Pioneer aviators Leo and Vivian Walsh were mainly responsible for New Zealand’s first successful powered, controlled aeroplane flights in 1911. The brothers designed and built New Zealand’s first successful seaplane and during the First World War operated a private training school for pilots. They pioneered aeroplane manufacturing in New Zealand and were responsible for the first appearance of an aeroplane in most parts of the North Island.
Austin Leonard (Leo) Walsh was born on 5 February 1881 at Bradford in Yorkshire, the son of James Austin (Austin) Walsh, who worked in a family tobacco business, and his wife, Jane Mary Towler. Austin and Jennie’s second child, Veronica, was born in 1883, and the following year the family emigrated to New Zealand and settled in Auckland. There they had two more children, son Vivian Claude Walsh (known as ‘Vee’) on 6 November 1887 and daughter Doreen in 1895. Jane died of cancer in 1904.
Austin was appointed manager of an Auckland tobacco manufacturing enterprise, and eventually operated the well-known firm of Austin Walsh and Co. Ltd on his own account. He was responsible for producing New Zealand’s first machine-manufactured cigarettes, marketed under the ‘Atlas’ brand.
Leo and Vivian were educated at King’s College in Remuera. The Walshes were Roman Catholic, and Leo attended St. Patrick’s College in Wellington for a year. On leaving school Leo pursued several business ventures from his father’s premises, including selling his father’s tobacco, operating an electroplating company, producing bicycle parts and hiring out chauffeured cars. He established the British-American Engineering Company and in 1906 imported the engine for Auckland city’s first motorised fire vehicle, built by Auckland coachbuilders Cousins and Atkin. Leo and Vivian were founding members of the Auckland Power Boat Association and sold and serviced Kelvin marine engines.
The Observer described Leo in 1910 as ‘an enterprising New Zealander, who always likes to be in the van of progress’.1 Leo and Vivian developed an interest in aviation after reading about the Wright brothers’ flights in America in 1903, and together with other members of the Auckland Automobile Association soon began moving towards real flight experiments. In 1910 the brothers George and Harry Stevenson built a glider of their own design; Vivian was to be the pilot, but was too heavy. The glider’s first and only flight from Mount Albert ended when the fragile machine hit a cow and disintegrated.
That same year, the Association’s aviation-inclined members formed the Aero Club of New Zealand Inc, with Leo as president, fellow aviation pioneer Reuben Dexter as vice-president, and Keith Murray, a future First World War squadron leader and celebrated designer, as secretary. By late 1910, club members had four aeroplane projects under way in Auckland, including the Walsh brothers’ venture.
Leo and Vivian had secured the financial assistance of three Auckland businessmen, Alfred Josiah Powley and brothers Alfred and Charles Lester, to form the Auckland Aeroplane Syndicate. The syndicate imported the key components of a British Howard Wright aeroplane, and the Walshes and their friend, Vernon John Tupara (Jack) Roberts (of Waikato Māori descent), manufactured the rest of the parts at Leo’s Quay Street motor garage; all the Walsh aeroplane ventures were dependent on the labour and financial contributions of others. Despite cost overruns, the difficulty of assembling the imported parts and arson at their garage, in January 1911 they were able to send all the aeroplane components south by rail to Takanini for assembly.
The first flights took place in February 1911 at the Papakura Racing Club at Glenora Park, with Vivian as pilot. Glenora Park was a private property owned by racehorse breeder William Walters. The syndicate and friends helped assemble the aeroplane, and the Walsh sisters helped sew the canvas, stiffened with sago, to the wings. The Howard Wright aeroplane was christened Manurewa (flying bird) by Prime Minister Joseph Ward during a visit to the assembly site. Early on Sunday 5 February, after half an hour of taxiing in a paddock in the racecourse’s steeplechase section, Vivian Walsh attempted ‘a short flight’ which was ‘accomplished satisfactorily’. This is recognised as the first controlled powered flight undertaken in New Zealand.2
Following a couple more test flights, a private flight was arranged for a newspaper reporter on 9 February. A short flight was accomplished, concluding when the brakeless Manurewa collided with a fence. Newspapers throughout New Zealand hailed the aviation milestone. A few days later, however, Manurewa was badly damaged after a wheel skid caught in a hole, overturning the machine. The wreckage was left in place overnight, during which a herd of hungry calves feasted on the sago-coated canvas, causing the near-total destruction of the wooden pieces of Manurewa. To avoid embarrassing publicity, the brothers made no comment on the bizarre fate of New Zealand’s first successful aeroplane.
The Walshes and their supporters immediately started building a new aeroplane, also known as Manurewa. It was made with difficulty from locally sourced materials and the surviving engine from the first Manurewa. All the extant photographs of Manurewa aeroplanes in a completed state or flying are of the second Manurewa, labelled Manurewa No. 1 to distinguish it from its predecessor. Although practically identical to the original, this was a modified and strengthened version, and Leo considered it the first successful aeroplane of New Zealand design. Its first public flight took place on 20 March 1911, when it rose to about 18 metres and travelled a distance of between 270 and 365 metres. But the second Manurewa was much heavier than the first and, after poor performance and the late cancellation of two public exhibition flights, the financial members of the syndicate sought a new pilot. There was disagreement about future plans among the members, and Leo and Vivian had also formed their own syndicate to make aeroplanes. After the Auckland Aeroplane Syndicate failed to recruit Joe Hammond as a new pilot, the machine was disassembled and put in storage.
The recorded flights of the Manurewa aeroplanes date from 5 February to 5 April 1911, although at no time did either fly outside the flight paddock. The Walshes’ silence on the fate of the first Manurewa, and their general reluctance to talk about their achievements, had unforeseen consequences. Errors in early newspaper articles were repeated in subsequent histories, with the two aeroplanes conflated into one.
In 1913 the Walsh brothers started building a seaplane at their Remuera property, with practical and financial assistance from Reuben Dexter. They foresaw military applications for aviation in the European war which seemed increasingly likely, and which presented commercial opportunities. The ‘Walsh and Dexter seaplane’ was not the first seaplane constructed in New Zealand, but it was the first to fly successfully. After weeks of practice, the first official flight took place on 1 January 1915 on the Waitematā Harbour. Dexter owned a successful car dealership and financially supported Leo and Vivian to undertake the first real attempt at aeroplane manufacturing in New Zealand. The Walsh brothers and other staff at their school designed four seaplanes, with construction carried out by the school’s professional boat builders.
The First World War broke out in August 1914, and the Walshes approached the government with the proposal that it buy large numbers of Walsh seaplanes for home defence. The government rejected this suggestion, but arranged for the Walshes to train pilots for service in the British Royal Flying Corps (RFC). The British Royal Aero Club agreed to issue an aviator's certificate to Walsh trainees, subject to being advised by cable that the qualifying flight was witnessed by official military observers. The qualified aviator was then eligible to join the RFC in England. The ‘Walsh Brothers and Dexter, New Zealand Flying School’ opened at Mission Bay in late 1915, with Vivian Walsh the first to pass the qualifying test on 13 July 1916. The seaplane built by the Walshes quickly proved unsuitable for training, so a Curtiss seaplane imported from Canada was used to train nearly all the pilots. Keith Caldwell and Geoffrey Callender, who went on to significant careers in aviation, were among the first pilots to train at the school, which eventually trained over 100 pilots.
The Walsh family lived together in a house overlooking the flying school, and all performed pioneering roles in New Zealand aviation. Leo was the school’s administrator and fundraiser, while Vivian ran the school itself and their father Austin served as secretary. Veronica and Doreen Walsh assisted with covering aeroplane wings on all their brothers’ machines and possibly inspired Jean Batten, who followed them through Remuera Ladies’ College.
The school imported new aeroplanes at the conclusion of the war, notably the American Boeing-Westervelt seaplanes, the first aeroplanes made by Boeing, and it also received aeroplanes gifted to the New Zealand government. The Walshes tried to establish a commercial aviation industry alongside its competitors, Henry Wigram’s Canterbury Aviation Company and Rodolph Wigley’s Timaru-based New Zealand Aero Transport Company.
Leo Walsh lobbied the government to fund the construction of seaplanes and worked to interest the Post and Telegraph Department in aeroplanes for mail delivery. Sensing a political opportunity, Postmaster-General Gordon Coates arranged for the first official mail flight to take place on 16 December 1919, the day before the general election. The flight, with Leo as supervisor and George Bolt as pilot, left Auckland and traversed the Kaipara electorate to Dargaville, where Coates, the local MP and Reform Party candidate, received the mail. The historic mailbags were delivered to the post office, which was diagonally opposite the drapery shop of Coates’s Labour Party opponent, Alfred Gregory. Coates was duly re-elected.
The new aeroplanes enabled the Walshes to conduct passenger joyrides throughout the North Island, giving many people in towns and rural areas their first sight of an aeroplane. The school conducted many adventure-filled pioneering commercial flights, including transporting the Catholic bishop and aviation enthusiast, Henry Cleary, to isolated Māori communities in his Auckland diocese. These opportunities also presented real risks. On Armistice Day 1920, an Avro aeroplane crashed at New Plymouth, killing the pilot and two passengers, including the Mayor of New Plymouth. It was New Zealand’s worst air accident to that time.
In 1921 the Fijian government sponsored the Walshes to conduct a series of survey flights, and Leo and a pilot shipped a Supermarine Channel flying boat to Suva to demonstrate the possibilities of airmail in the islands. They flew between the main islands of Viti Levu, Vanua Levu, Taveuni and Ovalau, the first time an aeroplane had appeared in Fijian skies.
The Walshes failed to interest the New Zealand government in airmail services, or in subsidising their training of pilots for defence purposes. The school never earned enough money to operate on a financial basis, and health problems prevented Vivian from being a pilot. The school closed in 1923 and the following year the government acquired its assets. Their competitors had also gone out of business, and by the end of 1924 the pioneering phase of New Zealand’s aviation industry was over.
The brothers abandoned aviation entirely after the school’s closure, and focused on importing and servicing marine engines. They remained in Auckland for the remainder of their lives, living with their two sisters; Doreen Walsh had a career as a composer and pioneer broadcaster. None of the siblings married. Vivian Walsh died in Auckland on 3 July 1950, aged 62, and Leo Walsh on 16 July 1951, aged 70. The Walsh Memorial Library at Auckland’s Museum of Transport and Technology was named in their honour.
This entry replaces an earlier version written by R. L. Williams first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.