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Shearman, Robert Clarke

by Richard S. Hill


Robert Clarke Shearman was born in County Kilkenny, Ireland, during March 1825. He was the son of Charlotte Bennette Clark and her husband, Thomas Shearman. Under the patronage of his uncle, William Hobson, first governor of New Zealand, Shearman left home as a youth; his journey was halted at Adelaide, South Australia, when he learnt of Hobson's death on 10 September 1842. He then entered government service in South Australia, eventually discovering that his forte was policing.

On 1 February 1852 Shearman became a sergeant in the Victorian Police Force, then in the process of a reorganisation which would make it world renowned for efficiency. He was promoted to sub-lieutenant on 1 June 1854 and sub-inspector on 1 January 1860. He gained considerable practical experience in controlling a turbulent population on the goldfields and in Melbourne, but by 1862 a marked decline in Victorian gold output led to a policy of retrenchment being applied to the police. There was no prospect of further advancement for Shearman.

At this time the province of Canterbury, New Zealand, decided to paramilitarise its police operation, and looked to Victoria for expertise. Shearman had experience, and fulfilled the requirement that Canterbury's police chief should have 'received the education of a gentleman'. He was selected by Victoria's chief commissioner of police to head a small contingent of constables to be sent to Canterbury. After some tough bargaining over conditions Shearman accepted the position of inspector in charge of the Canterbury Armed Police Force, resigning from the Victorian service on 26 June 1862. With three colleagues he sailed on the Omeo, and began work in Christchurch on 25 July, quickly gaining the title of commissioner. He lived up to his 'reputation of being a most efficient officer', paying such strict attention to instructing the men and improving their discipline that benefits were being noticed in the streets within a week.

Shearman introduced both new structures and a new stringency into policing in Canterbury. Offences against public order were treated more seriously, sparking off a riot in Lyttelton in September 1862. Although some felt that the style of the 'new police' was too abrasive, the tightening of social control was generally welcomed. This was further enhanced by the occasional importation of further Victorian policemen.

The discovery of gold on Canterbury's west coast in 1864 vindicated the decision to introduce a paramilitary style of policing, as the social turbulence of the goldfields required overtly coercive, systematised methods of control. Shearman entrusted the implementation of the Canterbury policing regime on the West Coast to Thomas Broham; the number of policemen there eventually matched that of East Canterbury.

The effective goldfields policing operation conducted under Shearman's aegis confirmed his reputation, although many problems occurred. Shearman resented the placing of the West Coast police under the control of a goldfields agent; this violated the Victorian principle of an unbroken chain of command, and led to inefficiencies. Twice in 1865, moreover, the police image suffered from government instructions to organise constabulary escorts of gold across the Alps to Christchurch. Both attempts failed because those with gold to sell preferred to stay with the sea route to Nelson. When the second escort, an imposing cortège modelled on those of Victoria, returned devoid of any gold, Shearman was subjected to great public ridicule.

In May 1867, by which time Shearman's force had peaked at well over 100 police, falling government revenue led to orders to Shearman to impose drastic spending cuts. His reluctant compliance was followed by the loss of half his remaining force on the first day of 1868, when the county of Westland split from Canterbury province. The expensive Victorian-style police force now seemed unnecessary, and Shearman had to resist plans to make him redundant. One consequence of the prolonged argument was a highly publicised feud with his second in command and erstwhile close friend, Peter Pender, whom he suspected of intriguing to gain the headship of the force. Shearman's problems were compounded in 1872 by a police strike, only the second in the history of the colony to date.

After the abolition of the provinces in 1876 Shearman was disappointed at not being offered the position of commissioner of the resultant New Zealand Constabulary Force. He was, however, given a succession of highly ranked positions, emerging as the police branch's superintendent in charge of the North Island (based in Wellington). He proved to be an enthusiastic proponent of the need to adjust to changing social conditions and to move away from the overtly militaristic mode of policing, of which he had been a renowned practitioner, and his responsibility for the training depot gave him opportunities to influence the direction of policing in the colony.

In 1880, amid one of the first of a series of colony-wide police retrenchments which accompanied the onset of the long depression, Shearman reverted to control of Wellington district alone and later to the rank of inspector. A year after the New Zealand Police Force was established in 1886, he was selected to head 'the most important Police command' in the colony, that of Auckland district. Since he was the senior commissioned officer, this was logical enough. But it had not been automatic, for in recent years he had been quick to criticise his superiors, and he had long been suspected of being too 'soft' on his men, having advocated, for example, reforms such as a police pensions scheme. Moreover he frequently suffered from illness attributed in part to the strenuousness of his early policing years. Such factors, coupled with his open bitterness at having been bypassed for the position of commissioner, eventually led to his being discharged from the force on 30 June 1888.

Shearman had accumulated property, and negotiated a huge compensation payment of two years' salary (£900), but needed to work to support his young family: he had married a solicitor's daughter, Jessie Henrietta Dodd, at Kaiapoi, on 2 October 1871, and by now they had seven children. He took his family back to Wellington, where he became a commission agent. Later Shearman moved to the Bay of Plenty, where he farmed at Te Wairoa and Oropi, and the family became prominent in the community. In Tauranga, on 31 October 1910, the man who had been practically a household name in the colony as Canterbury's commissioner of police died, in relative obscurity, of a cerebral haemorrhage.

Links and sources


    Hill, R. S. Policing the colonial frontier. 2 vols. Wellington, 1986

How to cite this page:

Richard S. Hill. 'Shearman, Robert Clarke', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 July 2024)