Skene was educated at King’s College and the University, Aberdeen and practised in surveying shortly after his arrival in Melbourne in 1839. He became official surveyor to the Grant district council in 1843 and a government district surveyor in October 1848; for the next five years he was a leader in the first mapping and selection of town sites and major routes in the southern part of the Western District, and demonstrated that the theodolite was more accurate and reliable than the compass techniques previously used. His pioneering work in a rapidly growing region was consolidated after he took over the district survey office in Geelong in 1853. His training in surveying was informal and rudimentary, but it was entirely practical and he followed his own inclinations and convictions with independence, energy and discipline; he emerged as one of the most respected and influential public servants in Victoria.
In 1857, against rising clamour for the ‘unlocking of the land’, Skene investigated the progress of current surveying and assessed local demands and the quality of the land available for settlement or still unsurveyed. The work took about eleven months because it included every survey office and field party in Victoria; the final report provided a simple but contentious regional evaluation that influenced the drafting and administration of Victoria’s first selection Acts in 1860, 1862 and 1865.
In 1863 Skene was transferred to Melbourne as acting surveyor-general in 1868, succeeding C. W. Ligar in September 1869. He diligently pursued and refined his early land classification and had charge of the grading of pastoral properties in terms of various land legislation, notably the 1862 and 1869 Acts. Although he was seldom active in political affairs, his administrative skills, wide experience and intimate local knowledge were regularly used by several ministries. His evidence in June 1879 before the 1878-79 royal commission on crown lands was particularly valuable, and under his guidance impressive county maps of Victoria were prepared for the detailed operation of the revised land regulations of the 1880s; these maps were intended as guides for controlled resource management. In the broader cartographic field he was a prime mover in the compilation of the first comprehensive and reliable map of Victoria, produced in 1876 on a scale of eight miles to the inch, and also one of the most accurate of the early maps of Australia, first published in 1880. In 1874 in Melbourne, with R. B. Smith, he published a Report on the Physical Character and Resources of Gippsland.
Above all an able, industrious and conscientious public servant, Skene was significant in the efficient development of responsible government in Victoria. He had the satisfaction of seeing his old ideas for prior and continuing supervision recognized at last in the Mallee Pastoral Leases (1883) and A. L. Tucker’s Land (1884) Acts. He retired in 1886. First made a commissioner of land tax in 1878, he was reappointed in 1887, and that year was a member of the royal commission on the extension of Melbourne westward.
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