Lieutenant-General Sir Richard Hieram Sankey KCB, officer in the Madras Engineer Group in the East India Company‘s army in British India, is born on March 22, 1829 at Rockwell Castle, County Tipperary.
Sankey is the fourth son of Eleanor and Matthew Sankey. His mother is herself from a family of military men, her father being Colonel Henry O’Hara, J.P of O’Hara Broom, County Antrim. His father is a barrister at Bawnmore, County Cork and Modeshil, County Tipperary. He does his schooling at Rev. Flynn’s School on Harcourt Street in Dublin and enters the East India Company’s Addiscombe Military Seminary at Addiscombe, Surrey in 1845. At Addiscombe he is awarded for his excellence at painting.
Sankey is commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Madras Engineer Group in November 1846, and is then trained in military engineering with the Royal Engineers at Chatham, Kent from January 1, 1847, holding temporary rank as an ensign in the British Army. He then arrives in India in November 1848. After two years of service at Mercatur, he officiates in 1850 as Superintending Engineer at Nagpur. During this time he makes a small collection of fossils of Glossopteris from the Nagpur district and writes a paper on the geology of the region in 1854. The collection is moved from the Museum of Practical Geology to the British Museum in 1880.
In 1856, Sankey is promoted as the Superintendent of the East Coast Canal at Madras. In May 1857, he is promoted Under-Secretary of the Public Works Department under Col. William Erskine Baker in Calcutta. During the Indian Rebellion of 1857, he is commissioned as the Captain of the Calcutta Cavalry Volunteers, but is soon despatched to Allahabad where he leads the construction of several embankments and bridges across the Yamuna and Ganges. He is involved in the construction of shelters to advancing troops along the Grand Trunk Road to aid the quelling of the Indian Rebellion of 1857. He arrives in course of this work at Cawnpore (now Kanpur) a day before the Second Battle of Cawnpore. He also is involved in crucial civil works that aid the quelling of the rebellion by bridging the Ghaghara and Gomti rivers at Gorakhpur and Phulpur that enable the Gurkha regiment to cross these rivers.
Sankey receives several commendations from his commanders here and later in the taking of the fort at Jumalpur, Khandua nalla and Qaisar Bagh, vital actions in the breaking of the Siege of Lucknow. For his actions at Jumalpur he is recommended for the Victoria Cross, although he does not receive this honour. He receives a medal for the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and is promoted to second captain on August 27, 1858, and given brevet promotion to major the following day for his services in the quelling of the rebellion. He is sent to the Nilgiris due to ill-health during this time.
Sankey spends a year in Burma as the executive engineer and Superintendent of the jail at Moulmein. On June 29, 1861, he is promoted to substantive captain and is posted as the Garrison Engineer at Fort William, Calcutta and later as the assistant to Chief Engineer, Mysore until 1864, when he is made the Chief Engineer. During this period he creates a system within the irrigation department to deal with old Indian water catchment systems, surveying the catchment area and determining the area drained and the flows involved. Due to the reorganisation of the armed forces following the assumption of Crown rule in India he is transferred to the Royal Engineers on April 29, 1862.
In 1870, at the request of the Victorian Colonial Government in Australia, in view of his experience with hydrological studies in Mysore, Sankey is invited to be Chairman of the Board of Enquiry on Victorian Water Supply. During this visit, he also gives evidence to the Victorian Select Committee on Railways, as well as reports on the Yarra River Floods, and the Coliban Water Supply, and later contributes to the report on the North West Canal. While in Australia, he is also invited to the colony of South Australia to report on the water supply of Adelaide.
Sankey is appointed as an under-secretary to the Government of India in 1877, which earns him the Afghanistan Medal. In 1878, he is promoted as the Secretary in the public works department at Madras, and is promoted substantive colonel on December 30. He is appointed Companion of the Order of the Bath on July 25, 1879, and also commands the Royal Engineers on the advance from Kandahar to Kabul during the Second Anglo-Afghan War. For about five years he is in Madras where he becomes a member of the legislative council in Madras and is elected as a Fellow of the University of Madras. He also helps in the creation and improvements of the Marina, the gardens and the Government House grounds. He is promoted major general on June 4, 1883, and retires from the army on January 11, 1884 with the honorary rank of lieutenant general. He also receives the distinguished service award in India.
After retirement, Sankey returns to Ireland, where he becomes the Chairman of the Board of Works. He is promoted Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath on May 25, 1892 for his work in Ireland. He also undertakes projects in Mexico. Later he settles in London where he dies at St. George’s Hospital on November 11, 1908 and is interred at Hove, East Sussex.
Sankey is memorialised in Phoenix Park, Dublin. A circle of trees bears the name Sankey’s Wood. A plaque dated 1894 lies half-hidden in the undergrowth there.