Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Skinner, Henry Hawkins (1851–1912)

by Geoff Browne

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Henry Hawkins Skinner (1851-1912), caterer, sportsman and politician, was born on 11 May 1851 at Regents Park, London, son of Henry Trude Skinner, draper, and his wife Hannah Manning, née Hawkins. After travelling through the United States of America, he arrived in Melbourne in 1873. On 6 October 1874 at Holy Trinity Church, East Melbourne, he married Elizabeth Ann Parker (d.1898). Skinner worked as a draper and shopwalker with Buckley & Nunn's until 1880 when he resigned after being refused a pay rise. He became the licensee of the Golden Gate Hotel, South Melbourne, and resided there for the rest of his life.

Skinner built up a catering empire based, at first, on the supply of liquor to sporting events; eventually he acquired a monopoly of the Melbourne trade and came to be regarded as the outstanding caterer in Australia. Described as a 'commercial Bismarck', he possessed a quick and relentless business brain. A meticulous planner, he was a 'pyramid of self reliance' whose only business confidant was his eldest son. His surname was said to be descriptive of his methods: his waiters were required to empty their pockets and don the firm's distinctive white uniforms before starting work. 'All that they had in their pockets when they finished was his, and woe betide the waiter caught in default'.

He obtained considerable influence in sporting circles through the increased custom secured by his catering skills; in his home territory of South Melbourne he was the 'Boss' whose prestige derived from his role as patron of local sports clubs. In 1910 Melbourne Punch declared that Skinner 'loves to be worshipped, and all South Melbourne worships him'. He was an energetic and highly successful president of the South Melbourne Football (1904-11) and South Melbourne Cricket clubs (1906-12). During his presidency both greatly increased their membership and the football club won its first Victorian Football League premiership (1909). To ensure success on the field Skinner spent freely; important victories often brought the players bonuses. In 1910 unsubstantiated rumours linked his name to an attempt to bribe two Carlton players before a finals match against South Melbourne.

Skinner's association with the turf was on a similar scale. He raced numerous horses, although never under his own name, and made 'big bets and plenty of them'. His best horse, Bonnie Chiel, won the Toorak Handicap and the Eclipse Stakes; but his wins were more than counterbalanced by substantial losses. His biggest win was 'perfumed with scandal'. In 1893 the horse first past the post in the Caulfield Cup, Tim Swiveller, was disqualified by the Victoria Racing Club for causing interference and the race awarded to Skinner's horse Sainfoin. The club's action, which overruled the decision of the Victoria Amateur Turf Club stewards, was severely criticized. Skinner had wagered heavily on Sainfoin. Eventually he gave up owning and betting, but remained the lessee of Sandown Park racecourse.

Long an 'unseen power' at local elections, Skinner, standing as a liberal protectionist, easily defeated (Sir) Arthur Robinson in a by-election for the Legislative Council seat of Melbourne South in September 1911. In his maiden speech he maintained that the government should 'treat the affairs of the State as one huge business'.

Skinner was founding chairman of the Melbourne Co-operative Brewery Co. Ltd (Abbotsford brewery) from 1904; he was a director and sometime chairman of a cider company, Spry's Pty Ltd, and a director of the Australian Mont de Piete Loan & Deposit Co. Ltd. He owned considerable real estate in South Melbourne. He was treasurer of the Liquor Trades' Defence Union and president of the Hotel Property Owners' Association. He gave generously to charities and usually sought to avoid publicity for his gifts.

Skinner had formidable presence. He was over six feet (183 cm) tall, powerfully built and 'always in the finest physical condition'. His manner was brusque and his eyes 'keen and pitiless'. In his youth he had been an excellent boxer and in later life still found occasion to use his 'terrible left'. His sudden death from heart disease at his home on 14 February 1912 shocked South Melbourne; his funeral was the largest seen in the district. Survived by his wife Jessie Beatrice, née Orr, whom he had married at Darlinghurst, Sydney, on 27 November 1901, and by three sons and a daughter of his first marriage, he was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £70,492.

Skinner's rise to prominence through liquor, sport and local politics has parallels with the careers of John Wren and J. J. Liston. His statue stands opposite the South Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Select Bibliography

  • Punch (Melbourne), 29 Sept 1910
  • Herald (Melbourne), 14 Feb 1912
  • Argus (Melbourne), 15 Feb 1912
  • South Melbourne Record, 17 Feb 1912
  • Bulletin, 22 Feb 1912.

Citation details

Geoff Browne, 'Skinner, Henry Hawkins (1851–1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/skinner-henry-hawkins-8446/text14847, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 27 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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