Inside the Collection

The Story of Australia’s First Airmail-Part 4

View of the Blériot XI aircraft on display in the Powerhouse Museum’s Transport exhibition
A view of the Blériot XI aircraft that flew the first Australian airmail, on display in the Powerhouse Museum’s Transport exhibition

Following his spectacular aerial exhibitions in Sydney and Newcastle, Guillaux’ fame quickly spread and after his pioneering seaplane flight on May 8, 1914, the French aviator began to make plans for a series of airshows around southern NSW and Victoria.

On May 16, Guillaux gave his first performance in Wagga Wagga, to which he would return during his airmail flight. So anticipated was this event that special train services were run from the towns of Junee and Culcairn in order to bring spectators to Wagga. Around 8,000 people paid entry to the Wagga Racecourse to see Guillaux’ exhibition with another two to three thousand watching from outside. They were not disappointed, with Guillaux’ stunt show including a thrilling vertical dive from which he only pulled out just above the heads of the crowd.

The Wagga event set the pattern for the rest of Guillaux’ airshow tour, with large crowds drawn from surrounding towns at each regional display and special transport laid on to get them to the show. In Albury, on May 23, interest in his performance was so strong that the golf club competition was postponed and shops which remained open operated on reduced staff. Once again, Guillaux garnered breathless praise from local journalists: “No words describe what he does and can do. All other aviators pale before him; looping the loop at an altitude of 14,000 feet is mere child’s play to him….”

The silk scarf worn by Maurice Guillaux during his aerial spectaculars
The silk scarf worn by Maurice Guillaux during his aerial spectaculars. It’s red, white and blue colours (now somewhat faded by time) reflect the colours of the French national flag. L3120/2. On loan from Australia Post, NSW

Departing Albury, Guillaux, the Blériot and his team by train to Melbourne, where he established a base at the Showground in Flemington, having apparently been offered a guarantee of over £1000 to induce his visit to the city. On May 28, he flew from Flemington to the grounds of Government House, the seat of Australia’s Governor-General in the period between Federation and the construction of Canberra. The Governor-General, Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson his wife, the Governor of Victoria, Sir Arthur Stanley and his wife, were all on hand to greet the intrepid French pilot and inspect his aircraft. One of the few snippets of surviving film of Guillaux’ time in Australia shows the Blériot taking off after this visit.

Invited to visit the newly established military flying school at Point Cook, outside Melbourne, Guillaux flew there on May 29, gave a flying display in the Bleriot and then flew over the area in one of the flying school’s own aircraft. The following day he gave his first public display at the Flemington Showground, which drew a crowd of 25,000 to 30,000. Guillaux practically stopped the races at the Moonee Valley course when he performed some stunts overhead and, as he pulled out of one of his signature thrilling dives, a bookmaker supposedly offered to bet six to four that he had broken his neck! But the daring pilot once again survived and a Melbourne Herald report compared Guilaux’ performance to an earlier show by Australian aviator Harry Hawker thus: “M. Guillaux was to Mr. Hawker as a Drury Lane melodrama is to a repertory play”.

A contemporary 1914 postcard showing Guillaux’ Blériot aircraft
A contemporary 1914 postcard showing Guillaux’ Blériot aircraft. A8213-5/12 EA and VI Crome Collection, Powerhouse Museum

On Monday June 8, the King’s Birthday holiday, Guillaux performed at Bendigo, after which he flew to Ballarat, causing a sensation en route as he flew overhead. On this flight Guillaux carried a letter from the Mayor of Bendigo to the Mayor of Ballarat, however this was not officially consigned mail. Once again travelling by train, the Guillaux team moved from Ballarat to Adelaide, where another spectacular stunt show was staged on June 20. By June 27, Guillaux and the Blériot were back in Melbourne, before flying to Geelong on July 3, for the last aerial show before the airmail flight. To reach Geelong, Guillaux followed the railway line, a form of navigation he would also use on the airmail flight, and arrived there just at the end of a race meeting at the Plumpton course. Guillaux gave an impromptu display to the crowd of racegoers before his public show the following day. While performing in Geelong, Guillaux carried his first recorded passengers in the Blériot.

Look for the next post in this series in a few days, which will cover the background to that first airmail flight. Next week I will be posting an account of each day of the airmail flight, between July 16 and 18. The Aviation Historical Society of Australia will be conducting a re-enactment of the first airmail flight between July 12-14 and hosting other commemorative events. The Powerhouse Museum is also celebrating the centenary of the first Australian airmail with various events this year. Check our website and that of the Powerhouse Discovery Centre for further details. If you’d like to explore the newspaper reports of Guillaux’ flights, which were drawn upon for the quotes used in this blogpost, you can find them by searching on the National Library of Australia’s Trove Newspapers site.

Written by Kerrie Dougherty, Space Technology and Aviation Curator

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