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When the Mystery Airship Came to Town

At the start of the twentieth century, flying was the latest in a number of new technologies to capture public imagination. The American Wright Brothers are recognised as first to invent and fly a heavier-than-air craft in 1903, although Canterbury’s Richard Pearse is said by some to have beaten the Wrights at taking to the air. In Europe, German Count Zeppelin’s airships were flying from 1900.

Between June and August of 1909, a wave of mysterious aircraft sightings were reported in New Zealand. Beginning in Southland and travelling up the country, making stops both urban and rural areas, the craft was described as egg or cigar-shaped, equipped with lights and an undercarriage, and flew completely silently. Reflecting concerns of the time, hundreds of onlookers and the media speculated the machine and its crew may have been local inventors, Martians, or German intelligence-gatherers.

In a July report, children and adults at Kelso School in Otago saw the craft with crew in broad daylight one Friday lunchtime, and it was also seen the next day. Scientific explanations (fire balloons, flocks of birds) failed to quell what was becoming a frenzy. The Reverend P W Fairclough’s letter calling for calm was published nationally. “The airship craze is getting beyond a joke. There is a danger of our level-headed community becoming a laughing-stock not only to New Zealand, but to Australia and even to the greater world beyond… I hope this extraordinary popular delusion will speedily sink”. In Whanganui, the Chronicle took a dismissive tone, noting “there is nothing convincing to report”. But within weeks, the airship arrived in local skies.

On the evening of 3 August, “two wild-eyed youths dashed into the Chronicle office” reporting a “huge airship” passing over Mosston. Another eyewitness on the Town Bridge reported seeing an airship fly down river from Aramoho towards Castlecliff: “It was flying at a height of about two hundred feet and I could distinctly see its two large wings, which made a hissing sound … Sir, seeing is believing”. Two members of the telephone exchange had watched lights travel over Durie Hill the night before, and Feilding residents also saw them.

Letter

Charlie Baker’s letter regarding his sighting of the airship.  Wanganui Chronicle, 13 August 1909, p.7.

 

On Wednesday 11 August at 3.25am, Charlie Baker of Taylorville was “waiting for a lady friend coming from a party” when he saw a well-lit airship travel towards town from Maxwell, stop over Durie Hill and return the same way. Travelling to where he thought the airship stopped, he found no trace of its visit, aside from a milkman who saw it as well, but concluded, “I am quite satisfied now there is something in these strange sights after all”.

Letter 2

Airship Fever took hold of a lot of people, including the young, as outlined in this news snippet.  Wanganui Chronicle, 6 August 1909, p.4.

Suddenly, in mid-August, sightings in New Zealand ceased. From September 1909, the mystery airships moved to Australia, and a large wave of sightings in Britain was reported in 1913 amidst fear and rumours of war with Germany. There were also sightings in Canada and South Africa.

New Zealanders struggled to explain the phenomenon in 1909, and an explanation has never been found. The likeliest is that most people saw nothing at all, and were influenced by current events and the exaggerated reports of others. The timing of the sightings is interesting; they took place only months after a rare meteorite landed off the coast of Castlecliff, and less than a year after the massive impact event in Tunguska, Siberia. In a period when humans were taking to the skies – and the skies were coming to humans – airship visitors from parts unknown were not as far-fetched as we might think!

Airship visit Christmas 1914

An airship of the kind spotted by Whanganui residents delivers Christmas presents to a New Zealand house. Auckland Weekly News, 17 December 1914.

 

Scott Flutey is a Collection Assistant at Whanganui Regional Museum.

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The Architect and the Artisan

With the refurbishment of the Whanganui Regional Museum now approaching half-way, considerable attention has been paid to the design and construction of its buildings. The 1928 building’s stripped classical architecture and pre-Napier construction have caused the bigger challenges to seismic performance, with a lot of steel and timber bracing now installed.

The Māori Court building, designed by Don Wilson, has also received earthquake upgrades, but mainly it is undergoing repair and restoration of many of its original features. Wilson’s Whanganui work, including the Museum, was celebrated in a well-received talk by architectural historian Mark Southcombe at the Davis Theatre on Tuesday 19 September. Investigation of the building’s origins has also revealed fascinating stories about the people who worked on it.

1. Basil Benseman

Basil Benseman

An important collaborator with Don Wilson, and a key contributor to the structure and appearance of the 1968 building, was master brick and block layer Basil Benseman. Bas arrived in Whanganui as a child and after leaving school, worked as a truck driver. He served as an anti-aircraft gunner and truck driver during WWII in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Tunisia and Italy before returning to an apprentice training scheme in Wellington. Before long, he had established B E Benseman Bricklayer, which from 1946 to 1985, built a significant portion of Whanganui. Bas worked on many landmark buildings around the city including the Embassy Cinema, St Marcellin School, Whanganui Intermediate, the Government Life and State Insurance buildings, the War Memorial Hall, Power Board Building, Queens Park steps and the Whanganui Regional Museum, among hundreds of others. He didn’t spend much of that time in the office; he was too busy on site, laying hundreds of thousands of bricks and blocks himself.

Don Wilson’s modernist architecture made frequent, often innovative, use of brick and concrete, and Bas often provided the craft needed to realise his designs. The Museum project used conventional blockwork in many parts of the structure, as well as stone facing around the Davis Theatre, an unusual, vertical application of decorative brick on the exterior walls and a lattice of stacked breeze blocks on the end wall, echoing a similar pattern on the War Memorial Hall across the square. Don Wilson, though, had an even more challenging role in mind for his long-time collaborator.

2. Mural

The Whanganui Regional Museum mural, made of Italian glass tiles.

The south side of the building presented a new face to the city and Wilson wanted to make the most of it. He designed a mural, based on rock drawings, to be rendered in Italian glass tiles. The biggest problem was the lack of anybody in 1968 Whanganui with the technical know-how to realise it. With complete confidence he turned to Bas who, despite his protests that he had never attempted such a thing before, was eventually persuaded to set to work in yet another medium. Over 10 months of painstaking work he invented his own mosaic technique which has weathered 50 years of Whanganui rain and sun and remains a shimmering tribute to a great partnership – the architect and the artisan.

 

Frank Stark is Director at Whanganui Regional Museum.

The Beautiful Whanganui

The Whanganui River has long been a tourist feature for the area.  Have you had the chance to see it yet?  Beautiful, calm and an amazing experience!  There are a few ways to enjoy the journey  – by canoe/waka, jet boat, or taking a steam trip up to Pipiriki – and you can take as long or as short a time as you like.

If you have not had the chance to see this amazing gem, check out this video of a trip made in 2006:

And if this inspires you to want to see it in person, check out the Bridge to Nowhere or Whanganui River Canoes for more information on booking and travel times.

Merry Christmas!

Christmaswith the Sarjeant staff

We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!  From all the staff at the Whanganui Regional Museum and the Sarjeant Art Gallery, we hope you enjoy the festive season and we look forward to a great 2015!

And to help get you in the mood, check out these letters to Santa Claus from 100 year ago.  There might be a few more gadgets on the list these days but a lot of things don’t change.