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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Shillinglaw, John Joseph (1831–1905)

by Ann-Mari Jordens

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

John Joseph Shillinglaw (1831-1905), public servant and historian, was born on 30 September 1831 in London, eldest son of John Shillinglaw (d.1862), librarian of the Royal Geographical Society, and his wife Emma Nicholas, née Taylor. At 14 he was sent to study under Captain John Washington, eminent maritime surveyor, and in 1852 he migrated with his father and brothers to Victoria, arriving in October. From November he was chief clerk of petty sessions at Williamstown, and in 1854 was appointed inspector and sometime acting superintendent of the Water Police. He was also secretary to the Steam Navigation Board until December 1857. In 1856-69 he was shipping-master for the Port of Melbourne and registrar of seamen; he helped to found the first Sailors' Home and did much to improve the working conditions of seamen. On 3 December 1857 he married Emma Mary Agnes Boyd; they had four sons and a daughter.

Retrenched from the civil service Shillinglaw struggled to support himself and his six dependants by miscellaneous journalism; there is evidence that his wife was in a lunatic asylum at this time. In 1875 he found temporary work in the Chief Secretary's Department and in February next year was a supernumerary clerk in the Chief Medical Officer's Department at a salary of £210, later £250. From January 1881 he was secretary to the Medical Board of Health; from 13 June he was acting secretary and from 14 November secretary to the Central Board of Health; he was also secretary to the Police Superannuation Board and the Police Medical Board. In 1882 he returned to the Chief Secretary's Department, and in 1885-94 was secretary to the royal commission on vegetable products. He was also secretary to the Board of Viticulture.

Shillinglaw was an enthusiast in whatever department he worked; however, he is remembered for his association with colonial literature and history. He was prominent among the lively literary coterie of Melbourne in the 1860s and 1870s, an original member of the Yorick Club, and of the short-lived literary society, the Cave of Adullam. He contributed to various colonial periodicals, and in September 1869 took over the Colonial Monthly magazine from Marcus Clarke for another two or three issues. Highly regarded as an historian, he began work on a biography of Matthew Flinders in the late 1870s, and received valuable source material from Flinders' family in England. He continued to amass information for his 'magnum opus', but it was never published.

Shillinglaw was elected a member of the Royal Geographical Society, London, in 1851 and in 1883 was a founder and councillor of the Victorian branch of the Geographical Society of Australasia. Generous and kindly, he 'made every acquaintance a friend' and went to great lengths to help them in every way. Long, lean and bony he was described in 1869 as 'nautical to a degree in his phraseology as well as a most “robustious” singer of “chanteys” … He wore navy-blue habitually, a tall hat, and carried a small despatch box filled with mss. paper'. Hugh McCrae wrote, 'In his eyes shone valour, honour and romance'. He suffered for many years from 'chalky gout' and by the time of his death on 26 May 1905 could no longer write his name. Predeceased by his wife and three sons, he was buried in the St Kilda cemetery; his estate was valued for probate at £227 and included a vast collection of papers and rare books. From 1850 to 1877 he had published six books, and in 1879 he edited Historical Records of Port Phillip: The First Annals of the Colony of Victoria. His portrait is in the La Trobe Library, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • H. McCrae, Story-Book Only (Syd, 1948)
  • T. O'Callaghan ‘H.M.S. “Calcutta” in Port Phillip Bay, 1803’, Victorian Historical Magazine, 10 (1924-25)
  • G. G. McCrae, ‘J. J. Shillinglaw, 1869’, Southerly, 7 (1946) no 4
  • Argus (Melbourne), 27 May 1905
  • Shillinglaw papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Ann-Mari Jordens, 'Shillinglaw, John Joseph (1831–1905)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 30 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

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