Story: Wigram, Henry Francis

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Wigram, Henry Francis

1857–1934

Businessman, politician, aviation promoter

This biography was written by Gordon Ogilvie and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996

Born in London, England, on 18 January 1857, Henry Francis Wigram was the son of a barrister, William Knox Wigram, and his wife, Mary Ann Pomeroy, daughter of the fifth Viscount Harberton. After attending Harrow School, Wigram worked with the Bank of England and a London shipping company. Because of ill health he decided to emigrate to New Zealand. He settled in Christchurch in 1883 and returned to England to marry Agnes Vernon Sullivan, on 31 March 1885 at Isleworth, Middlesex.

The following year Henry and his brother William Arthur purchased George Stead's malthouse and brickworks at Heathcote Valley. Henry went on to found the Canterbury (NZ) Seed Company, then began a nail factory, and took over the South Malvern pipeworks and another brickworks at Woolston. By 1900 he was so well regarded as a businessman that he was invited to join the committee organising the jubilee celebrations for Canterbury Province. His appointment as chairman launched Wigram on a career of public service which was to last three decades. During the South African War (1899–1902) he was a leading supporter of patriotic groups, and in 1901 was a commissioner for the visit of the duke and duchess of Cornwall and York. In 1902 Wigram was nominated for the Christchurch mayoralty and elected unopposed.

Henry Wigram's main accomplishment as mayor from 1902 to 1904 was the reorganisation of the city's chaotic and antiquated transport system. There were three privately owned tramways, using mostly horse-drawn vehicles. The main obstacle to electrifying the trams was that the existing routes ran through districts controlled by 11 different authorities. Wigram advocated the amalgamation of most of these districts with the city. After vigorous canvassing and a public poll, Linwood, St Albans and Sydenham became part of greater Christchurch on 1 April 1903. Wigram was elected to the first Christchurch Tramway Board and became deputy chairman; by 1905 Christchurch had electric trams.

On 22 June 1903 Wigram was called to the Legislative Council and retired from active business. However, he maintained a close connection with the commercial world, serving as president of the Canterbury Chamber of Commerce (1911–13) and on the directorates of various companies including, for 30 years, the Lyttelton Times Company. Through his association with this newspaper he acquired an interest in the history of Canterbury and wrote The story of Christchurch, New Zealand, which was published in 1916.

Wigram had numerous other enthusiasms. He helped establish lifesaving as a sport and presented a trophy for national competition. He was one of the first in Christchurch to own a car and became founding president of the Canterbury Automobile Association. Favoured recreations included painting, shooting, billiards, fishing, deerstalking and tennis. He is said to have built the first squash court in Christchurch.

However, his grand passion was aviation. In late 1908 Wigram visited England at a time when the exploits of early aviators were receiving wide publicity. Impressed by the potential uses of aviation, on his return to New Zealand he suggested that the government should keep up with developments overseas. After a return trip to England in 1913 and an unsuccessful attempt to get government backing for a flying school Wigram decided to emulate Leo and Vivian Walsh, who had formed the New Zealand Flying School at Auckland in 1915.

With Christchurch business and professional friends he formed on 20 September 1916 a private flying school called the Canterbury (NZ) Aviation Company. It had three main objectives: to train pilots for war, to promote aviation in local defence, and to pioneer commercial aviation. In October the company bought land at Sockburn for its airbase. Wigram had already, at his own expense, arranged for the purchase in Britain of two single-seater Caudron biplanes and another fitted with dual controls. While waiting for the aircraft to arrive the eager trainee pilots built two hangars and an administration building.

The first Caudron arrived in late April 1917, and was soon followed by an instructor, C. M. Hill, from Hendon. Hill made the first flight from Sockburn on 7 May 1917. By 1 February 1919 182 pilots had been trained and all but one joined the Royal Air Force in England. In addition, 10 aircraft had been built at Sockburn.

Once the war was over the government was undecided about taking over the flying school for defence purposes, so Wigram kept it going, largely out of his own pocket. Not until 9 March 1923, after Wigram donated a further £10,000, did the government agree to assume all the company's liabilities and run Sockburn as a military airbase. On 21 June 1923 the airfield, renamed Wigram Aerodrome in honour of its founder, was officially handed over. After Wigram gave another 81 acres adjoining the site in 1932, some judged it to be the finest airfield in the hemisphere.

Wigram also helped to found the Canterbury Aero Club, fostered the formation of other private clubs throughout the country, and was made patron of the New Zealand Aero Club at its inception in 1930. For his services to aviation he was knighted in 1926. Sir Henry Wigram died at his Park Terrace home on 6 May 1934. He was survived by his wife; there were no children of the marriage. Many eulogies recalled his exemplary qualities of intellect and character, his patriotism, and his generous financial support of various causes. His achievement was summed up in a Press editorial: 'this was a man notable for the wisdom that sees far, reaches for much, and is sure in its grasp'.

Agnes Wigram, who like her husband played an active part in public life, succeeded him as patron of the Canterbury Aero Club, and in 1949 presented the Lady Wigram Trophy for competition at the international motor race subsequently held annually at Wigram. She outlived Henry Wigram by 23 years, dying in 1957.