History of the Dalls: William Dall 1857 – 1944


William Dall was born in Dunedin in 1857. He married Elizabeth Somerville in 1890.


William Dall’s profession was shown as Commission Agent on his marriage certificate – but his obituary describes him as having been engaged in a flourmilling and grain business. He speculated in shares in flourmilling (his son William Gordon referred to some “shady deals”, but this may have been sour grapes) and retired early. His income was extended considerably by the inheritance of his wife from her father, John Somerville, which gave them a considerable house to live in at 44 York Place, Dunedin and three others, which were rented out.


It is difficult to discover what William was really like as a person. He was six feet tall, of spare build and apparently his main interest in life was lawn bowls. There is a family story that perhaps is telling about his character. In later life arthritis started to cripple William’s hands and he could not release the bowl properly because of a permantly bent little finger. William refused to put up with this, and had the offending finger amputated.


A press cutting (see below) says William invented a bias measuring device for bowls (which were then made of wood), as well as an automatic ballot box for voting; he was also reputed to have invented a type of picket fence. He was an exceedingly punctilious person, excessively tidy and very painstaking with anything he made. Both his son William Gordon and William’s wife Flora said he was a stern, dour, sarcastic, selfish and generally unlovable person. However, his few surviving letters show that he may have been capable of affection.


His one photograph as a young person suggests he may also have lacked a sense of humour, but this may be unfair, given the requirements of photography in those days.


He certainly appears to have been a stern, hard father, whose sons had no affection for him. The boys were treated strictly and made to do numerous garden chores, keeping the ivy clipped, the yard continually swept clear of leaves, etc. and had to clean up and repair the rented houses.  The three boys were always dressed in expensive clothes made at a tailors, but canny old William always insisted on having them made very full with enormous turn-ups all round to allow for growth. They were usually sailor suits (“those bloody sailor suits!”), and the three boys suffered permanent trauma from always being dressed differently from the other boys (see photographs).



Elizabeth Somerville (1865 – 1943), wife of William Dall


Elizabeth Dall (nee Somerville) was a small woman with a strong will, which would have helped her cope with her husband. We get a sense of a very human woman with cultured interests and a deeply feeling nature. A strong bond existed between her and her father, John Somerville. She was interested in the theatre and encouraged her youngest son Douglas to enter Repertory Theatre. As was expected in those times she filled the demanding role of a good wife, cooking a hot midday meal every day as well as looking after the large house, though with some household help. We can only speculate how she put up with William in his idleness – perhaps he did not get his way as much as it may have appeared.



John Somerville (1834 – 1905) and Margaret Ellis (1835 – 1909), parents of Elizabeth


Nothing is now known of Margaret, except that she was a very small woman (about 5 ft). John was an educated man, well over 6 feet tall, and was appointed Architect and Inspector of School Buildings for the Education Board in 1877. Formerly he had some kind of govenment appointment. He looks rather sad in photographs in later life, but there is no indication if this was due to some external cause. As mentioned above he was very close to his daughter Elizabeth.

William Dall - invention of bowl-tester machine

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William Dall - obituary