Inside the Collection

The Story of Australia’s First Airmail-Part 6

Photograph of official souvenir postcard
One of the official souvenir postcards that were produced to be carried on Guillaux’ history making airmail flight. Note that the aircraft depicted is not a Bleriot XI, but a generic biplane. EA and VI Crome Collection A8213-1/5

“Wizard” Stone’s unfortunate crash on June 1 (see part 5) provided the opportunity for Maurice Guillaux to undertake the history-making first airmail flight. With Stone injured and his aircraft destroyed, Arthur Rickard, the entrepreneur behind Stone’s proposed airmail flight, approached Guillaux to make the journey instead. Revised plans were made for the mail flight to commence on July 9. However, negotiations between Guillaux and Rickard apparently broke down on July 8 and the flight did not proceed, even though crowds had already gathered at Seymour (Victoria), the first intended refuelling stop.

What happened next is not clear, but events must have moved quickly. Backers were needed to ensure that the cost of the project would be underwritten, since the proceeds of the flight itself were not likely to be large. A Mr. Wilson of the OT Cordial Company became involved, along with the British Imperial Oil Company, which marketed “Shell” brand fuels. OT was a leading Australian beverage manufacturer, which produced several varieties of cordial as well as “OT” a chilli/fruit juice punch mix that was marketed as a healthful non-alcoholic “adult” drink-a temperance alternative to alcohol (which could also be added to alcoholic drinks to give them an extra kick!). Wilson apparently saw the flight as a major marketing opportunity for OT: the wings of Guillaux’ Bleriot were emblazoned with the slogan “Add a little OT”, and shortly after the flight was completed, the OT Company began a major advertising campaign in newspapers and magazines.

The reverse of the souvenir airmail postcard
The reverse of the souvenir airmail postcard. It shows a portrait of Guillaux and includes a promotion for Shell benzene. 1785 postcards were carried on the first airmail flight. EA and VI Crome Collection A8213-1/5

The reverse of the souvenir airmail postcard. It shows a portrait of Guillaux and includes a promotion for Shell benzene. 1785 postcards were carried on the first airmail flight. EA and VI Crome Collection A8213-1/5The British Imperial Oil Company provided Shell fuel for the flight, and may also have covered the cost of producing the new souvenir postcards, since Shell benzine is specifically mentioned on them. The official souvenir postcards appear to have been hastily designed and printed: they were less elaborate than the cards produced for the Wizard Stone flight (see part 5) and only in monotone, and although the card design included a photo of Guillaux, the aircraft depicted was not his Bleriot, but rather a generic bi-plane. There is evidence that over 2000 cards were printed and sold, but only 1785 postcards were actually carried on the flight. With financial backing in place, the airmail flight was rescheduled for July 16, 1914.

On the morning the historic flight began, Guillaux breakfasted at 6am, then went to his base at the Flemington Showgrounds to prepare the Bleriot for the journey. In addition to the 1785 postcards, his load was to include some official letters (from the Governor of Victoria to the Governor of NSW and from the French Vice-Consul in Melbourne to the French Consul-General in Sydney; a promised letter from the Lord Mayor of Melbourne to the Lord Mayor of Sydney did not eventuate), as well as a quantity of Lipton tea and bottles of OT Cordial products (OT and OT Lemon Squash) that were consigned to the Commercial Travellers’ Club, Sydney. The tea and cordial thus became the first air cargo flown in Australia.

Photograph of Australia’s first airmail flight being loaded
The mail for Australia’s first airmail flight being loaded into Maurice Guillaux’ Bleriot XI aircraft. Guillaux is loading the mail and to the left is his translator, M. Maistre. Immediately to the right of the Bleriot are the acting Postmaster-General, WB Crosby, and the Superintendent of Mails. Original image provided by Mr. AC Schaefen, South Devon, UK

Guillaux was due to depart on his history-making flight at 9am. However a slight delay in the arrival of the airmail itself meant that he did not take off until 9.12am. As the Bleriot only carried enough fuel for about 2 hours’ flying time, the route for the airmail flight was planned with regular refuelling stops, the first of which was at Seymour, 98km north of Melbourne. Guillaux arrived there at 9.54am, having made the flight at a high speed (100mph/160kph) thanks to a southerly tailwind. At Seymour a large crowd turned out to greet the aviator. “There were motors, waggons, carts horsemen, paters and maters carrying children, footmen etc., the whole forming a picturesque group”.

From Seymour, Guillaux travelled to Wangaratta, a traverse of some 135km, which he accomplished in 75 minutes, arriving at “Mr J. Sisely’s paddock on Racecourse Road” at 11.40am, about 45 minutes earlier than he had been expected. Guillaux landed close to a beacon fire that had been lit to provide him with the wind direction. After a refuelling stop of 35 minutes, Guillaux was on his way again, arriving in Albury at 12.50pm. 

Photograph of Guillaux standing triumphantly on his belriot
Ever the showman, Guillaux stands triumphantly on his Bleriot  during a refuelling stop at Wangaratta, Victoria. Note the OT advertising slogan painted on the underside of the wings, Image courtesy :National  Library of Australia.

Although Guillaux did not need to stop for fuel in Albury, he wanted to visit the town again and take lunch with his compatriot Alderman Frere, whom he had met previously during his earlier aerial display there in May. Landing alongside the judges’ box at the Albury racecourse, where the local mounted police formed a guard of honour, Guillaux was welcomed by a slew of local dignitaries before being taken to lunch by Alderman Frere. As the weather began to look unfavourable, Guillaux was anxious to be on his way after lunch and departed Albury at 1.35pm, heading for Wagga Wagga, which he had also previously visited. .

En route to Wagga, Guillaux passed over the town of Culcairn, where a hoaxer had rung the local shire office and, claiming to be one of Guillaux’ mechanics, requested permission for him to land. Although the local authorities made frantic arrangements for Guillaux’ arrival, the aviator, unaware of the hoax flew on, leaving the townspeople disappointed. A similar hoax was also enacted on the people of Henty.

Guillaux reached Wagga at 2.46pm, having covered the 125km from Albury in 70 minutes. Arrangements had been made for him to land at a particular racecourse, however as he approached the town, Guillaux saw a crowded racecourse and promptly landed at the wrong place, touching down near the judges’ box just after a race had finished! Realising the mistake, he quickly headed off to the correct racecourse, where the Mayor and other dignitaries waited to greet him. After he landed, the local Wagga Express described him as wearing “…an expression of excited pleasure and intense satisfaction of his so far successful flight”.

However, Guillaux’ flight to Sydney was soon to hit its first real snag. After departing Wagga at 3.30pm, Guillaux arrived at Harden at 4.06pm. The aviator was due to give an aerial display at Harden, but as the weather still seemed favourable, he decided to press on to Goulburn, expecting to land before darkness. Unfortunately, just out of Harden Guillaux encountered a strong headwind, which forced him to turn back and spend the night in the town, intending to press on to Goulburn the following morning.

Follow the stages of Guillaux’ airmail flight on this blog until July 18. The Aviation Historical Society of Australia conducted a re-enactment of the first airmail flight between July 12-14. 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 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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