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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, Issue 5, 2002

Robert Shallcrass

Robert Shallcrass

page 34

Robert Shallcrass was born in Banstead, Surrey, England, on 29 October 1819. He was apprenticed as a printer at the age of twelve. In 1851 he went to America, then returned to England and later travelled to the goldfields of Victoria, Australia.

Shallcrass then emigrated to New Zealand, sailing on the Spray from Melbourne, and arrived in Nelson on Sunday 29 June 1856. He was then 36 years of age.

He worked as a printer for the Nelson Examiner and took up half an acre of land in Brougham Street, part of town acre 600, which he purchased from HC Daniell on 16 November 1857. Shallcrass built Merton Cottage and, before it was completed, he met Miss Annabella Williamson Jeffrey. Annabella had emigrated with her family from Fyvie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland at the age of 24, arriving on the Cresswell on 6 October 1856.

Robert and Annabella were married on 4 July 1857 by the Rev TD Nicholson and resided in Merton Cottage. They had eight children, seven sons and a daughter, with two small sons dying in 1861 during a diphtheria epidemic. They were buried in Fairfield Cemetery and Robert planted five elms around the grave to represent his five living sons.

Police Service

Robert Shallcrass was appointed Sergeant-Major in charge of the Nelson Provincial Police Force in 1861. His part in apprehending and bringing the four villains who committed the Maungatapu murders to justice in 1866 earned him high praise. Shallcrass prompted one of the suspects, Joseph Sullivan, to turn Queen's Evidence against his accomplices, on condition that he was not hanged. This confession and the subsequent finding of the bodies enabled the case to be proved, and three of the murderers were hanged in the Nelson Gaol on 5 November 1866.

Shallcrass was promoted to the rank of Inspector on a salary of £260 per year. Early in 1870 Sub-Inspector NW Franklyn, the officer controlling the Nelson Southwest Goldfield Police, resigned and Shallcrass was appointed Chief Inspector of the Provincial Police. This appointment added greatly to his workload, as he was expected to control police officers stationed in remote goldfield locations.

page 35
Inspector Robert Shallcrass. Shallcrass Family

Inspector Robert Shallcrass. Shallcrass Family


In 1874 the Nelson Provincial Council instructed Shallcrass to also assume control of Nelson Gaol and reside on the premises. Central government decreed that the two positions were incompatible and he then resigned his police appointment on 10 May 1875 to superintend the Nelson Gaol.

A dramatic incident occurred on 28 July 1883. Shallcrass and his wife, who resided in accommodation upstairs in the gaol, were awoken by a scream and gunshot early in the morning Coming downstairs, he was confronted in the gaol corridor by John Davidson, a prisoner convicted of killing Dennis Quinlan at Lyell. Davidson held two revolvers which he had obtained from the warders' room.

page 36

Regarded as a model prisoner, Davidson had been appointed cook. He had been roused and let out of his cell by Warder Samuel Adams at 5.50am to light the fires and prepare breakfast. Using one of the kitchen knives he had stabbed Adams to death. Shallcrass, unaware of the murder as the body was out of sight, assumed Adams had been locked in a cell. Warder White joined Shallcrass, and Annabella also witnessed the drama. Shallcrass, showing great coolness and courage, parleyed with Davidson for 50 minutes. He suggested that, since escape was impossible, Davidson should shoot himself rather than someone else! Davidson adopted the suggestion and took his own life.

Robert Shallcrass resigned as Gaoler in 1883 and retired into private life. His service was described as 'untarnished, honest and faithful'. The couple returned to live at Merton Cottage which had been let during his term as Gaoler. He died there at the age of 68 on Sunday 27 May 1888 after a five month illness. Interment took place in the family grave at Fairfield on 29 May 1888.

Annabella visited Scotland after Robert's death and then continued to reside at Merton Cottage with her sons after her return in 1889. She died on 31 March 1893 at the age of 61 and was buried in the family grave at Fairfield.


Gaskell, Gillian Shallcrass family papers.

Hill, RS The Colonial Frontier Tamed Wellington: GP, 1989.

Lash, M Nelson Notables Nelson: Nelson Historical Society, 1992.

Neale, JE The Nelson Police Nelson: General Printing, 1986.

The Colonist 14 June 1888.

Weekly Argus, Greymouth, 28 October 1870.