We all know the adrenaline rush when we see something that grasps our imagination in such a way, that it makes us feel like we could reach up and take the very stars out of the sky. This is what happened to Henry Francis Wigram when he saw his first plane in 1908 and he hadn’t even seen it fly yet!
Henry was born in London in 1857 to a very noble family, his mother being the daughter of the 5th Viscount of Harberton. After getting the best education in the country, Henry got a job working for the Bank of England and then he moved on to a shipping company. In 1885, he married Agnes Vernon Sullivan and due to his poor health, the newlyweds emigrated to the warmer climate of Christchurch. As Henry went into business with his brother William Arthur Wigram, it may have been possible that William had joined Henry and Anges on their journey here.
And so begins Henry’s career as one of Christchurch’s greatest business men of that era. With William, Henry first opens the Wigram Brothers Malt works and Brickworks in Heathcote Valley. You may remember the malt works buildings being demolished in 2012 due to quake damage. Soon after, the brothers took over two other brick works, a pipe works, nail factory and they started a new business named the Christchurch Seed Company. Henry was also on the boards of the New Zealand Refrigeration Company, the Christchurch Brick Company, Ward and Co, was Chairman Director of The Lyttelton Times and the president of the Canterbury Chamber of Commerce.
As the new century began to dawn on Christchurch, Henry was asked to be chair of the Canterbury’s Jubilee Celebrations Committee. It was here that he fell in love with the history of the 50 year old settlement of Christchurch. He even took the time to chat with those early settlers that were still alive. He took great joy in their stories and tales (I know the feeling) and wrote them down in a book that was published early in the 1900’s. Here began his 30 year commitment to the public works of his beloved city.
In 1902 he became Mayor and his greatest achievements during his term were the introduction of electric trams. He also campaigned to have 11 boroughs brought into the greater Christchurch scheme and successfully moved Linwood, St Albans and Sydenham into the folds of the C.C.C. Historians refer to him as the First Mayor of Greater Christchurch! In 1903, he was part of the formation of the Christchurch Tramway Board and he also became a member of the Legislative Council. He then retired from all his business interests. Christchurch, it seemed, was all he cared about.
It was a return trip to England in 1908 that changed his life forever. He saw his first plane. Upon his return to Christchurch, he approached the government about the great need to introduce aviation to New Zealand – for air defense in case of war and also for commercial use. Believing that New Zealand was too remote from the world for planes to be of any use, Henry was met with a wave of non-interest.
Undeterred, Henry purchased land in Sockburn and opened his own flying school. It was known as The Canterbury Aviation Company and it was New Zealand’s second of its kind. Three Caudron Biplanes were purchased from England and by 1919, the company owned 10 planes and 182 pilots had been trained. It was then that Henry offered his school to the government. Unbelievably it would take another six years and £10,000 from Henry to get the government to take over. The Sockburn Airport was renamed Wigram Air Base to honour its founder. The first flight of a plane in Christchurch took place on the 7th May 1916.
Henry was knighted in 1926 and died in retirement in his Park Terrace home in 1934. He is buried the cemetery of St Peter’s Anglican Church, at Church Corner, Upper Riccarton. He is remembered as the Father of Aviation in New Zealand.
Wigram Air Base was closed as an Air Force training ground in 1995 and was then closed for good in 2009. The now housing establishment that has taken over the waste land of the old airport is named Wigram Skies so that we have no excuse to forget the history that took place in our skies almost 100 years ago.