Story: Hamilton, Charles William Feilden

Page 1 - Biography

Hamilton, Charles William Feilden

1899–1978

Farmer, engineer, inventor, racing-car driver, jet-boat pioneer, manufacturer

This biography was written by Les Bloxham and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Charles William Feilden Hamilton, known as Bill, was to achieve international acclaim for his work in developing the modern jet-boat. Born on 26 July 1899 at Ashwick, a 45,000-acre sheep station near Fairlie, South Canterbury, he was the only son of William Feilden Hamilton and his wife, Cora Blakeney (née Cannon), who had arrived from England in 1896 to manage Ashwick in partnership with William's widowed sister.

Bill Hamilton's childhood in the high country allowed him a freedom that encouraged independence, self-reliance and an innovative approach to solving problems. From paddling around local streams and the station's dam in an old tin washtub, he graduated to a sailing raft, canoe and, eventually, a land-yacht, all home-built. By the time he was 12 he had already sensed the potential of water as a source of power, and had installed a water-wheel which drove a small generator. It developed one horsepower, sufficient to light the homestead and power a small lathe, drill and emery wheel.

After attending Waihi School at Winchester, in 1915 Bill moved to Christ's College, Christchurch, as a boarder. It was a frustrating time for the free-spirited country boy, who soon found himself enmeshed in a rigid routine of lessons, rules and discipline. After his half-brother, Cyril Blakeney, was killed in action in the Sinai Desert in August 1916, Bill left college to help his ailing father run Ashwick. In 1921 he began farming on his own account when he bought Irishman Creek station, in the heart of the Mackenzie Country, for £16,000.

After Bill's sister Leila died in May 1922 leaving a 10-day-old son, Sholto (Dick) Hamilton Georgeson, the Hamiltons travelled to England. There Bill met Margery (Peggy) Lampkin Wills, a spirited young woman who had worked in a munitions factory during the First World War and completed a training course in the dairy industry. They married in London on 26 October 1923, and left for New Zealand three weeks later. In addition to caring for Dick, they were to have a son, Jon, and a daughter, June.

With the support and encouragement of his wife, Hamilton managed to successfully combine farm duties with the increasing challenges of an inventive mind and the pursuit of his love of speed. He won a series of motor races in his 1914 Sunbeam and in 1925 became the first driver in Australasia to exceed 100 miles per hour; in 1928 he set a new record of 109 miles per hour. In 1927, when he needed electricity for the station's new homestead and workshop, he designed and built a tractor-drawn scoop to construct a dam to provide water for a 17.5-kilowatt hydroelectric plant. He built several of these scoops and used them on construction contracts throughout New Zealand, including the first aerodrome at Mt Cook (1935), another on Great Barrier Island (1937), and flood protection works at Karamea (1937). Returning from a business trip to Hamilton in February 1936, he was lucky to escape with only minor injuries when his aeroplane crashed at Wellington's Rongotai airport, killing the well-known pilot Malcolm McGregor.

In 1939 Hamilton designed and built an angle-dozer in a new workshop at Irishman Creek. During the Second World War the workshop had 17 employees and manufactured munitions, but the development of earthmoving and other machinery continued: a loader-dozer was followed by road graders, loaders, mobile cranes and ditch-diggers, all operated by Hamilton-designed hydraulics. In 1945 C. W. F. Hamilton and Company Limited was formed to manufacture these machines in a modern factory on a 10-acre site at Middleton, Christchurch. Under Hamilton's direction, and with Eric Chapman as general manager, the company developed a heavy-engineering capability, producing bridge girders, equipment for hydroelectric schemes, railway wagons, busbars for the Bluff aluminium smelter and other specialised equipment. In 1972 Dick Georgeson became general manager. Hamilton Perry Industries Limited was established to manufacture light roll-formed products; by the early 1980s the Hamilton group of companies employed more than 500 people.

However, it was Bill Hamilton's pioneering work in successfully developing water-jet propulsion in the early 1950s that made his name world famous. He had always dreamed of designing a boat that could go against the flow of rivers too shallow for conventional propeller-driven craft. He never claimed to have invented the jet-boat; the water-jet principle was not new and had already been applied with some success to low-speed displacement craft overseas. Hamilton's achievement was in designing a jet unit that would propel a planing hull efficiently at high speeds and with the advantages of a shallow draught. Much of the early test work was carried out on the dam behind his homestead and on the rivers of the Mackenzie Country. With the help of a small team of dedicated young engineers, including George Davison and Bill's son Jon, the Hamilton jet unit was developed into a highly successful product and was marketed worldwide.

In 1961 Bill Hamilton was appointed an OBE, and in 1974 he received a knighthood for his services to manufacturing. He died near Fairlie on 30 March 1978, survived by his wife and children. Peggy died in 1982. They are buried side by side in the Burke's Pass cemetery, in the heart of the land they loved so much.