Sir Rufane Shaw Donkin was born in 1773 to a respectable Northumbrian family.
Donkin followed his father into the army, but also had a keen interest in scholarship, taking time to study classic and mathematics when on leave from his regiment. Donkin’s active service ended in the Cape of Good Hope. He had been sent there from India as an invalid, but assumed control of the Government in the absence of Lord Charles Somerset.
Whilst in the Cape he named the shore of Algoe Bay, Port Elizabeth after his deceased first wife. On returning to England Donkin pursued literary and political pursuits, a fellow of the Royal Society and the Royal Geographical Society as well as standing as MP for the Whigs in Berwick upon Tweed and Sandwich.
In 1835 he was appointed Surveyor General of the Ordnance, though he suggested that the civil business of the Ordnance should be absorbed into the War Office this did not happen until 1855. Donkin remained in this role until his suicide in 1841.