Page 1: Biography
This biography, written by Ken Scadden, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993, and updated in November, 2007.
William (Bob) Shilling was born in Boughton, near Faversham, Kent, England, on 5 November 1848, the son of Ellen Lamb and her husband, James Shilling, a sawyer. He joined the Royal Navy at the age of 14 and served for two years, but left owing to ill health and joined the merchant navy. In 1868 at Cardiff he signed on to the St Vincent, which was bound for Wellington, New Zealand, carrying coal. Shilling and a friend deserted the ship on arrival – a fortunate move as it was wrecked in Palliser Bay on 14 February 1869 on the outward voyage.
After undertaking several voyages around the coast, Shilling joined the Wellington Pilot Service and spent one year as a crew member on their 30-foot whaleboat. He then worked for Fell Brothers of Blenheim, serving on the XXX, Alert and Falcon, and later skippering three of their vessels. On 13 April 1874, in Wellington, William Shilling married 17-year-old Harriett Casement Mexted, the daughter of George Mexted, a Johnsonville farmer. They were to have three sons and three daughters.
Shilling became a master (home trade) on 17 December 1877 and the following day began duties as coxswain at the Worser Bay pilot station. Work at the station ranged from the tedium of keeping watch and routine maintenance to extreme hardship and moments of danger. Survival in this isolated outpost was based on strict discipline and tight teamwork. They were on call to provide round-the-clock pilotage services for ships entering or leaving the harbour. Often after hours of strain on the oars the crew saw ships turning to run before the weather, leaving them to make a long wet and dangerous row home. Regular tasks included fetching stores from Newtown on horseback, collecting firewood and ferrying people and stores across to Pencarrow Head lighthouse. Shilling's logs, which contain a variety of home health cures for disorders ranging from warts to diphtheria, reinforce the image of self-sufficiency of life on the pilot station.
The Wellington Harbour Board granted Shilling his pilot's certificate on 19 December 1881. In September 1889, after the previous pilot drowned, he took charge at the heads and moved into the pilot's cottage. During his tenure at the station Shilling was personally involved in numerous rescues from shipwreck at the heads, but he never lost a boat. On one occasion he boarded the Margaret Galbraith as the vessel was running towards Barrett's Reef in a strong southerly wind, and narrowly averted disaster by swinging the barque clear of the rocks at the last moment. On another occasion he boarded a barque at the heads but was unable to enter the harbour for 10 days because of strong, shifting winds.
The Shilling family vacated the house at the pilot station in 1894, when the operations of the pilot service moved to Lambton Harbour. Shilling continued to work as a pilot from the inner harbour and in 1913 was promoted to deputy harbourmaster. At the time of his retirement on 31 December 1914, he was described as 'one of the best known and most popular figures on the waterfront'. He returned briefly to duty in 1915 and again in 1919, when he was re-engaged as a temporary pilot, and was finally discharged from the Wellington Harbour Board payroll in 1920.
William Shilling was a member of the Ancient Order of Foresters and the Masonic Lodge Waterloo for many years. He was described as being full of life until the day he died in Wellington on 16 August 1939 at the age of 90. His wife, Harriett Shilling, predeceased him by five years.