As the children of Waitohi (near Temuka) walked home from school, they had gotten quite used to the rumbles and bangs that would be heard before Richard Pearse would come into view, appearing for just a few moments before disappearing behind the roadside hedge on his flying machine.
‘He is so odd,” one child could have said to the other but what is for sure, these children were witnessing history-making, New Zealand style!
Richard William Pearse was born to Digory and Sarah Pearse on the family farm – Trewarlet – in Temuka. From an early age, Richard loved books and enjoyed school. He took little interest in the farm around him, only taking the time to treasure hunt through the old farm buildings for any objects of interest. He took a great passion to inventing things; his first invention being a ‘needle threader’ for his mother.
As Richard’s school life came to a close, he had decided to pursue engineering and wished to attend the Canterbury College, now known as Canterbury University. He was crushed when his parents didn’t have the means to fund this dream. The eldest son had decided to pursue medicine and the Pearse’s had poured all the family money on him. The rest of the boys would just have to take up a life of farming.
No matter how hard Richard tried, he found himself wandering from his farm duties; Some talents, such as Cello and tennis he was actually very fond of but lacked focus, choosing instead to spend time on his engineering projects. He had no problem tinkering away on his inventions, lost in his thoughts and books.
Richard eventually moved onto his own farm but leased it out while still living on site. If he did venture out into the farm to check on his sheep, he always carried a book with him and would easily lapse into its pages right there, standing in the middle of a paddock.
It was here in 1901 that he made his first attempt to fly. He had built and patented a bicycle with crank gears. This attempt was nothing more than just ‘hopping along’, it was later reported.
In 1902, Richard added a home-made, two cylinder oil engine to his flying machine. He had made the engine out of cast-iron drainpipes he had found at the local dump. It had 15 horsepower. Bamboo and linen made up the wings. Richard called this his ‘Monoplane’.
Next came the year that is still being argued about in the world of aviation. 1903 was the year that Richard attempted the most flights.
On the 31st March, Richard managed to get his contraption to fly a several hundred metres before crashing into a hedge. Although very uncontrolled, it was the first time a ‘heavier than air’ machine had taken flight.
Nine months later, with cameras and reporters, the American brothers by the name of Wright entered into the history books by doing the very same thing – their flight – much more controlled for sure.
The challenge against the Wrights was actually raised firstly by Warne Pearse, one of Richard’s brothers who had witnessed this historic flight. Richard never made any claims to fame himself, actually adding to the confusion by stating that what he considered his first flight happened in 1904.
As the only real witnesses to Richard and the madness that consumed him were school children and sheep, no one really knows.
This argument still rages on and maybe it will never be concluded.
New Zealand, like many other countries, found itself in the clutches of War World I and Richard was drafted. He was back home just after a year as he was deemed too unwell to fight.
Just the previous year, he had recovered from Tyhoid – oddly, the same disease that killed one of the Wright brothers.
The man that came home from war wasn’t the same that had left and although he tried, he would not find the life he had fought so hard to keep.
In 1911, Richard moved down to Otago. He made no more attempts to fly and took up golf. He never stopped inventing though and moved onto other projects.
By the time he moved to Christchurch in the 1920’s, he was very much withdrawn and a recluse. Neighbours managed to get him to accept the odd cup of tea, finding their cups returned in random places in their gardens. He lived in Wainoni, built 3 houses and lived off the rentals. He used recycled wood and other materials that he transported by bicycle. He built without plans – not even using a spirit-level. One tenant said that Richard’s rentals were ‘mostly square’.
In 1927, after months of living on just bread and cheese, Richard was hospitalized for malnourishment and fatigue. He was losing his ability to look after himself.
Heading into the 1930’s and the 1940’s, Richard seemed to be up to his old tricks by building a tilt-rotor flying machine. Witnesses said that it looked like a windmill crossed with a rubbish cart. Richard, wanting to use this contraption on the roads, made the wings able to be folded away and it was kept hidden away in his garage.
Sadly by the 1950’s, Richard was committed to Sunnyside Hospital. Completely paranoid and confused, he would mutter away about attempts being made on his life, people trying to steal his inventions and that the Wrights had used his ideas illegally. He was diagnosed with Arteriosclerotic Psychosis. He settled well into his life at the hospital, happily taking part in all aspects of his therapy.
He died at Sunnyside in 1953. He had never married and listed no next of kin – even though he had 4 brothers and 4 sisters. His sisters found out about his death from the papers. His properties were taken over by The Public Trust and it was them who came across Richard’s last flying machine tucked away in the garage. Self taught inventor, trail-blazing aviator and eccentric visionary – imaginations haven’t stopped thinking about him since!
*image courtesy of the http://christchurchcitylibraries.com/*