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Robert Frederick Sholl (1848–1909)

by G. C. Bolton

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Robert Frederick Sholl (1848-1909), pearler and investor, was born on 27 August 1848 at Bunbury, Western Australia, third son of Robert John Sholl and his wife Mary Ann, née Berckelman. He attended Perth Public School and Mr Sherwood's high school and was a jackeroo for three years on Yandanooka station before going to the Roebourne district in 1868 after his father's appointment as resident magistrate. That year he was one of a group of special constables sworn in by his father to hunt down those responsible for killing a policeman named William Griffis [sic], his Aboriginal tracker and two white pearlers.

The Yaburara Aboriginal people concerned inhabited Murujuga/the Burrup Peninsula and nearby islands; they are thought to have been incited by the alleged rape by the police officer of several of their women. Many were killed in the retaliation expeditions, which lasted several months. In 1869 Sholl junior was again appointed a special constable by his father to assist in finding those responsible for the fatal spearing of a white shepherd named Griffiths on E.T. Hooley’s Minderoo station in the Ashburton district; by his father’s account 21 “natives” were killed in the so-called “Battle of Minderoo”.

With his brother Horatio William (1852-1927) Robert Frederick became one of the first pearling masters in the North-West; they used Aboriginal divers and Robert was said to be the only white man in the industry who could swim and dive as well as the Aborigines. Although the venture was profitable, the Sholls felt constrained by an act of 1873 prescribing minimum labour conditions and relinquished their interests. In 1878 at North Sydney Robert married Elizabeth Cosgrove; they had two daughters and two sons.

Robert Sholl became a property investor, did well during the boom of the 1890s and was a director of the Perth Brickworks and the Perth Iceworks. He speculated in gold-mining from the earliest finds, notably in the syndicate financing the Lady Shenton mine which led to the opening of the Menzies goldfield in 1894. He owned Marron station in the Gascoyne district and lived in a St George's Terrace mansion, Condurra. Entering the Legislative Council as member for Gascoyne in 1886, he transferred to the same constituency in the Legislative Assembly after responsible government in 1890, and retired in 1897. He was a Western Australian representative at the Australasian Federal Convention that year. He then lived in London for several years and from 1904 until his death was a member of the Legislative Council for North province.

A big, shrewd man with a commanding presence and voice, he was a tenacious critic of what he saw as the Forrest government's lavish expenditure; he opposed the White Australia policy and the Aborigines Protection Board, but was an early advocate of votes for women. He died on 4 December 1909 and was buried with Anglican rites in Karrakatta cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at over £60,000.

His eldest brother Trevarton Charles (1845-1867) accompanied their father to the Camden Harbour settlement in 1864-65 and explored part of the West Kimberley, but perished when the schooner Emma was lost with all hands in March 1867.

Richard Adolphus (1847-1919), another brother, who was born on 18 December 1847 at Bunbury, was educated at Bishop Hale's school before becoming a post office clerk in 1863. Promoted chief clerk in 1873, he was appointed postmaster-general in 1889—in time to encounter the extraordinarily rapid growth and congestion arising from the 1890s gold rushes. Often assailed in the press for the inefficiencies of an underfunded service with inexperienced staff, Sholl was in trouble in 1895 for failing to stop speculation in halfpenny surcharge stamps. A man of method, with a soldierly appearance, he eventually managed to cope with the demands on the service, though earning a perhaps undeserved reputation as a martinet. When the Commonwealth took over posts and telegraphs in 1901, Sholl was deputy postmaster-general for Western Australia until he retired three years later. A director of the Perth Building Society and member of the St George's Cathedral Choristers' Association, a patron of sport, a crack shot and a major in the Volunteers, he was at his happiest as honorary secretary of the Western Australian Turf Club for many years. He had married twice: on 19 September 1872 Eline Florence Ashton (d.1877), by whom he had a daughter and two sons; and on 7 January 1887 Mary Howard Sanders. He died in Perth on 9 May 1919 and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery.

Horrie Sholl, after partnering Robert in pearling, became a pastoralist at Yule River in the Roebourne district before retiring to Perth in 1890. He was a member of the Legislative Council in 1888 and of the Legislative Assembly (1891-1901) for Roebourne; a short, stout man, he was noted for the rarity and brevity of his parliamentary utterances. By his marriage with Jessie Cave in 1883 he had, besides three sons, seven daughters whose good looks made the family home at Peppermint Grove a social centre in Edwardian Perth; two of his sons-in-law were successively attorney-general. The youngest brother Edward (1854-1896) practised as a lawyer in York and Perth.

Select Bibliography

  • W. B. Kimberly (ed), History of West Australia (Melb, 1897)
  • W. L. Owen, Cossack Gold (Perth, 1933)
  • R. Erickson (compiler), Dictionary of Western Australians, vol 3 (Perth, 1979)
  • R. Pascoe, Peppermint Grove, Western Australia's Capital Suburb (Melb, 1983)
  • West Australian, 2 July 1891
  • Coolgardie Miner, 6 Nov 1895.

Citation details

G. C. Bolton, 'Sholl, Robert Frederick (1848–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 22 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


27 August, 1848
Bunbury, Western Australia, Australia


4 December, 1909 (aged 61)

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.