Colonel James’ Skinner CB, who was also commonly known as ’Sikandar Sahib’ was the son of Hercules Skinner and a Rajput woman. His father started his military career as a country cadet with the 19th Native Infantry in the year 1771. James’ Skinner was born in 1778. Though he wanted to be a soldier, James’ Skinner could not serve as an officer in the East India Company’s army, due to his mixed parentage, but this did not deter the young man. He procured a letter of introduction to Benoît de Boigne who was a French mercenary who commanded a part of the army of the Maratha chieftain DaulatRaoSindhia. De Boigne was impressed with the personal qualities of the young man as well as by the ancestral background of the Skinners, who traced their lineage from an ancestor who had served William the Conqueror, the first Norman King of England during the 11th century. James’ Skinner was thus enlisted in the Maratha Army as a low rank officer at the age of 18 years.
With the outbreak of the Anglo-Maratha War, James’ Skinner along with other British soldiers, were treated with suspicion within the Maratha army. He was therefore forced to leave, and subsequently came over to the side of the British Indian Army under the command of Lord Lake.
In the second half of the year 1803, after the defeat of the Marathas at Delhi, some of the cavalry who had earlier been part of the Maratha Army, came over to the British side. When they expressed their desire to be placed under the command of Skinner, he agreed to lead them, on the condition that he would never be expected to fight against Sindhia, in whose army he had served. The cavalry regiment under Skinner became an ‘irregular’ regiment under the British Army, known as ‘Skinner’s Horse’ or ‘Yellow Boys’, as their uniforms were yellow in colour. This regiment of cavalry is still a part of the Indian Army.
After many years of service James’ Skinner finally won a battle against the prejudices of British officialdom and was given the rank of a Colonel. Once he retired from active service, he divided his time between his jagir at Hansi (Haryana) and Delhi. In Delhi he built a large mansion near Kashmiri Gate. The house no longer exists.
During the Uprising of 1857 the Church was damaged by shellfire. The dome of the church is topped by a copper ball and cross, which was used by sepoys in 1857 for target practice.
Colonel James’ Skinner built the edifice at his own expense of 95,000 Rupees, under the design of Major Robert Smith. The construction started in 1826, and was completed in 1836. The basic design of Renaissance Revival style church is on a cruciform plan (Greek Cross), with three porticoed porches, elaborate stained glass windows and a central octagonal dome, similar to that of the Florence Cathedral in Italy. It was consecrated on 21 November 1836 by the Bishop of Calcutta, Daniel Wilson.
John Mitchley Jennings took over the edifice after Skinner. The copper ball and cross on the top, which are said to be replica of a church in Venice, were damaged during the 1857 revolt, and were later replaced. A special service was held in 2003, to commemorate 200 years of Skinner’s Horse, the cavalry regiment raised by Skinner in 1803. Amongst those present were Margaret Skinner, great great granddaughter-in-law of Skinner, Admiral Sushil Kumar, retired Chief of Naval Staff, Col. Douglas Gray who commanded Skinner’s Horse from 1935 to 1947, and several former British officers.
It is said that the land on which the church stands was once a mango grove owned by Mughal Prince DaraShikoh. Today it is mostly grass and gravel. On the north side is the Skinner family graveyard, where most of Skinner’s wives and children are buried. The compound also has the graves of Britishers such as William Fraser and Thomas Metcalfe. During the revolt of 1857, when hundreds of Britishers were killed in the streets of Delhi, the church was badly damaged. Its books were destroyed and records burnt. Later, when the British crushed the rebellion, a giant cross was installed in the church garden in memory of the dead.