel island in the extreme northwest of British Columbia. Sadly the records show that he was dismissed from the company’s employ in 1887 for falsifying the accounts. His daughter Constance moved to California and then to New York where she became a writer of the Canadian northwest.

Australia. Martha Skinner came to Sydney with her husband William Cole from Kent in 1838 and many other Skinners of Martha’s family were to make the same voyage over the next twenty years. They settled in Braidwood and elsewhere in NSW.

William Skinner left the comforts of Melbourne in 1854 for the hardships of a gold prospector in Victoria. His wife Emily followed him to various diggings, enduring the primitive huts and tents, isolation and hardships of that life. The family was plagued by sickness and lost their first born when he was five months old.

William had little success with his diggings and he eventually gave up his dream of gold. Emily’s recollections of those times were published in a 1995 book Emily Skinner, A Woman on the Goldfields.

New Zealand.  Thomas Skinner, a butcher from Devon, was one of the early settlers in New Zealand, arriving there in 1841 and making his home in Taranaki. His son William was a surveyor who over his long life wrote about the history of the region and was a staunch supporter of its customs and heritage. His son Henry became the director of Otago Museum.

Skinner Surname Miscellany

Skinner as an Occupation.  Skynners or skinners were clearly men in the business of selling rawhide to others who would turn them into leather. Though a man could acquire one of these names by simply developing some skill in taking the skin off a carcass, it is far more probable that a man would have to be clearly associated with that process for some time to acquire the name permanently.

The animals were usually slaughtered on the farms by a butcher and skinned by a skinner; then the hides were sold to the tanners or barkers. Over the years, all these occupations became surnames.  Sometimes middlemen would try to set themselves up here, but they never really succeeded.

The Worshipful Company of Skinners.  The Worshipful Company of Skinners was one of the great medieval trade guilds.  It was originally an association for those engaged in the trade of skins and furs.   Their guild was first recognized by Edward III in 1327 and was confirmed by Henry VI in 1438.  That the Skinners rose from people who worked with hides was reflected in their motto, sanguis et vulnera, which is Latin for “blood and wounds.”

Under an order issued by the Lord Mayor of London in 1484, the company ranked either in sixth or seventh place in the order of the “Twelve Great City Livery Companies.”  The Skinners were normally sixth in the order of precedence in even numbered years and at seven in odd numbered years.  Some think that the expression “at sixes and sevens” came from this situation.

The company evolved into an educational and charitable institution, supporting schools such as the Tonbridge School in Kent and the Skinners’ Academy in Hackney, London. William Herbert wrote a history of the company in 1837 and the Skinners’ Company, as it is now called, is still around today.

Skinner from Skene in Scotland.  In Clifford Sims’ 1962 book The Origin and Signification of Scottish Surnames, the following reference was made to the Skinner name.

“Some derive their names as well as their arms from some considerable action, and thus a son of Struan Robertson, for killing a wolf in Stocket forest in Athole, in the king’s presence, with a dirk, received the name of Skene, which signifies a dirk.

Ian Grimble wrote in Scottish Clans and Tartans that this event took place in the 11th century and that “the Skenes were an exceptionally early sept of Clan Donnchaidh, long before it adopted the name of Robertson.”

In other references I’ve come across, the knife is referred to as a sgain dhu which means “black dirk.”  This is a small, bone-handled knife traditionally carried in the top of the Scotsman’s sock. It was sometimes the weapon of choice for a quick slit of an Englishman’s throat after the carrying of swords and other weapons were banned in Scotland.

According to other reports of the story above, the Scottish king was hunting with several others when a wolf attacked the party.  The Scotsman in question drew his skaen dhu, grappled with the wild creature at the risk of his own neck, and dispatched the beast.  The king honored the hero by naming him “Robertson of the Sgain Dhu.” The family carried the appellation forward into succeeding generations and it eventually became the Skinner name we know today.”

Captain William Skinner of the 94th Regiment.  Captain William Skinner took part in the capture in 1761 of Dominica in the West Indies under Lord Rollo.  But he drowned on August 27th of the same year at Coulehault off the coast of Dominica.

He had married in 1753 at a very young age to Hester, the daughter of Colin Lawder of Berwick-upon-Tweed.  Tradition relates that the combined age of the bride and bridegroom did not exceed thirty.

A contemporary Percival Stockdale wrote of them:

“Miss Hester Lawder was afterwards married to Mr. Skinner who, at the time of their marriage, was an ensign.  He was one of the most hospitable of men.  He was polite to me when I was a lieutenant in the Welsh fusiliers and in the year 1756 at Gibraltar.  And I can never forget the universal admiration which did homage to Miss Lawder’s charms in the Governor’s garden at the convent.”

Three children were the result of this marriage – William Campbell Skinner, Captain of the Royal Engineers; Thomas Skinner, Colonel of the Royal Engineers; and Margaret, who married the Right Honorable Sir Evan Nepean, Baronet.

Charles Clement Skinner, Lighthouse Keeper.  The Marshall Point Lighthouse was situated on a rocky ledge at the tip of the St. George Peninsula in Maine. Charles Clement Skinner, a Civil War veteran, was its keeper from 1874 to 1919. He lived at the station with his wife and six children.  He died in 1932.

In his logs, Skinner noted many strandings of both man and beast in the area of the station.  On October 28, 1884 he wrote:

“A fin-back whale stranded on Mosquito Point last night.  Sixty-seven feet in length.”

And on February 10, 1886:

“Steamer Cambridge was wrecked on Old Man Ledge at 4:45 AM.  Passengers and crew were all saved and landed on Allen Island where they were taken off by Steamer Dallas this forenoon and taken to Rockland.”

He made the following journal entry in June 1895:

“Heavy thunder showers passed over here at one o’clock this morning. The dwelling house at this station was struck by lightning and one chimney, the roof, one window, and three rooms badly shattered, lightning entered from rooms besides the cellar.  No one was seriously injured.”

His daughter, Eula Kelley, was born in the first keeper’s house in 1891 and lived until 1993, spending her last years in a cottage nearby the light station. Her sister, Marion Dalrymple, was born in the new keeper’s house in 1895 and lived until 1992. Both sisters attended the opening of the restored keeper’s house in 1990.

Millions of Americans have seen Marshall Point Lighthouse, even though they might not know it. The lighthouse’s wooden walkway served as the terminating point in Forrest Gump’s cross-country run “Run, Forrest, Run.” 

Kayla Skinner in Seattle.  Kayla Skinner who died in 2004 at the age of 84 was the matriarch of an old Seattle family and a pillar of local philanthropy.  In 1942 she had married Ned Skinner, a third generation Seattle patriarch who twenty years later was to bring the World’s Fair to Seattle.

Kayla played a central role in the flowering of Seattle’s arts scene since that time, serving on numerous boards, lobbying politicians, giving generously herself and asking others to do likewise.

“This was a seminal person in the development of the Seattle arts community,” said Peter Donnelly, president of the arts-support group ArtsFund and a longtime friend. “This is one of the architects of our cultural life as we know it today.”

Her name won’t be quickly forgotten. There’s a Kayla Skinner Stairway at McCaw Hall, a Kayla Skinner Board Room at the Tacoma Art Museum, and a Ned and Kayla Skinner Theater at Cornish College of the Arts.  She was a founding member of Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet. She served on the boards of the Seattle Symphony, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Art Museum and The Empty Space Theatre, among others.

She was a small woman, not much more than five feet tall. But she attracted attention wherever she went. It was said by an old friend that when she went shopping downtown in the 1950’s she used to stop traffic on Fifth Avenue because people would stop to look at her. She was a somebody.

Reader Feedback – Isaac Skinner from Scotland to Canada.  I am a great granddaughter of Isaac Skinner who was born in Scotland in 1848.   He married Mary Prescott in 1877, resided in Dawn Twp. in Lambton county, Ontario, and died in 1901.  Would there be any relatives residing still in Scotland or the Orkneys?

Catherine McCallum (

Skinner Names

  • Rev. John Skinner from Aberdeenshire was an 18th century Scottish historian and writer of popular songs. 
  • B. F. Skinner is a renowned American behavioral psychologist of the 20th century. 
  • Dennis Skinner is a British Labor Party politician, known for his left-wing views and acid tongue. He has been called “the Beast of Bolsover,” the constituency which he represents.

Skinner Numbers Today

  • 25,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 20,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 22,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Skinner and Like Surnames   

The various medieval trades and occupations were a source of surnames as John the baker would over time would become known as John Baker.  Some skilled craftsmen – such as chandlers, fletchers and turners – were able to form guilds, protective organizations, and style themselves Worshipful Companies.  These are some of the occupational surnames that you can check out.


Click here for return to front page

Written by Colin Shelley

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *