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Story: Wigley, Rodolph Lysaght

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Wigley, Rodolph Lysaght


Motor transport, tourism and commercial aviation entrepreneur

This biography, written by Gordon Ogilvie, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Rodolph Lysaght Wigley was born on 21 October 1881 at Opuha Gorge station, South Canterbury, New Zealand. He was the second of four children born to Thomas Henry Wigley, a sheepfarmer and MLC, and his second wife, Annie Caroline Lysaght. Educated at Christ's College from 1896 to 1898, Rodolph (whose close friends called him Wigs) played rugby in the First XV. Later he studied electrical engineering through a Philadelphia correspondence school. At Opuha Gorge station he developed a well-equipped workshop, where he built his own steam engine. He also dabbled with electricity, mischievously wiring up doorknobs to give visitors a welcoming jolt.

Rodolph Wigley sold out his interest in the family property and teamed up with Samuel Thornley of Waitohi in 1904 to form a transport company specialising in traction-engine haulage and contract harvesting. After investing in Timaru's first Stanley steam car, Wigley bought a two-seater De Dion Bouton. In early February 1906, with a companion driving another De Dion, he made the first automobile journey to the Hermitage at Mt Cook. This trip convinced him of the tourist potential of the Mt Cook scenery and that year he formed a small company to buy Darracq service cars. Thus the Mount Cook Motor Service was established. Wigley's was thought to be the first bus business in Australasia and the first to deliver mail.

When the firm went bankrupt in November 1907 due to high running costs, Wigley took over the assets and in 1912 recommenced operations as the Mount Cook Motor Company Limited. On 15 June 1910 at Timaru, he married Jessie Christie Grant, daughter of Alexander and Ellen Grant, runholders in the Mackenzie Country. They were to have six children.

From 1908 Wigley had been trying to lease the Hermitage from the government. He believed it to be inefficiently run, wanted it to be open all year and thought that much more could be done to attract tourists. The government let the Mount Cook Motor Company take over the lease in 1922 (which they held until 1944). Wigley immediately began to enlarge the complex, installing electricity and a telegraph link, building tramping huts, and catering for skaters and skiers. He introduced graduated tariffs and set up package tours. Jessie Wigley, an accomplished painter, designed the company's lily motif. Rodolph also employed top-rate mountain guides, with two of whom he made the first winter ascent of Mt Cook on 12 August 1923.

His sons Henry (Harry) and Alexander (Sandy) now became involved in the expansion of Wigley's tourist territory to include the southern lakes and Queenstown. At his urging, much was done to improve roading and bridges on all key tourist routes. A related company built Chateau Tongariro in 1929 and Wigley purchased hotels in Auckland, Rotorua and Queenstown and with Jessie and Sandy took over the ownership of Huxley Gorge station at the head of Lake Ohau. Under the firm's umbrella, New Zealand's first rental car business, Mutual Rental Cars Limited, was also founded.

For many years Wigley had dreamed of using aeroplanes commercially to convey passengers and freight. In 1920 he formed the New Zealand Aero Transport Company, the first of its kind in the country to do just this. His fleet comprised seven war-surplus aircraft, and he flew with Captain J. C. Mercer in 1921 on the first long-distance flight from Invercargill to Auckland. After a series of mishaps, such as damage to landing equipment during forced landings in paddocks, the company went into liquidation in 1923, but was later resuscitated as Queenstown–Mount Cook Airways Limited.

In 1928 his road transport business, by now called the Mount Cook Tourist Company of New Zealand, became a public company. By 1930 Wigley had built it into the largest tourist organisation in New Zealand; in 1976 it became the Mount Cook Group Limited.

Rodolph Wigley was a big man in every way. Over six feet tall, weighing 200 pounds and sporting a large moustache, he towered over his contemporaries. He was a great lover of challenge and adventure, dynamic, resolute, far-sighted, tough, often impulsive, a genial host but impatient of idiots, and with an impish sense of humour. His favourite hobbies reflected his passion for the outdoors: photography, steeplechase riding, flying (he got his own licence when he was 55), deerstalking, climbing and trout fishing.

In 1945 he handed over control of the business to his son Harry, who was to be knighted in 1976 for his contribution to the travel and aviation industry. Commonly regarded as the father of New Zealand tourism, Rodolph Wigley died in Dunedin on 27 April 1946, survived by Jessie, three daughters and three sons.

How to cite this page:

Gordon Ogilvie. 'Wigley, Rodolph Lysaght', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3w13/wigley-rodolph-lysaght (accessed 26 June 2024)