WIGRAM, Sir Henry Francis, Kt.B.
Father of aviation in New Zealand.
A new biography of Wigram, Henry Francis appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Wigram was born in London on 18 January 1857, the son of William Knox Wigram, a barrister (and a great grandson of Sir Robert Wigram, First Baronet, who had been an eminent merchant), and of Mary, née Pomeroy. He was educated at Harrow, later joining the staff of the Bank of England. In 1885, at Isleworth, England, he married Agnes Vernon, daughter of Harry Eden Sullivan, and in the same year ill health caused him to emigrate to Christchurch, New Zealand, where he soon directed his energies into business. He founded Wigram Brothers, maltsters and bricklayers, and, in 1887, the Canterbury Seed Co., which he guided throughout his life as chairman of directors. He was on the boards of the New Zealand Refrigerating Co., the Christchurch Brick Co., Ward and Co. and, from 1897, was chairman of directors of the Lyttelton Times, in which he had acquired the controlling interest on the death of the Hon. William Reeves.
In 1900 Wigram entered public life as chairman of the Jubilee Celebrations Committee of Canterbury Province, and in 1901 served as a commissioner for the visit of the Duke of Cornwall and York. During the Boer War he played a leading part in local patriotic movements. He was elected Mayor of Christchurch, unopposed, in 1902, and succeeded in bringing the adjoining boroughs of Linwood, St. Albans, and Sydenham within the city, and in this sense he may be regarded as the first Mayor of greater Christchurch. He introduced the electric tramway system and also proposed the installation of a high-pressure water supply for the city; but this, which required a loan of £100,000, was rejected by the ratepayers. Wigram owned one of the first motorcars seen in Christchurch and became first president of the Canterbury Automobile Association. He was appointed to the Legislative Council on 22 June 1903, serving two subsequent terms until his resignation on 12 October 1920. He was president of the Canterbury Chamber of Commerce (1912–13), and during this period secured a substantial reduction in freight charges on the Lyttelton-Christchurch railway.
Late in 1908 Wigram visited England where the exploits of such pioneer aviators as the Wright Brothers, Farman, Bleriot, and Curtis had captured the public imagination; and, although he had never seen an aeroplane in flight, he was impressed by the possibilities of aviation. In these years of intense international rivalry, Wigram was among the few who realised the potential value of aircraft for military and transport purposes. After giving unqualified approval to Sir J. G. Ward's “Dreadnought” offer, Wigram suggested (in the Address in Reply debate in 1909) that, as New Zealand had always prided itself upon being in the forefront of progress, it might perhaps be sound policy to encourage aviation. Members were not impressed, so he attempted to raise popular enthusiasm through the newspapers. He wrote a letter to the Christchurch Press in which, after outlining the advances made in aeronautics, he mentioned the significant point that the cost of airships and aeroplanes was considerably below that of conventional armaments or ships. Although editorial comment admitted that there was much in Wigram's arguments, it was felt that, so far as New Zealand was concerned, the country's isolation would provide an adequate defence. Discouraged by these opinions, Wigram made no effort to popularise aviation during the next four years.
He revisited England in 1913, and friends took him to Brooklands where, on 13 October 1913, he witnessed for the first time an aeroplane in flight. This experience so confirmed his earlier views that on his return to New Zealand he maintained contact with aviation developments in England, his enthusiasm being increased by the almost daily accounts of the exploits of wartime aviators. Walsh Brothers' (q.v.) “New Zealand Flying School”, founded at Kohimarama in 1915, gave him a lead he was quick to follow. Convinced that the Government should institute a programme for training much needed war pilots, he campaigned in the Legislative Council (18 May 1916), and in the press for the establishment of a military flying school. Public interest was aroused, but the Government refused to implement his scheme. His newspaper articles, however, attracted the attention of Corporal Jarman, a Christchurch man, then on leave from Point Cook flying school in Victoria, who proved to him that there were no technological reasons why such a scheme should not be practical if sponsored privately. Wigram thereupon formed a company among his Christchurch business friends to establish a flying school for the triple purposes of training pilots for war, promoting aviation in local defence, and pioneering commercial aviation in the future. “Canterbury (N.Z.) Aviation Ltd.”, a non-profit-making concern, was registered on 20 September 1916; but even before this, Wigram had arranged at his own expense the purchase and dispatch to New Zealand of two single-seater Caudron biplanes, and a third, fitted with dual controls. In October 1916 he arranged to buy land for an aerodrome, the first flight from “Sockburn” taking place on 7 May 1917. Courses at the flying school commenced in mid-June of the same year. By 1 February 1919, 182 pilots had been trained.
Ministers were most impressed with the progress shown, and the company looked forward to the Government taking over the school. As a preliminary for State intervention, Wigram supported the Aviation Act 1918, which he regarded as “a first instalment”, and urged that an Air portfolio be created in Cabinet. With the end of the war the termination of the company's contract to train pilots brought financial difficulties, and Wigram lobbied strongly in favour of aviation's defence potentialities, suggesting that the Government should either give the school subsidies, or nationalise it. As Ministers seemed unwilling to take the initiative, on 9 March 1923, he offered to subscribe £10,000 towards the cost, if the Government would assume all the company's liabilities, and guarantee to continue “Sockburn” for the purpose for which it had been founded. Cabinet agreed, and on 22 June 1923 Sockburn aerodrome, renamed “Wigram” in honour of the “father of New Zealand Aviation”, was handed over. When the final settlement became public, it was realised that Wigram's personal loss – one not shared by other subscribers to the company – amounted to £29,000. He was knighted in 1926, and died at his home, 1 Park Terrace, Christchurch, on 6 May 1934.
Sir Henry Wigram's success in encouraging aviation in New Zealand lay in his early appreciation of the limitless possibilities the new science possessed for transport and defence, and he was prepared to devote his energy and extensive wealth to this end. Nor was his enthusiasm confined to aviation, for he lent his aid to many causes, not the least being lifesaving, to which sport he presented the “Wigram Shield” for annual competition between New Zealand teams. His own life was governed by a conviction that every citizen was in duty bound to give as large a portion of his time as possible to the service of his country – a maxim he practised to the full.
by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.
- Sir Henry Wigram, Noble, L. M. (1952)
- Christchurch Times, 7 May 1934 (Obit).