Charismatic, athletic and intelligent, Jonathan Roberts came from a respectable family. A native of Cornwall, he immigrated to New Zealand with his family as a small child in 1862. After leaving school, he worked as a BNZ clerk in Timaru, Christchurch, Akaroa and Wellington, where he later became a commission agent.
While in Wellington, his relationship with his former employer unravelled. In 1885 he lost a case for damages against the BNZ after they dishonoured two of his cheques due to insufficient funds, forcing him to sell investment properties.
Roberts returned to Christchurch but struggled to find work, spent all he had, and was forced to pawn his sports trophies to pay debts. This cycle of debt continued until, in desperation, he and some companions hatched an audacious plan to cash forged cheques. However, when one of the boys he used to present the cheques identified Roberts to the Police, he was arrested.
After pleading guilty at trial, Roberts was sentenced to 12 months of hard labour in Lyttelton Gaol. Roberts fell foul of the Law again after his release in 1887. In Timaru, he stole a horse, was arrested and received a sentence of five years, believed by Roberts and many of his supporters as excessive. Before he could be transported to gaol, Roberts bolted and sprinted away. Mounted police scored South Canterbury for weeks, but he remained at large for over a month until, finally, he was apprehended in Leeston where he had been working for a local farmer. His escape earned him another 12 months of hard labour, but Roberts wasn’t having that. While working on the prison gang at Ripapa Island, he escaped with the help of other prisoners and swam 50 yards to the mainland where he received sanctuary from Peninsula locals who remembered him from his time as a clerk in Akaroa.
A reward of £50 was offered for Robert’s capture, but despite the strenuous efforts of the authorities, he was never apprehended. With the help of locals, including brothers Walter and Jack Parkinson of who took him food, he evaded capture for two years, living in dense Kaituna bush in two supplejack huts. Roberts then slipped across the hills and onboard a ship at Lyttelton, making his way to America and a new life.
Images: Photo of Jonathan Roberts from NZ Police Record, taken 30 July 1887 at Lyttelton Gaol.
Photo of ‘Jack’s Hut’ on Tui Glen, Kaituna, one of the supplejack huts Roberts hid in while on the run from the authorities. Source: Parkinson Collection, Okains Bay Museum.