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Pohlman, Robert Williams (1811–1877)

by Suzanne G. Mellor

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Robert Williams Pohlman (1811-1877), by unknown engraver

Robert Williams Pohlman (1811-1877), by unknown engraver

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S22/12/77/156

Robert Williams Pohlman (1811-1877), judge, was born in March 1811 in London, son of John George Pohlman and his wife Annie Hamilton, née Williams. After schooling he studied law, was called to the English Bar, admitted as advocate in Scotland in March 1839 and worked briefly in the civil service.

In October 1840 Pohlman arrived at Port Phillip and with his younger brother Frederick Roper bought several thousand sheep and part of Darlington station, near Kyneton, in 1841; this became Glenhope station. In January 1851 Robert's share of the run was transferred to Frederick, who held it until 1857.

In April 1841 Pohlman was admitted to the colonial Bar; he practised until 1846 when appointed commissioner of Insolvency. In 1847 he became Redmond Barry's junior and in July 1851 was gazetted master in Equity. In 1852 he became commissioner of the Court of Requests for the City of Melbourne and County of Bourke, and then first County Court judge and chairman of Quarter Sessions for Victoria. In January 1853 he was mentioned in Charles La Trobe's dispatches for believing that he had the necessary seniority and standing to take the chief justice's post while Sir William à Beckett was on leave. La Trobe implied that Pohlman lacked experience and had a peremptory manner.

In November 1851 Pohlman became a nominee in the Legislative Council, where he showed much independence, particularly on the select committee on education in 1852. In January 1855 he was elected unopposed for Ripon, Grenville and Polwarth, after resigning in October 1854 when Governor Hotham reproved him for irregularity in giving notice of a motion seeking a higher grant for education without first consulting the Executive Council. His political career ended in March 1856 after failing to win a seat for South-West Province.

As County Court judge and chairman of General Sessions Pohlman sat almost continuously. From April 1859 to April 1861 and from July to December 1871 he acted as judge of the Supreme Court. He refused to retire in the early 1870s because he was offered only a County Court judge's pension. Devoted to his judicial duties, he worked long hours. Some observers described him as sphinx-like but philanthropic with a kindly disposition. 'Garryowen' admired his honesty and painstaking application and claimed that he 'dispensed more justice in greater quantity than a more perceptive and intelligent man could have done'. Others agreed that he imposed severe sentences such as ten years (three in chains) and three whippings of fifty lashes for a garrotter, who Pohlman piously hoped would reform in gaol and learn a trade.

Pohlman was active in many areas other than the law. He was founding chairman of the Denominational Board of Education from 1848 until it merged with the National Board after the Common Schools Act of 1862. As members of the royal commission into education of 1866, he and J. E. Bromby were no mere spokesmen for their Church, for they had independent minds. Early in the commission Pohlman proposed that no more land be granted to denominational schools. He missed only four of the fifty-two meetings of the commission over five months.

Pohlman's church activities as a senior layman varied. He welcomed Bishop Perry on his arrival, represented Trinity College in the Church of England Assembly, was engaged in denominational meetings and in building churches, offering the first cheque towards St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne. Active in public charities, he had a long association with the Melbourne Hospital. He was guardian of the Port Phillip Orphan Immigration Committee, a devoted official of the Merri Creek Northcote Inebriates Home committee of management set up under the Inebriates Treatment Act of 1872. He exercised his judicial powers on anyone who through adulterants or bad brews worsened the liquor problem. He was president of the first Early Closing Association, and was long a councillor of the University of Melbourne. To 'Garryowen' he was 'a respected nonentity, esteemed by many and disliked by none'.

Pohlman died at his home in Punt Road, Richmond, on 6 December 1877 and was buried in the Melbourne general cemetery where he had long been a trustee. Predeceased by his first wife, he married about 1872 Mercy Clifton Bachelor by whom he had one daughter.

His brother Frederick Roper was appointed to the Kyneton magisterial bench in April 1856 and on 1 August 1859 became a warden of the goldfields. From October 1860 until March 1866 he was police magistrate at Maryborough and in July 1867 was transferred to Rutherglen.

Select Bibliography

  • Garryowen (E. Finn), The Chronicles of Early Melbourne (Melb, 1888)
  • G. M. Dow, George Higinbotham: Church and State (Melb, 1964)
  • Age (Melbourne), 7 Dec 1877
  • Melbourne Bulletin, 28 Jan 1878
  • CO 309/13.

Citation details

Suzanne G. Mellor, 'Pohlman, Robert Williams (1811–1877)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pohlman-robert-williams-4407/text7189, published in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 19 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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