Frederick Norman Skene, the fifth of seven children, was born on 21st January 1878 in Merrion, Dublin, to Samuel Slinn Skeen, a clergyman, and his wife Charlotte Warren Seen. By 1891 the family had moved to Myrton upon Swale in Yorkshire, where his father was the vicar. Frederick attended Ripon Grammar School before being admitted to St John’s College, Cambridge, on 1st September 1896, where he was awarded a Bachelor of Arts in 1900 and Master of Arts in 1912. He was an Assistant Master at Spondon House School in Derby from 1899 to 1901, and was then ordained in Lincoln, first as a Deacon in 1901 and then a Priest in 1903.
From 1901-1903 Frederick was a Curate in Grantham, Lincolnshire, and in 1902 he married Clara Maude Lilly who was born in Kensington, London, on 9th January 1862, to Oliver Morgan Lilly and Celia Parsons Lilly. The couple were married in Prescott, Lancashire.
Frederick and Clara moved to the Cowes on the Isle of Wight, where he was Curate at St Mary’s from 1904-1906, and, on 3rd May 1906, they had a daughter, Sarah Olive Norman Skene. In 1906 Frederick took up the post of Curate at St Mary’s, Stoke D’Abernon where he remained until 1913, when he was appointed Vicar of Oxshott. He remained in Oxshott until 1921, before becoming Rector of Albury with Chilworth from 1921-1929, as well as Honorary Canon of Guildford in 1928. From 1929-1951 he was Vicar of Banstead, as well Rural Dean of Epsom in 1938. Clara died on 10th March 1949, at which point the couple were living at The Vicarage, Garretts Lane, Banstead. Frederick died in June 1956 in Chichester, Sussex.
Whilst vicar of St Andrew’s Oxshott, in January 1917 Reverend Skene was appointed to the Temporary Army Chaplaincy and the intention was that he would hold this post for a period of twelve months. He spent the first few months in Salonika in Greece, before joining the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in Palestine. News of his experiences reached his parishioners via the Parish Magazine.
In March 1917 parishioners were advised that ‘the Vicar left for France on [February] 4th. What with bad weather and other discomforts he has had rather a rough time so far, but he keeps well and writes cheerfully. We are now very glad to hear news of his safe arrival in Salonica’.
The following month Mr Vertue had received a long and interesting letter from the Vicar, dated from Salonica on 1st of March which they regretted being unable to print ‘in extensor’, owing to higher rates for printing. ‘Our readers will, however, be pleased to hear that the Vicar has had a safe journey and is well and happy. His present address is ‘42nd General Hospital, Salonika’, and he will be very pleased to hear from any old friends. He especially asks for old illustrated newspapers and magazines for the men in hospital – probably there are many in Oxshott who would be glad to send out literature of the kind and to know that it will be thoroughly appreciated’.
By July 1917 the vicar had obviously been unwell, and possibly had to return home, but he wrote to advise that ‘he is now completely restored to health and… has arrived safely once more in Salonica’.
December 1917 saw the publication, for the first time, of a first-hand account from Reverend Skene, dated 18 October 1917, the letter detailed his experiences and impressions:
A great deal may happen in two months. It is impossible now to say where I may be when this gets into print. Although there are indications in the splendid news from most of the battle fronts that the end may be in sight, yet we cannot tell when that much to be oped for event will come…. Since I saw you all I have travelled a great deal, and seen much. I am now in the EEF [Egyptian Expeditionary Force] and situated in a very historic part, and every step we shall be taking in the near future will be over land that has become well know to us all from our study of Old Testament history… We have two great inconveniences here – the lack of water and the sand. We are issued one gallon of water every morning, and this has to suffice for drinking, cooking and washing purposes… the sand is very light and dusty, and the slightest breeze blows it about so much that it permeates everything. But in spite of it all we are keeping remarkably fit and well. All ranks are glad of the change of scene and climate, and hope ere long you will receive as cheering news about our front as you have had lately about the other fronts. At the time you receive this I shall have been away nearly a year. It has been a year of intense interest for me, and has passed very quickly. I am very impressed by the courage, cheerfulness, and resource of the British solider, and his determination to see that the fight for right is fought out to a finish – such a finish as will ensure a permanent and lasting peace. I have been very glad to get news from you, but I am sorry indeed to hear of all the sickness there has been. It will be a sorrow, too, to find some not with you on my return… A month ago I had the privilege of celebrating at a choral celebration in the desert, when 500 men were present. We had a piano very much out of tune to lead the singing… As a rule I have a gunner to help me with a fiddle. This fiddle was made in camp out of biscuit boxes by an RE corporal – and is a very prized possession.
In April 1918 it was reported that Mr Skene had returned from Palestine on three weeks furlough. He had been with the parish on Easter Day, ‘when he preached both morning and evening’ and, ‘in spite of having been several times on the sick list, he was looking bright and cheery, robust and thoroughly well’.
Just before leaving for Egypt, on April 13th 1918, Reverend Skene wrote to Mrs Burgoyne of the Oxshott branch of the Queen Mary’s Needlework Guild, explaining what the work of the War Room meant to both the soldiers and himself.
Dear Mrs Burgoyne, I am sailing tomorrow for Egypt. Yesterday I was told that you had started the new session of the Work Room (Queen Mary’s Needlework Guild) with a better attendance. I am very glad; and sincerely hope you will steadily increase your numbers and output. I hope no one will think that what they turn out is of little account or unappreciated. When the solider gets sick or is wounded the very sight of the things you make in the workroom lying on his bed ready for his use, and the knowledge that these things have been made for him by the women at home, make him forget his troubles, and bring to him a sense of gratitude which it is difficult to express in words. I know this from experience, and I do hope that Oxshott will stick to it, and right on to the end (God grant that may come quickly) will steadily increase the output of its War Work Room.
On May 28th 1918, the Reverend wrote of the progress made in his absence and the conditions they were experiencing, as well as his pleasure at being able to visit Bethlehem.
My dear People, It was a delightful experience to be with you again for Easter. The only disappointment was that the time was so short and prevented my seeing many of you. I left Southampton on the 14th April, and arrived back here on 13th May after an uneventful journey by rail and sea. The journey was not without anxiety for we knew that the enemy were on the look out, and one morning he took a long shot at us, which happily was a ‘wash-out’.
After being away from my unit for four months it was not surprising to find many changes. The army had advanced over very difficult country, and I found it necessary to change my address. I am now with the 263 FAB and our camp is up on the hills of Ephraim. The climate is very good, very hot by day, but delightful after tea, and decidedly chilly after dinner. I have long distances to cover visiting the three Brigades of Artillery. It was a great pleasure the other day when the Padres gathered in Jerusalem at St George’s Cathedral for a Retreat, to be able to visit Bethlehem, and see the Manger in which Our Lord was born. A very large church has been built over it, and the greatest veneration is shown by the people for this sacred spot. I also found it possible to get inside the Dome of the Rock, and the Mosque of Aksa, both of which are inside the Temple area. The former is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, richly adorned with marbles of various colours, some of which probably formed part of Herod’s Temple. There are many windows filled with the richest stained glass. The whole interior is richly gilded. The building covers the natural rock on which Araunah had his threshing floor. It is the same rock upon which the altar of burnt sacrifice stood in Soloman’s Temple. On our way back to camp we passed through the village where the Blessed Virgin Mary failed to discover Jesus in the Caravan when he stayed behind in the Temple.
The country is very rugged, and until the Army arrived was quite without roads. Now it is possible to move about in comfort. Yesterday I drove down in the Cook’s cart behind a pair of horses to draw stores from the canteen. Until three months ago I am certain that no wheeled vehicle had ever passed along her. Now one can see motors being driven at ten miles per hour. The road of course is not so good as the Portsmouth road, but even a springless cart such as we had, did not unduly tire one, but five hours on a hard seat is quite as much as one cares for.
We are getting splendid rations and the health of the troops is good. I hope the great struggle in France will soon brought to a successful issue, and that ere long I shall be able to resume my duties in the parish.
Then, on 22nd July 1918, he related a happy day spent playing cricket on the Mount of Olives:
My dear People, I spent such an interesting and happy day last week, that I feel I would like to tell you about it. I left the Camp at 8am shortly after the ‘Archies’ had been strafing a Turkish Scout machine, and arrived in about 40 minutes at Divisional Headquarters, where I met 10 other men who formed our divisional Cricket Team for that day. Having split ourselves up into parties we went out for the Mount of Olives, where we were to play our opponents. We arrived in good time for lunch, thanks to Mr Ford of USA and promptly at 1400 hours our skipper, Major G A Faulkner, of South African Test Match fame, sent us in to bat. It was a pleasure to receive that first ball of the match, it was the first I had bowled to me in a march since August 1914. The less said about my innings the better, but I did survive the first ball. The second wicket fell at 111 made in exactly 30 minutes by Major Vernon and Captain Bolton. Major Faulkner made 35 and the innings was declared at the tea interval with the score 230 for 6 wickets. The dust having been removed from the matting, and our thirst quenched with copious draughts of iced coffee or hot tea, the former was the most popular as the thermometer stood at above 90 in the shade, and there wasn’t much of that; the other side came in to the bowling of Faulkner and Bolton, each of whom bowled the leg theory to perfection. Wickets quickly fell, and at 1759 hours, or one minute before time, the last wicket fell with the score 98, leaving us the winners of a thoroughly enjoyable and sporting match. We hope to play the return match on our own ground in a few days. The ground has yet to be found, and the wicket made – it will be done – but it is not an easy job in these hills of Ephraim to find cricket fields. The people of Palestine do not go in much for games! Their chief form of exercise is walking up and down the hills between the villages. The match concluded, our hosts insisted on our staying for dinner and a concert. The dinner was magnificent and the concert excellent – during the evening played the violin – a treat indeed. At midnight we set out for our various camps, a good 90 minutes run in a car. I had the misfortune, or rather the car did, to break down. We had a good sleep in the car until day-break, and as soon as the sun was up the driver made the necessary repairs and I finally reached my tent at 0800 hours. So ended a good day – the best I think it has been my lot to spend on active service. I little thought some 3 years ago that it would ever be my lot to see Jerusalem, much less to play cricket on the Mount of Olives.
I am going to Jerusalem again next week on a different errand, but one which will give me and those whom I am taking an immense amount of pleasure. I am taking 6 men to be confirmed in the Cathedral by the Bishop of Jerusalem. It will be a truly memorable day for all of us. I was greatly interested in the news of some of our Oxshott men in a recent copy of the Magazines which has just reached me. I hope some of the others may be prevailed upon to write an account of a day spent on Active Service. Heartiest greetings to you all.
However, in his last letter to be published, dated 24th September 1918, Reverend Skene offered a very different perspective on the life of a soldier in Palestine:
My dear People, In a letter written some weeks ago I gave you a description of a day in the life of the solider in active service in Palestine, and it might well have been a description of an ordinary day in the old days before the war. During the last seven days I have seen the stern side. We have been fighting hard. After the preliminary bombardment of some very strong positions the infantry advanced and turned the enemy out. The enemy realising that his lines of communication, if not already cut, were just about to be cut, retreated in hot haste. The British troops pursued him, and as you know gained a magnificent victory, capturing practically the whole army. It has been my lot to be camped just by a certain wadi or valley where an enormous amount of stores and equipment was taken. A column stretching some 3 miles along the road entered this valley and got inside. The road is very narrow, and hangs over a precipitous drop of some hundreds of feet, with steep slopes stretching upwards. In the column were many lorries and carts, guns and motor cars filled with stores and equipment of all sorts. They were spotted and shelled and bombed. Many were killed, both men and animals. It was where I saw it a few hours afterwards a valley of desolation and death. To a soldier a scene of triumph, but to a civilian one of pathetic sadness. The road was completely blocked, and it will take 3 or 4 days to clear away the debris. Our men and officers have been magnificent, and though worn out and tired by the fast marching and fighting are as happy as can be in the knowledge that a sweeping victory has been won and added to the number of the very successful triumphs of our Armies in France and on other Fronts. By the time this appears in print it will be nearing Christmas. Perhaps it is too soon to expect to see then the world at peace; but I hope this will be the last occasion on which that happy day will be spent away from you all at home. With all good wishes, believe me…
In April 1919 it was reported that ‘the Vicar is now convalescent and has returned to England. He is at present on sick-leave but hopes to be able to take Services at Oxshott on Low Sunday’. In the event Reverend Frederick Norman Skene was to return to the parish and resumed his duties on 1st May 1919.
St Mary’s, Stoke D’Abernon, and St Andrew’s, Oxshott, Parish Magazines, January to December 1915, SHC Ref. 8909/8/1/4.
ACAD A Cambridge Alumni Database, ‘Frederick Skene’, http://venn.lib.cam.ac.uk/cgi-bin/search-2016B.pl?sur=skene&suro=w&fir=frederick&firo=c&cit=&cito=c&c=all&z=all&tex=&sye=&eye=&col=all&maxcount=50.