PHO2002_1009.jpg "The Highwayman" Robert Wallath (1893). William Andrews Collis. Collection of Puke Ariki (PHO2002-1009).

Robert Wallath, born in 1874 at sea off the Cape of Good Hope to German emigrants Hermann and Catherine Wallath, was one of New Plymouth's most famous villains. From a respectable farming family, he went off the rails in his late teens and lived a double life of criminal and honest citizen. 

His escapades were fueled by the stories of English renegade Dick Turpin. He donned a mask, wore military uniform and carried a long sword at his side which completed his disguise.  He was dubbed "The Highwayman" and his exploits continued for 15 months, during which time he committed numerous burglaries and robberies, all the while his identity remaining a mystery. It is said he returned to establishments he had robbed and mixed with the patrons afterwards. Women were said to have "suffered the vapours" at the mere thought of him roaming the streets, although ironically he is reported to have escorted fearful ladies through town, protecting them from the villain at large. His criminal exploits came to national attention and there was increasing pressure on officials to find the perpetrator.

Finally he was captured in a bungled robbery of the Criterion Hotel in 1893. New Plymouth folk were shocked to see that the culprit was one known to them all. He was arrested but escaped from the gaol before his trial before being captured. He was tried and spent four and a half years in jail, less that his original sentence of eight years, as he had won the support and sympathy of the public. It was concluded that his offending was due to "brain fever", "epileptic fits" and a "desire for notoriety". After his release, he returned to respectable society, leaving all traces of his other life behind him.


Related Information


Puke Ariki library catalogue record for A Highwayman With A Mission by Robert Wallath (1959)



Dictionary of New Zealand Biography entry for Robert Herman Wallath


Highwayman caught at last (Taranaki Herald 22 July 1893)


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