The Walsh Brothers: Pioneers of Flight

Leo & Vivian Walsh were the first to achieve sustained, controlled flight in New Zealand. They went on to establish New Zealand's first flying school to train pilots for WWI.

[Portrait of Leo Walsh] ([1918]) by Unknown photographerMOTAT

Austin Leonard (Leo, b. 1881) and Vivian Claude (b. 1887) Walsh were brothers from a British emigrant family who settled in Auckland in 1884. Before aviation, their interest in motorised transport was firmly underway - Leo imported the engine for Auckland’s first motorised fire vehicle in 1906 and, early in their careers, they jointly sold and serviced Kelvin marine engines. 

[Portrait of Vivian Walsh] ([1918]) by Unknown photographerMOTAT

Leo and Vivian's interest in aviation began after learning of the success of the Wright brothers achieving controlled flight. 

[Walsh Brothers biplane "Manurewa" in flight after being modified by Sandford and Miller] ([1913]) by Unknown photographerMOTAT

New Zealand's first sustained flight

[Walsh Brothers and Auckland Aeroplane Syndicate in front of Manurewa No. 1 plane] (1911) by Arthur Ninnis BreckonMOTAT

In 1910 the Walsh brothers imported a Howard Wright biplane into New Zealand choosing to import a kitset rather than design their own. Too costly to finance this alone, they formed ‘The Auckland Aeroplane Syndicate’ with Neville and Bert Lester and Alfred Powley.  

[Manurewa No. 1 aeroplane] (1911) by Arthur Ninnis BreckonMOTAT

Construction of the Howard Wright biplane commenced in August 1910 and the aircraft was named Manurewa (meaning drifting kite in Te Reo Māori). The plan was to return the investment of the Syndicate by ticketing public flight displays and exhibitions.

Flight in the early half of the 20th Century captured the imagination of the public - one only has to think of the images of crowds that turned up to watch Jean Batten land in Mangere in 1936 after her record England to New Zealand flight.

[Auckland Aeroplane Syndicate's crashed Manurewa aeroplane] (1911) by Unknown photographerMOTAT

An unfortunate crash meant the aircraft had to be rebuilt from local materials. It was renamed Manurewa no. 1. New research suggests the aircraft rebuild may have impacted its ability to fly.

The public displays that the financiers had envisioned could not go ahead. The plane was eventually sold to and modified by Esk Sanford and William Miller who reduced the weight.

[Walsh Brothers Manurewa No. 1 plane] (1911) by Unknown photographerMOTAT

A public display at the Avondale Racecourse occurred in this aircraft on 13th April, 1913 before a crowd of hundreds.

[New Zealand Flying School hangars and camp taken from the air looking North] (1916) by Unknown photographerMOTAT

New Zealand Flying School (Dexter and Walsh Bros.) Ltd

[Vivian Walsh sitting at the controls of the Auckland Aeroplane Syndicate's "Manurewa no. 1"] (April 1911) by Arthur Ninnis BreckonMOTAT

It took around 7 months to build and rebuild Manurewa for flight testing at Glenora Park, a private racecourse near Takanini. On 5th February 1911, Vivian Walsh made a New Zealand first - the first powered, sustained flight, but no exact record of this flight was recorded.

[Walsh Brothers biplane "Manurewa" in flight after being modified by Sandford and Miller] ([1913]) by Unknown photographerMOTAT

It was a few days later, on 9th February, that a demonstration flight was organised for the press and picked up by national newspapers. These flights were a daring feat - a lack of material instructing on flight meant Vivian Walsh practically had to teach himself to fly.

[New Zealand Flying School flying boats outside their hangars at Mission Bay] (1917-1924) by Unknown photographerMOTAT

In 1915 the Walsh brothers and Dexter opened the New Zealand Flying School at Ōrākei Basin (later shifted to Mission Bay).

[New Zealand Flying School unidentified group of pilots] (1910s) by Prentice Arthur KusabsMOTAT

The newly established flying school was a business venture and opportunity to contribute to the war effort by training pilots for the Royal Flying Corps (now Royal Air Force), which grew to over 100,000 personnel by the end of WWII.

[Portrait of Walsh Brothers Flying School graduate Henry (Harry) Melhuish Carter in NZFS uniform] (1915-1918) by Unknown photographerMOTAT

The school trained 110 pilots for the Imperial Government. Each student entered into a contract with the school at a cost of £125.

[New Zealand Flying School contract] (1917-05-03) by New Zealand Flying School (Walsh Bros. & Dexter) Limited, Leo Walsh, Richard RussellMOTAT

Here is an example of a contract between NZ Flying School and graduate pilot Richard Russell.

[George Bolt and Harry Carter assisting an unidentified passenger ashore] (1916-1924) by Unknown photographerMOTAT

Flight Instructors

[New Zealand Flying School instructor George Bolt on 'A' bus with 100 hp Scott engine in background] (1910s) by Prentice Arthur KusabsMOTAT

In 1916 the school was joined by aviator George Bruce Bolt who joined for instruction and engineering work. 

Aviator's certificate. [for George Bolt] (1917-05-24) by Federation Aeronautique Internationale, Royal Aero Club of the United Kingdom, George BoltMOTAT

This license may well be his first official pilot's license, being awarded on 24th May 1917.

[Robert "Bob" Going and his son in a New Zealand Flying School machine] ([1918]) by Unknown photographerMOTAT

Robert "Bob" Going was another of the School's instructors, taking lessons on one of the Walsh-designed flying boats. Here he is with his youngest passenger - his son!

[Walsh Curtiss Flying boat taken from below] (1916-1918) by Unknown photographerMOTAT

Flying Boats - The first seaplane to fly in New Zealand

[The Walsh brothers' first seaplane flying past Bean Rock lighthouse] (June 1915) by Cyril Forster BellMOTAT

The brothers' next aviation adventure was a flying boat modelled off the Curtiss flying boats being tested in Honolulu. Construction of this seaplane was a joint venture, supported with funding by American engineer Ruben Dexter. It was first airborne on 1st January 1915.

Two men pushing a Curtiss seaplane out into the water at Kohimarama ([14 September 1916]) by Unknown photographerMOTAT

In 1916 the school imported their first Curtiss flying boat to fly alongside their own design, the “A” boat (nicknamed "The Roberts") which replaced the earlier 1915 model.

[Showing an engine and propeller on a New Zealand Flying School Curtiss flying boat] (1917) by Unknown photographerMOTAT

[New Zealand Flying School individual swinging a prop on Curtiss 90hp engine] (1918) by Whites Aviation LimitedMOTAT

[New Zealand Flying School Curtiss "C" flying boat in flight] (1916-1920) by Unknown photographerMOTAT

However, with a need for more training aircraft, the Walsh brothers went about making a copy of the imported Curtiss model, which came to be known as flying boat “C.” (C for copy!)     

Aviation / Boxing Day [poster] (1917) by The Daily Telegraph CompanyMOTAT


After the war, exhibition flying increased as there were no longer students to train. Exhibition flying or 'joyriding' was a way for the School to make money.

[A crowd at the Auckland waterfront watching mail being loaded into seaplane] (1919-12-16) by Whites Aviation LimitedMOTAT

New Zealand's first air mail flight

[Boeing No.1 at the Dargaville Wharf on the Northern Wairoa River] (1919-12-16) by Unknown PhotographerMOTAT

There were also other avenues for aviators to explore the profitability of flight. One of these was showing the benefits of mail delivered by flight. 

[Men working on New Zealand Flying School "Boeing 1" floatplane] (1919/1924) by Unknown photographerMOTAT

Bolt made this flight using one of the School's Boeing and Westervelt aircraft. This was one of two purchased by the School, the first Boeing aircraft ever made - wow!

[George Bolt loading the first airmail bag on flight to Dargaville] (1919-12-16) by Unknown photographerMOTAT

As part of his work with the New Zealand Flying School, George Bolt made New Zealand's first air mail delivery between Auckland and Dargaville on 16th December 1919.

[Students from the New Zealand Flying School maintaining the hull on a Curtiss seaplane] (1915-1924) by Unknown photographerMOTAT

The end of an era

Despite trying to show the viability of air travel and mail delivery, lack of Government investment into the New Zealand Flying School saw its closure.

[New Zealand Flying School trainees standing in front of a seaplane] (1915-1924) by Unknown photographerMOTAT

The school was eventually sold to the Government in 1924 and ceased operating as an aviation school. 

[Black and white negative of students of the New Zealand Flying School exercising on a bar] ([1915-1918]) by Unknown photographerMOTAT

It would not be until after World War II, with developments in aviation technology, that the commercial opportunities of flight would really be realised. 

[Showing twenty-six New Zealand Flying School students, staff and dog] ([1917]) by Unknown photographerMOTAT

However, the Walshes, along with Arthur Dexter, are a great example of early aviation in New Zealand and made some historic firsts during the operation of the New Zealand Flying School.

[New Zealand Flying School operators Leo and Vivian Walsh] (1945) by Whites Aviation LimitedMOTAT

The Walshes' dream of local manufacturing of aircraft was not realised in their life. However they are a great example of Kiwi ingenuity, seeing the potential of aviation in NZ.  The Walsh Memorial Library cares for significant documentary heritage highlighting their activities.

Credits: Story

By Chelsea Renshaw, Assistant Librarian, Walsh Memorial Library, MOTAT

Sources consulted:

Adam Claasen. 2017. Fearless: the extraordinary untold story of New Zealand's great war airmen, PUB-2017-64. Walsh Memorial Library, The Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT).

David Mulgan. 1960. The Kiwi's first wings : the story of the Walsh brothers and the New Zealand Flying School 1910-1924, 05-2724. Walsh Memorial Library, The Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT).

Ross Ewing and Richard Williams. 2011. Walsh Brothers : New Zealand aviation pioneers, 11-5275. Walsh Memorial Library, The Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT).

Terry Moyle. 2019. The first: The Walsh brothers and the aeroplane days of Edwardian New Zealand, PUB-2020-16. Walsh Memorial Library, The Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT).

Credits: All media
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