Zeppelin

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.

Advertisements

Souvenirs of War

November 2018 marked 100 years since the end of World War I. We spent the previous four years remembering the course of that war, marking the many battles that were fought and honouring those who were lost. Then we were able to remember the end of the war on Armistice Day, and the enduring hope that sprang up with the silencing of the guns at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month.

Getting back to regular life after spending so much time overseas in drastically different conditions was not an easy transition to make. What we now refer to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and treat with therapy and medication, was then medically termed “shell shock”, a recognised disease of sustained or intense stress, which was treated in ways that ranged from ground-breaking psychiatric care, to quackery, to absolute neglect. Within the military, especially from 1917 onward when so many servicemen were presenting with stress-related behaviours, shell shock was treated as a symptom of personal cowardice. The military response to traumatized men was shame, pain, torture, and sometimes execution.

Despite the horrors on and off the battlefields, by the end of 1918, optimism abounded and people were determined to commemorate the war, hoping that such a scale of destruction would never be witnessed again. A myriad of Armistice mementos became available, including postcards, handkerchiefs, and memorial crockery. Many soldiers scavenged their own souvenirs and returned home with the enemy weapons, flags and pieces of shrapnel.

Others, however, had more artistic leanings and created their own unique pieces to remember what they had seen and been a part of. The Whanganui Regional Museum holds a number of these souvenirs of war that were incorporated into everyday life to keep the memory of war alive, although the names of the soldiers who made them are unknown.

1. hand grenade ink well

Souvenir ink stand from World War I, incorporating components from England and France. WRM ref: 1967.166.1

One such piece is an ink well made from remnants of battles, with the pieces collected in France and England. The base is made from teak wood that came from a torpedoed ship in Southampton, and four bullets that came from France. The hand grenade in the centre also came from France and was carefully hollowed out and the top removed to create a reservoir for ink. The aluminium band around the base was sourced from the first Zeppelin that was brought down in Essex, a feat managed by pilot V Robinson of the Air Squadron near the New Zealand Convalescent Depot at Hornchurch, in Sussex, UK.

A matching pair of decorative ashtrays were made from the cases of German shells.  The ends of the shells were cut down to resemble military service caps, and each was decorated with a regimental badge. One, made in May 1915, bears the regimental shield of the Essex Regiment. The other made, made in 1917, bears the regimental shield of The Buffs, the Royal East Kent Regiment.

ashtrays

Two ashtrays made from German shells and decorated with British regimental badges – The Buffs and Essex on the right.  WRM Ref: 1969.106.6-7

These unique souvenirs were kept by the soldiers and their families until they were donated to the Museum in the 1960s, and now we use them to help tell the stories of World War I and keep the memory alive. Lest We Forget.

Sandi Black is the archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.