Francis Skead was educated at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, and entered the Royal Navy in October 1838 at the age of 15. His first position was that of clerk's assistant on HMS Modeste, which was involved in combatting the Portuguese slave trade from East Africa. From 1841 to 1845 he served on HMS Starling in Chinese waters, was awarded the China Medal for his services in the so-called "Opium War", and received training in survey work. After passing his masters examination in February 1848 he sailed for the Cape of Good Hope in April and served there until May 1849, transporting men and goods between Cape Town and East London. On his return to England he was posted as second master on the Enterprise, which was sent to the North West Passage to search for the polar explorer Sir John Franklin. For this work he received the Arctic Medal. During his five years on the Enterprise he also received the South Africa Medal, for his role in transporting men and goods in the Frontier War of 1850-1853. He kept a journal of his experiences (now in the Cory Library, Grahamstown) and eventually returned to England in May 1855.
During 1855-1856 Skead was additional master for surveying on HMS Castor, stationed at the Cape of Good Hope. He was then discharged from the ship in order to undertake surveying on shore, but was kept on the books of various flag-ships stationed at the Cape. From 1855 his appointment was that of master and assistant surveyor to the Cape of Good Hope, under Commander Joseph Dayman. On Dayman's retirement in February 1856 Skead was put in charge of naval surveying at the Cape. He held this post until his retirement from active service in the Royal Navy in January 1865. His work during this period, carried out in association with Sir Thomas Maclear*, Captain May and several others, mainly covered the coast from Table Bay to Port Elizabeth and resulted, among others, in charts of Cape Town and Table Bay (1858-1860), the George and Knysna coast (1864), Knysna Harbour, Cape St Francis to Waterloo Bay, Algoa Bay (1856), and Port Elizabeth Harbour. At least some of his maps remained in use well into the twentieth century and were highly regarded. During the nineteen-sixties the following charts which bore his name were still in the possession of the South African Naval Hydrographic Office in Simonstown: No. 2087: Keiskamma River to the Hole-in-the-wall (sketch survey, 1857); No. 636: Cape of Good Hope and False Bay (1856-1860); No. 2082: Table Bay to Cape Agulhas (with others, 1860); No. 639: Mossel Bay and harbour (with C.P. Watermeyer*, 1862). Two further charts, both dated 1867, appear to have been the work of his younger brother, Frederick Skead*, who visited Francis in Port Elizabeth and was also an Admirality surveyor. Some maps to which Francis contributed were completed after his retirement, including a hydrographical map of the Umzimvubu River (1872-1873), a map of Plettenberg Bay (1876), and a survey map from Cape Padrone to the Keiskamma River (1869). Francis furthermore compiled two sailing directions: Africa - South-East coast. Sunday River to Point Padrone, including the Bird Islands; also, notes upon the mouth of the River Kei, made in November 1856 (Cape Town, 1857, 10p) and Africa - SW, S and SE coasts. Robben Island to the Cape of Good Hope; Cape of Good Hope to Struijs Point (Cape Town, 1860).
When the missionary-explorer Dr David Livingstone* called at the Cape in 1858 on his way to explore the Zambezi River, the Cape government seconded Skead to the expedition as surveyor. Livingstone acknowledged Skead's surveys of some channels of the lower reaches of the Zambezi in the introduction to his Narrative of an expedition to the Zambesi and its tributaries, 1858-1864. The work, carried out with the assistance of Lieutenant Suther, was published as Chart 2865 of the Hydrographic Office, entitled Mouth of the Zambesi River (1858-1861).
During 1859-1862 a trigonometrical survey was carried out along the southern Cape coast by Captain W. Bailey*. When Bailey's field-books and sketches were lost in a shipwreck he based his Report on the trigonometrical survey of a portion of the Colony and British Kaffraria (1863) on interim reports and angular bearings supplied by Surveyor-General C. Bell*, Dr R.N. Rubidge* and Skead. Bearings from sixteen stations were supplied by Skead. It is not clear whether he had measured these bearings himself, or was in possession of copies of the bearings taken by Bailey's party.
In May 1865, a few months after Skead retired from the Royal Navy, he was appointed Port Captain (harbour master and shipping master) at Port Elizabeth, a post he held until he retired on pension on 30 June 1889. By then his health was poor and he died two years later. In his obituary in the Eastern Province Herald he was described as a dignified and courteous English gentleman.