Story: Falla, Norris Stephen

Page 1 - Biography

Falla, Norris Stephen

1883–1945

Shipping company manager, military leader, aviation promoter

This biography was written by W. A. Laxon and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Norris Stephen Falla was born at Westport on 3 May 1883, the son of Stephen Falla, a storeman, and his wife, Emily Martha Blaxall. Educated in his home town, he joined the local office of the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand at the age of 15, serving as office boy and then junior clerk. Westport was a very busy port, with colliers, timber carriers and the Union Company's twice-weekly passenger service from Wellington. Consequently, Norrie received an all-round grounding in the company's business.

His ability was soon recognised by the company and he was sent to head office in Dunedin. He qualified as a fellow of the Incorporated Institute of Accountants of New Zealand in 1906, was appointed sub-manager at Lyttelton in 1908 and then in 1909 was made travelling auditor, which involved covering the length and breadth of the country inspecting the many branch offices of the Union Company. In 1910 he was promoted to assistant traffic manager, with responsibility for the movements and cargoes of the company's 65-strong fleet. Outside work Falla took a strong interest in rowing, and was captain of the Otago Rowing Club in 1908. On 17 May 1911 at Dunedin he married Audrey Frances Stock; they were to have one son.

Falla held a commission in the Territorial Force, and on the outbreak of the First World War he volunteered immediately, leaving New Zealand in December 1914 with the rank of captain. He served with the New Zealand Field Artillery throughout the conflict, first at Gallipoli, where he was mentioned in dispatches and made a DSO, and then in Egypt and on the western front in France. Promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1916, he took command of the 3rd and then the 2nd artillery brigades. He was mentioned in dispatches three more times and made a CMG. After the war he became commander of the Otago Field Artillery Brigade.

Norrie Falla returned to the Union Company as general traffic manager in 1919, and when the company's head office moved to Wellington at the beginning of 1922 he moved with it. He served as honorary aide de camp to the governor general from 1925 to 1930 and commander of the Central Coast Artillery Group from 1927 to 1929. He was awarded the Colonial Auxiliary Forces Officers' Decoration. In 1931 he was seconded to the Federal Steam Navigation Company as general manager for New Zealand, but was recalled to the Union Company as general manager in March 1934 due to the illness of the managing director, David Aiken. Following Aiken's death in May that year, Falla succeeded him. He assumed the position of chairman after the death of the founder, Sir James Mills, in January 1936.

Shipping companies had suffered from the drop in trade caused by the worldwide depression, and the Union passenger fleet faced strong competition from subsidised American ships. Much of the cargo fleet was ageing, was captured German tonnage, or was war-built. Trading conditions were starting to improve when Falla took over, but it was his drive and dynamic personality that provided the impetus towards recovery. Two new passenger ships of the most modern design were ordered, and the cargo fleet was progressively renewed with purpose-built tonnage, 11 ships being commissioned between 1935 and 1939.

Perhaps his most innovative step was to move the Union Company into the airline business. The company took an interest in East Coast Airways in 1934 and in Cook Strait Airways in 1935, and in the same year established Union Airways of New Zealand, which was to commence air services between the principal New Zealand cities. Falla also promoted the reorganisation of the Royal New Zealand Air Force as a separate service in 1937, being appointed an honorary group captain in 1938.

When Australian National Airways (ANA) was formed in 1936, the Union Company took up a one-fifth interest. Through Union Airways, bolstered by the tenacity and drive of Falla, the Union Company was instrumental in establishing Tasman Empire Airways Limited (TEAL) in 1939–40 to provide the final link in the empire air route from London to Auckland. Falla's commitment of Union Company funds to order in its name the first three flying boats ensured that TEAL began operations in April 1940.

When the Second World War began Falla returned to the army with the rank of brigadier and as commandant of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force Overseas Base. However, in 1941 he had a car accident in Egypt and was transferred to London as New Zealand representative on the Ministry of War Transport. In 1944 he was appointed to the main board of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) which owned the Union Company, and to that of the British India Steam Navigation Company. Although his term as day-to-day head of the Union Company was to end, he was to retain responsibility for it at P&O board level. He was on his way back to New Zealand on the Port Phillip to hand over Union Company affairs and set the pattern for the future, when he suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and died at sea on 6 November 1945, survived by his wife, Audrey, and son.

After his death much of the company's initiative was lost. In 1947 the New Zealand government compulsorily acquired the Union Company shares in TEAL and nationalised Union Airways. The architect of the revival in the late 1930s of the Union Company, Norrie Falla had been the driving force behind the establishment of both domestic and international commercial aviation in New Zealand.