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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


PAWELKA, Joseph John Thomas


Convict escapee.

A new biography of Pawelka, Joseph John Thomas appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Joseph John Thomas Pawelka (the name is also spelled Pavelka or Powelka) was born at West Oxford, Canterbury, on 4 August 1887. His parents were immigrants from Moravia. His father worked as a labourer and bushman. When Pawelka was six years old the family moved to Kimbolton. The boy attended the State school there and afterwards worked as a butcher, being employed at the Palmerston North abattoirs. In September 1909 Pawelka married, at Ashhurst, Harriet Elizabeth Wilson, who was six years his senior. When his wife left him two months after their marriage, Pawelka attempted to commit suicide but was rescued, charged in the Magistrate's Court, and ordered to come up for sentence when called upon. Mrs Pawelka obtained a separation order but Pawelka, who remained very attached to his wife, continued to force his attentions on her. On 25 February 1910, following a complaint by his wife, Pawelka's home was searched and articles of furniture missing from several recent burglaries in Palmerston North were discovered. Pawelka was committed for trial on six charges of breaking and entering, and remanded in custody for a week. On 12 March, while the gaoler's back was turned, Pawelka placed two buckets against the prison wall, climbed to the parapet and made off on a stolen bicycle. This was the first of several daring escapes which was to earn him the nickname of the “New Zealand Jack Sheppard”. Recaptured at Awahuri, Pawelka was transferred to the more securely guarded police cells in Wellington but on 23 March he was again able to escape. A series of petty thefts north of Wellington marked his trail back to the Manawatu. On the evening of 2 April the home of John Kendall, near Palmerston North, was ransacked and husband and wife were held up by an armed masked intruder.

Three days later, three major fires occurred almost simultaneously in Palmerston North, destroying the high school and two shops in the Square. Pawelka was suspected of these outrages. The thought of an armed, desperate man roaming the city caused a state of terror in Palmerston North. The authorities brought in permanent artillery men from Wellington and police reinforcements, and organised what was until then the biggest manhunt in New Zealand's history. Sixty policemen, assisted by soldiers, scouts, and hundreds of voluntary helpers, combed the district. Pawelka, meanwhile, brazenly visited his estranged wife at her closely guarded home at Ashhurst, but the screams of his mother-in-law drove him off. On the next night, 10 April, a police sergeant was fatally shot in a struggle with an intruder in Palmerston North. On 11 April a civilian searcher who had failed to stop when challenged was shot dead in the street by another search party. With two lives lost, excitement in Palmerston North reached a fever pitch. At last, on 17 April, two constables captured Pawelka at Ashhurst. He went on trial on 25 May in the Supreme Court but was acquitted by the jury of charges of murder and armed robbery. Pawelka pleaded guilty to charges of theft and arson and was given three cumulative sentences of seven years' imprisonment. He was also declared an habitual criminal.

The severity of this verdict, which amounted to a life sentence, caused a revulsion of feeling in Pawelka's favour. Protest meetings were held, Pawelka committees were formed, and petitions on his behalf were circulated and widely signed. The New Zealand Times led the campaign for a reduction of the sentence. The trade unions took up Pawelka's case, and a representative deputation met the Minister of Justice to plead for the young man. But the Government steadfastly refused to interfere with the verdict of the Court. On 27 August 1911 Pawelka put an end to the agitation by escaping from Wellington's Terrace Gaol. He has not been heard of since, and is still listed as “wanted”.

by Herbert Otto Roth, B.A., DIP.N.Z.L.S., Deputy Librarian, University of Auckland.

  • Pawelka, His History, Exploits, Escapes and Trials (reprinted from the Manawatu Daily Times) (1910).


Herbert Otto Roth, B.A., DIP.N.Z.L.S., Deputy Librarian, University of Auckland.