Cityscape: Colonel James Skinner’s house in Kashmere Gate, a historically significant site, urgently needs repairs

Colonel James Skinner’s house in Kashmere Gate is in need of urgent repairs (172 years after his death), especially after a part (actually an outhouse) collapsed soon after the rains in October, resulting in the death of a woman and her little daughter and injuries to some other tenants. Part of the Bengali Club close by also collapsed, soon after as a further sign that the historic buildings in the area are in a bad state after encroachment and illegal constructions. George Heatherley, a relation of the Skinners, used to come every year from Perth to see the place where his family lived for long and spend Christmas and New Year in Delhi.

His death about two years ago meant the snapping of an old link. Now Prof. Sydney Reberio is the remaining chip off the old block. He lives in Sarita Vihar, far from Kashmere Gate, but still misses the ambience of the old haveli which once housed Hindu College and his uncle George. Skinner’s house was for long the Colonel’s winter quarters, though his main residence was at Hansi in Haryana, where his mansion still stands and where his great-great grandson Brig Michael Skinner and the latter’s wife (also a Skinner) used to spend much of their time when not living at their bungalow in Mussoorie. Brig. Skinner died some years ago and his children are probably in Australia, though Mrs. Skinner stayed on at the Hansi Estate. Hansi, incidentally, was also the place where Balban had retired till his recall by the Slave Sultan Nasiruddin Mahmud to Delhi and his eventual accession to the throne in 1266.

Col Skinner’s attachment to the Kashmere Gate house was great. It gave him access to the Mughal court and to Akbar Shah Sani, the Emperor, besides the Rais (elite) of the Capital among whom he held a high place because of his connection with the British after he left the Marthas, notably Scindia. This residence was also dear to him because it was there that he generally met his dearest friend, the British Resident William Fraser. How he and Fraser enjoyed each other’s company has now become part of a legend. They spent time in planning hunting expeditions, sharing battle experiences and sexcapades, watching dances by the nautch girls and of course drinking long and deep, sometimes from afternoon to late evening when Fraser had to return to his mansion on the Ridge and on the way to which one night he was shot by an assassin hired by the Ferozepore Nawab Shamsuddin Khan. Fraser’s death in 1835 was a big blow to Skinner who really couldn’t get over it right up to his death on December 4, 1841. The grave he built for his friend in front of St. James’ Church is still there as a reminder of their friendship.

Skinner’s Church, as is well known, was built in perpetuation of a vow on the battlefield of Oniara, also in Haryana, in which Skinner nearly died. It is worth mentioning the incident in his own words: “The Oonehara Rajah soon became aware of the badness of our troops and crossed the river on the 25th of January (1800) … Two of the enemy’s battalions came up to attack me but I charged and drove them away.” Later Skinner found that of his 300 men, only 10 were now with him. Skinner goes on to say, “As I was going to follow (search for) them (the other 290 men), a horseman galloped up, matchlock in hand, and shot me through the groin. It was about three in the afternoon that I fell, and I did not regain my senses till sunrise next morning... I crawled under a bush to shelter myself from the sun. Two more of my battalion crept near me — the one a soobahdar, that had his leg shot off below the knee, the other a jemiadar (who) had a spear wound through his body. We were now dying of thirst, but not a soul was to be seen; and in this state we remained the whole day, praying for death. Night came on but neither death nor assistance. The moon was full and clear and about midnight it was very cold. So dreadful did this night appear that I swore If I survived to have nothing more to do with soldering … the wounded on all sides, including his brother, crying for water — the jackals tearing the dead and coming nearer and nearer to see if we were ready for them; we only kept them off by throwing stones and making noises, Thus passed this long and horrible night (Hijr ki raat). Next morning we spied a man and an old woman, who came to us with a basket and a pot of water and to every wounded man she gave a piece of joaree (jowar) bread and a drink from her water pot. But the soobahdar was a Rajpoot, he would receive neither bread nor water from her (as she was of a lower caste) so he preferred to die unpolluted”. “This was a woman whom the Colonel from then on regarded as his mother…”

This is a rare verbatim account, part of the Colonel’s memoirs written in Persian, which to one’s knowledge has never been published in any newspaper todate and shows the plight of the man when he vowed to build a church as a token of his gratitude. To do that he had to live close to the site he had chosen and hence the importance of the Kashmere Gate house to him. He would walk across from it to the under-construction church (opened in 1840) before returning for a cherished meeting with William Fraser. Shouldn’t this building, spread over more than 500 sq. yards, be restored and preserved by the Archaeological Department as a heritage site?