History of West Australia/Robert Frederick Sholl


ALTHOUGH it may not always be true that the race is swift or the battle to the strong, the exceptions to this rule are so rare that people in general envy those who are cast in a large and robust mould, for big men have a forceful way of reaching ever the heads of their smaller fellows to grasp the prizes of life. Although the dwarf who finds himself unequal in the struggle may say that it is noble to have a giant's strength but tyrannous to use it like a giant, the world cannot stop to moralise on ethical equities when there is hard work to be done and only the Samsons of a generation are capable of doing it. In a ruder age the instinct of admiration for personal prowess and a mighty arm to wield a battleaxe or throw a spear found even more marked expression than it does at the present day; but in spite of all the levelling influences of civilisation and of invention it is still true that, as a quaint writer oddly puts it, the terrier recoils when a mastiff makes his appearance, or, in other words, neither heavy burdens nor purses are prone to fall to the lot of the puny.

Robert Frederick Sholl HOFWA.jpg
Photo by
Greenham & Evans.
R.F. SHOLL, J.P., M.L.A.

One of Carlyle's metaphors is that men in their varying capacities are to be likened to steam engines of different sizes, and that it is hopeless for a donkey engine to attempt to do the work of a locomotive—meaning in the latter case the burly member for Gascoyne.

Robert Frederick Snell, third son of the late Mr. R. J. Shell, Government Resident in the North District, was born at Bunbury in 1848, and educated in his simpler studies at the Public School, Perth. As he advanced in scholastic requirements he was given the advantage of private tuition at the High School of of Mr. Sherwood, who enjoyed a reputation for the success with which he developed the abilities of his pupils. On completing his education the young collegiate decided to gain "colonial experience," in other words, to learn the management of a sheep and cattle station, for which purpose he spent some time at Mr. Whitfield's "Yandenooka" Station, on the Irwin, near Geraldton. Afterwards he turned his attention to the pearling trade, which was then in its infancy. Mr. Shell, who is distinguished for his quick commercial instinct, had the insight to perceive that there were large profits to be made gathering the treasures of the sea with the aid of black labour. The aboriginals had become so far civilised that they sometimes preferred a white protector who would find them in a liberal dietary scale to precariously hunting for the means of subsistence in the great north-west where the supply of game in a particular locality is largely dependent upon the rainfall, which sometimes fails. To the blacks it was no hardship to take to the water like ducks in a tropical climate, when in return for their services they were furnished with shelter and as much food as they could eat, so, that when Mr. Sholl and his brother (Mr. H. W. Sholl) launched their pearling enterprise at Nickol Bay they had no lack of assistants to enable them to lucratively carry on their work, which is described with some detail in connection with the biographical notices of some other members of the Sholl family in this volume. At that time pearl shell was so plentiful that it was not necessary to provide an expensive equipment for diving in deep water, as at every ebb-tide the beds were left almost uncovered, so that the system of gathering the shells was known as "dry reefing." The virgin field that was being worked and the simplicity of the works enabled the blacks to gather very large quantities of the valuable cargo for the boats, with the result that the brothers Sholl soon found themselves comparatively r[ch men. At the end of seven or eight years, when vexatious legislative restrictions were put into force, ostensibly for the protection of the native "divers"—who, however, did not dive except on special occasions—the brothers had amassed a competence, and, preferring not to be harassed and have their profits reduced by the new laws, they left the pearling grounds and devoted their substance to other channels of work in which the liberty of the subject was not interfered with under the guise of humanitarianism. That was eighteen years ago, and Mr. Robert Frederick Sholl has never had to regret the meddlesomeness of Parliament with the pearling industry which shaped the course of his life anew and made h{m a sharer to an unusual degree in the good times that were in store for Western Australia. From the hardships of a life in the remote and tropical north-west he came to Perth, acquired property which has enormously increased in value, embarked in other investments which, controlled by his sound judgment, have brought him emolument and done a great deal to add to the producing resources of the colony, and rendered him able from the practical experience he has gained of commercial affairs to speak with authority upon the principles of sound finance which influence the rulers of the colony in guiding its destinies so as avoid the disasters which have been the occasion of serious public and private loss in other parts of the Southern Hemisphere. Mr. Shell has sat in the Lower House continuously since the 24th of June, 1886, his constituency being the large pastoral district of the Gascoyne, and he has uniformly brought to bear in the public interests the qualities of shrewdness, caution, and careful calculation which have made him a prosperous man in private life. If ever a day of reckoning could come for Western Australia, Mr. R. F. Sholl will be able to point to the pages of Hansard to show that if his advice had been taken there would have been no approach to recklessness either in national borrowing or national spending, and that "look before you leap" has invariably been his safe and careful axiom. At the same time, Mr. Sholl is by no means timorous or indecisive in action when he is satisfied that a certain course is the right one to follow. The mining industry has had few more bold or enterprising supporters, as may be judged from the fact that he was one of the first to spend his money in equipping prospecting parties to search for gold, and in his case has been shown that fortune favours the brave. He was one of the syndicate which sent out Mr. L. R. Menzies, the discoverer of the Menzies goldfield, and he (Mr. Sholl) is a director of the Lady Shenton mine and of the Fraser's mine, Southern Cross. In what may be called legitimate industrial works requiring both brains and capital he has been equally on the alert to meet the public wants and find a profitable outlet for means. He was one of the leading promoters of the Perth Iceworks Company and of the Perth Brickworks Company, and he sits upon the directorate of both these corporations.

In 1878 Mr. Shell married Miss Elizabeth Cosgrove, eldest daughter of Mr. Thos. Cosgrove, of St. Leonard's, North Sydney. Four children have been born of the marriage, and the eldest of the two sons is now in England. Mr. Sholl lives in much comfort, as befits his rank as one of the leading men of the city, in one of the most spacious and handsome mansions that adorn St. George's Terrace. The property, which bears the name "Condurra," was built for Mr. Sholl according to his own tasteful plans, and is replete with every luxury that is the fruit of wealth and discernment.

As a public speaker Mr. Sholl's utterances are marked by boldness and force. He is always sure of his point before he rises to address himself to the question under debate, and he goes direct to the kernel of his subject without verbiage or circumlocution. A man of commanding presence and powerful physique, his voice never fails to make itself heard to the farthest limits of the largest hall, and he is always listened to with attention. Nor does he flinch oratorical combat from grappling the strongest adversary. He can give hard blows in the warfare of the tongue, and is always equable and good humoured when his antagonist endeavours to return his telling thrusts.