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Robert John Sholl (1819–1886)

by Wendy Birman

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Robert John Sholl (1819-1886), civil servant, administrator and magistrate, was born on 16 July 1819 at Southwark, London, second son of Robert Sholl, navy agent, and his wife Elizabeth, née Mutton. He abandoned his medical studies when his brother William inherited property in Western Australia on the death of their uncle Richard Sholl, who had gone to the colony in the Sulphur in 1829. With his mother, sister and younger brother, he arrived at Fremantle in the Shepherd on 19 November 1840 and settled at Bunbury.

Sholl worked as a teacher until he became a clerk in the District Magistrate's Court in 1844. On 21 September at the Anglican Church, Picton, he married Mary Ann Berckelman (d.1889). In 1846 he became registrar for Wellington district, next year was transferred to the Postal Department, and in 1849 was a tide-waiter but resigned to join the Inquirer, edited by William. He became editor of the Commercial News and Shipping List at Fremantle in February 1855, and joint owner with Edmund Stirling when the two newspapers amalgamated in July. He was secretary of the Geraldine Mining Co. and was associated with the Roebuck Bay Pastoral and Agricultural Co.

In January 1865 Governor Hampton appointed Sholl government resident of the new settlement at Camden Harbour, organized by the Camden Harbour Pastoral Co. He arrived there in February to find chaos and confusion. One ship had been wrecked, all but 1000 sheep were dead and the country was parched and dry. Some of the settlers had already gone and others were leaving. In April he set out with a well-armed party to examine the country between Camden Harbour and Roebuck Bay, hoping to find a pass through the hills to the Glenelg River. Rebuffed by rugged country at the eastern tip of the Whately Range he crossed at the western end, naming the McRae River before reaching the Glenelg. He was impressed by the excellent pastures there compared with the immediate hinterland at Camden Harbour. His account of the expedition was published in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1866.

Back at the settlement Sholl was continually troubled by Aboriginal pilfering of government property and by administrative problems, especially those involving the truculent young surgeon Charles Smith-Bompas. A visit by proas from Macassar also caused alarm. Finally, the collapse of the company persuaded him to abandon the settlement in October; 'leaving behind wooden buildings, timber fencing and shingles to the value of £150, besides a tank and several horses', he moved south to Tien Tsin Harbour, which he found almost as discouraging. The settlers, members of the Denison Plains Co., were disgruntled, their supplies almost exhausted, with many suffering from bronchitis, rheumatism or scurvy. Sholl was appalled at the low standard of their dwellings and even more distressed by the misery at the Aboriginal camp. Apart from sharing his personal rations with them, there was little he could do to help. Gradually as the drought eased and conditions improved his optimism was renewed. The Aboriginal people of the region were the most friendly he had ever met and he granted one of them, Mullagough, a free passage to Fremantle.

In April 1866 Sholl moved to Walcott, which was gazetted as the town of Roebourne next August. His personal losses in a severe hurricane in 1872 included his library. Because of an acute shortage of building materials he was compelled to live in cramped official quarters for many years, but the district flourished until 1877 when it was again hampered by drought, a depressed wool market, scarcity of oyster pearls and the cessation of a small copper and lead-mining venture.

In 1868 Sholl appointed a group of settlers including his son, Robert Frederick, as special constables to hunt down the killers of a policeman, William Griffis, an Aboriginal tracker, Peter, and two white pearlers. The Aboriginal people concerned, the Yaburarra of the Burrup Peninsula and nearby islands, were later thought to have acted in retaliation for the alleged rape by the police officer of several of their women.  The death toll of what became known as the Flying Foam massacre is not known, but one account nearly twenty years later put it at sixty.  The expedition leaders, John Withnell and Alexander McRae, were later thanked for their efforts by Sholl. But when two of the alleged killers of the policeman came into Roebourne in early 1869, Sholl took no action against them, declaring: ‘Personally I am in favour of an amnesty for these natives who have received a severe lesson and much blood has been spilt’. He took similar action a year later, following the spearing of a shepherd named Griffiths on Minderoo station in the Ashburton; by Sholl’s account twenty-one were killed there by police and special constables, who again included his son.

During his term at Roebourne, Sholl was justice of the peace, district registrar and deputy-treasurer; he was chairman of the Court of Petty Sessions and, from 1878, of Quarter Sessions. He was the subject of rumours concerning alleged favouritism in the pearling industry, but his informed submission advising on the 1873 Pearl Shell Fishery Regulation Act stressed the rights of Aboriginal employees. In 1879 he bought Mount Welcome station from J. Withnell and two years later left to become resident magistrate in the Swan district, where he died on 19 June 1886.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Battye, The History of the North-West of Australia (Perth, 1915)
  • J. S. Battye, Western Australia (Oxford, 1924)
  • T.J. Gara, ‘The Flying Foam Massacre: An Incident On The North-West Frontier, Western Australia’, in M. Smith (ed.), Archaeology at ANZAAS 1983 (Perth, 1983)
  • Inquirer (Perth), 1 April 1868
  • Inquirer (Perth), 4 March 1874
  • Inquirer (Perth), 2 June 1876
  • Forrest, The Challenge and the Chance: The Colonisation and Settlement of North West Australia 1861-1914 (Perth, 1996)
  • West Australian, 21 June 1886
  • West Australian, 22 June 1886
  • West Australian, 9 July 1889
  • Northern Times, 28 July 1966
  • R. M. Crawford, The Camden Harbour Settlement, and CSO, 1865-81 (State Library of Western Australia)

Citation details

Wendy Birman, 'Sholl, Robert John (1819–1886)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


16 July, 1819
London, Middlesex, England


19 June, 1886 (aged 66)
Swan District, Western Australia, Australia

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