Over the last 100 years the highwayman Robert Herman Wallath has become part of the folklore of New Plymouth and holds a unique place in the history of north Taranaki. He was born at sea, probably on 18 July 1874, on the Herschel off the Cape of Good Hope, the son of Hermann Christoph Wallath and his wife, Catherine Mathilde Giese. His parents were German, and emigrated to Australia from England, then to New Plymouth, New Zealand. The Wallaths became highly respected farming pioneers in upper Westown, where Hermann also undertook building and contracting work. Wallath Road is named after the family.
Robert Wallath was an intelligent, well-spoken, powerfully built lad. He was sub-editor of a journal published by the Westown Mutual Improvement Society, and was also an experienced carpenter and a member of the Taranaki Rifle Volunteers. It was Robert's fascination for romantic tales of highwaymen which eventually attracted him to crime. Works on Dick Turpin and Australian bushrangers were later discovered in his room.
While riding home on the evening of 18 April 1892, Henry Jordan, a settler, was accosted by a masked, armed horseman who roughly demanded money. Although uneasy, Jordan decided to treat the outlaw, attired in a mounted infantry uniform, as a joke. However, as the list of offences grew and the identity of the culprit, suspected to be the same highwayman, remained a mystery, the townsfolk became more and more terrified and the children were reduced to near-panic. House robberies were attempted, hotels and the Omata tollgate were held up, and business establishments were burgled. The crimes continued for 15 months, until finally, on 20 July 1893, the highwayman attempted to hold up the Criterion Hotel for the second time. A scuffle ensued during which the offender's pistol was accidentally fired, wounding Harold Thomson, a law clerk and son of the local police inspector, but patrons captured the masked man and removed him to the gaol.
An astounded New Plymouth discovered that their highwayman was none other than 'young Wallath'. Excitement spread on 8 August when Wallath escaped, but he was recaptured and placed in leg-irons. At the Supreme Court sitting on 5 October, Wallath was found guilty and sentenced to eight years' penal servitude in Mount Eden prison, Auckland.
Mainly because of sympathetic local support, possibly tinged with admiration, Wallath did not serve his full term. After 4½ years he returned to New Plymouth, and on 25 June 1901 at St Mary's Church he married Ada Clara West. They had a family of two sons and two daughters, one of whom was adopted.
Wallath continued in his former occupations – farming and carpentry. He became well known as an honest, hard-working tradesman and for his philanthropic deeds and exemplary lifestyle. After he retired he drove about the district delivering religious literature, probably in connection with the Salvation Army and Baptist church. He also wrote a book entitled A highwayman with a mission (1959) under the pseudonym 'Georgie', in which he examined the struggle between good and evil that had tormented his teenage soul.
Robert Wallath died at New Plymouth on 24 July 1960, aged 86, and his wife Ada died two years later, on 23 December 1962. They were buried in a double plot in the Hurdon cemetery on Tukapa Street, New Plymouth.