Papers on Canvas

One never knows what will be donated to Ashburton Museum and last year a rather large and old piece of canvas was brought in, which contained a number of seaman’s discharge papers and letters dating from the 1860s that once belonged to Robert William Shearman.

The canvas and papers turned out to be an important artefact that connects this Ashburton identity to the outside world. 

Shearman was born in London in 1844 and at the age of 15 gained employment as a steward on passenger ships. This opened his world up to a time of adventure and travel. His first voyage was to Sydney and his second as to India.

A regular ship he sailed on was the Blue Jacket – a clipper that sounds like a modern day cruise liner. An advertisement from 1861 states ‘her saloons are very exclusive and superbly appointed for a large number of passengers and supplied with a piano, baths, bedding linen and a milch [milking] cow carried for use of saloon passengers.‘

Although, in contrast the 1864 voyage on the same ship was possibly not so superb with illness affecting the passengers and mutiny amongst the crew.

Move the arrow left or right to change hue.

In 1872 Robert was working on the Zealandia. On board were a number of birds imported by Cracroft Wilson for his property in Canterbury. The list of birds that died included sparrows and chaffinches, which shows how at this time people just brought whatever animals they wanted into New Zealand to remind them of home, never imagining the consequences that some creatures might have on native species. 

A hurricane

Birds weren’t the only issue the Zealandia had to contend with.

On the 12th April a hurricane struck the ship. Three people, including the captain and one passenger were washed overboard. The covering lid of the wheel screw got jammed in the screw [propeller] and the helmsman couldn’t steer the ship to safety. A side of the ship was smashed and the ship began to fill with water.

As one passenger later said, ‘we were standing up to our hips in water, the doctors cabin, in which all the ladies had sought refuge, was blocked by the furniture and piano. The ship then fell over on her starboard ends and all thought she must go down.’

Thankfully, one of the sailors cut away the braces of the fore yard arm, allowing the ship to right itself.

A letter of thanks was later given to Robert by some of the passengers, complimenting him on his energy and zeal as he assisted them after they were deprived of all their clothing, bedding and cabin furniture.

Despite this horrific adventure Robert made one last voyage as steward. Then in 1873, he made his last journey, this time as a passenger, with his wife and small son, bound for New Zealand as migrants.

One of Robert’s first jobs was as proprietor of Oram Brothers Somerset Hotel. Robert later purchased the Hotel. He became a well-respected citizen of Ashburton.

He was elected to the Borough Council and was on the committee of a number of organisations such as the Town Hall Committee.

He was also on the Board of Directors for the Gas Coal and Cole Company, which many years later transformed into the Ashburton Electricity Power Board; and he was involved in the establishment of the Fire Brigade, of which he became a life member. 

Melrose Villa

The family purchased Melrose Villa, an impressive residence in Racecourse Road. The property, apart from being a large two storeyed building had a conservatory and the Shearman’s even employed a gardener to manage the grounds.  

Life for the Shearman’s must have looked very well placed for a settled and happy time, but fate had other plans and Robert died in 1885. He was only 41.

In an unfortunate accident, he fell in the well from which he used to draw water to nourish his collection of ferns, and broke his neck. His wife Elizabeth died in 1927.

Although the canvas now donated to Ashburton Museum has been affected by mould, and the writing on the papers has faded, this piece of history adds a significant backstory to one of our community’s earlier businessmen and reminds us of some of the hardships faced by migrants coming to New Zealand by ship in the early days.

By Kathleen Stringer

This article first appeared in the Ashburton Guardian, 27th of August 2019, and was modified for publication to this blog.


1. Melrose Villa, home of the Shearman family. It is on the site of MSA Bowling Club today.

2. The Somerset Hotel with Shearman’s name at the top of the building.

3. The canvas with seaman’s discharge papers and letters dating from the 1860s that once belonged to Robert William Shearman, as recently donated to Ashburton Museum.

4. Farewell letter from passengers and crew on Robert’s last voyage on the Zealandia.

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