Hands Across the Ocean: Filming the 1953 London to Christchurch Air Race

By Virginia Callanan (Information Management Advisor, Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision)

“Amateurs everywhere will be heartened by the vigour with which their colleagues can rise to the occasion and so zealously prepare the ground for a triumph of amateur movies” – Amateur Cine World, February 1954.

Amateur Cine World, XVII (10), February 1954. Front cover.
“Amateur Cine World,” XVII (10), February 1954. Front cover. Periodicals Collection, Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision. Courtesy of Janet Wilkinson.

Amateur Cine World, the English film enthusiasts’ magazine, is well-represented in Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision’s Documentation Collection. Within these issues you find surprisingly frequent mention of New Zealand ciné clubs. One article from the February 1954 issue is titled “A Girdle Round the Earth,” a reference to Puck’s line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “I’ll put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes.”

To fly half way around the world in 1953 took just under 24 hours, and the Christchurch Movie Club enthusiasts made a film of it. This was the London to Christchurch International Air Race in which five planes competed in a speed section, and three in the commercial passenger section, celebrating 50 years of powered flight.

The resulting film showed not only the Christchurch landings, but also the London departures. This was achieved by:

“one of the most heartening examples to date of initiative and selfless teamwork among amateurs… which has extended across thousands of miles of ocean.” [1]

In London, with the support of the Institute of Amateur Cinematographers, members agreed to set the scene and document the formal start of the race. This exposed film was then given to the crew onboard one of the Canberra aircraft entered in the speed section. The crew also had a ciné camera and filmed their journey from onboard.

The Federation of Australian Amateur Cine Societies asked its members, living near staging posts on the route, to take whatever shots they could. So the “girdle” expanded. On this side of the world the Christchurch Movie Club members, along with thousands of spectators, were waiting in the early hours of a cold and wet Saturday morning on October 10th to film the first arrival – Flight Lieutenants Burton and Gannon in an RAF Canberra.

Speed was of the essence, not just for the pilots but for the filmmakers. Although one Canberra blew a tyre when landing at Cocos Island to refuel, the pilot thoughtfully transferred the film to the plane following two minutes behind so that it got to New Zealand on Saturday morning as planned.

H.E. Perry Ltd on Colombo Street in Christchurch had made special arrangements for processing the film, shot on 16mm black and white reversal film, incorporating rapid drying and hardening. By Wednesday the original 3,000ft of exposed footage in short rolls had been edited down to 1,100 ft. That night the film was screened publicly at the Civic Theatre with the air race crews and the air race “queen” in attendance.

Many years later the club members lost track of their original film, although a copy had been held at the National Film Library before that collection was passed to the Film Archive. However in 1997, after the original resurfaced, a group of dedicated club members transferred it to video and added a well-researched commentary. This version was kindly deposited with Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision:

1953 London to Christchurch Air Race, Christchurch Movie Club

A tally board was chalked up tracking each entrant’s progress through the Middle East, across the Indian Ocean and Australia. The five Canberras entered in the speed section were remarkably close – their Rolls-Royce turbojets all kept turning and burning with no major mishaps. It was efficiency on the ground at the far-flung stopping points that made the difference (jammable fuel filler caps didn’t help).

Photo: Civil Aviation Historical Society collection.
Photo: Civil Aviation Historical Society collection.
Detail: names on tally board. Photo: Civil Aviation Historical Society collection.
Detail: names on tally board. Photo: Civil Aviation Historical Society collection.

The ciné club camaraderie was reflected at a national level, with the race bringing nations together in friendly competition (for ten thousand pounds prize money). The connection with Britain was especially strong that year, with Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in June and her tour here in the summer. Wing Commander L. M. Hodges, leader of the RAF team, noted: “New Zealand, by normal standards of travel, is a remote country. The fact that we had flown out from England in less than 24 hours made it seem remote no longer… it brought New Zealand nearer to England and to the rest of the Commonwealth.”

Mr John Profumo, the UK Parliamentary Secretary to Minister of Civil Aviation, demonstrated his faith in British aero-engineering when he sportingly flew as chef and steward for the aircrew of the BEA Viscount. From a more practical point of view he observed: “this race has proved you can disperse planes quickly round the Commonwealth in time of emergency.”

Here you can watch a Pathé’s newsreel of the event, noting the winning RAF’s “splendid and gallant achievement.”

The KLM royal Dutch Airlines plane was declared the winner of the passenger category on handicap, with its DC-6A making the journey in 37 and a half hours. On board were 26 young Dutch women coming to joining their fiancés, who had gone ahead to get settled in New Zealand. The journey was dubbed “bride flight” and a feature film of the same name, released in 2009, was inspired by the story of the race.

Today, dispersed heritage organisations preserve our past through collaborative efforts and distributed collections. A wealth of contextual information about the race is discoverable at the Air Force Museum, Wigram, the Christchurch City Council Archives, Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision’s own Sound Collection, and even the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust.

The air-race was the subject of a large painting by Colin McCahon who had been commissioned by Tasman Empire Airways Limited to commemorate the event. While the artist was paid for this commission, TEAL was unimpressed with the abstract representation and the work ended up in storage. Some years later the painting, which had been completed on hardboard, was cut up for more practical use. See the painting and preliminary sketches here.

The Christchurch City Council Archives reveal all the behind-the-scenes telegrams, letters, minutes, lists and memoranda for not only the glamour events – like the the Aeronautical Dinner, the Cocktail Party, or the Queen of the Air Race contest – but also parking stickers, raffles, and public accommodation. One inquiry was from an Invercargill gentleman asking just how close to the runway he could pitch his tent.

There are also interesting details about the Harewood Gold Cup, which was presented to the winning team. The ten-sided cup was eleven and a half inches high, made of pure New Zealand gold, with greenstone and polished rata wood.

Front cover illustration from Contact magazine, October 1953, by RNZAF Official artist R. Maurice Conly. From the collection of the Air Force Museum of New Zealand.
Front cover illustration from “Contact” magazine, October 1953, by RNZAF Official artist R. Maurice Conly. From the collection of the Air Force Museum of New Zealand.

“The base, in the form of a hemisphere, has lightly inscribed meridians and outlines of Britain and New Zealand. A deeply incised arc on the surface symbolises the orbit path of the race. Speed is indicated by the red jewel symbol of the mechanical principle of jet propulsion. Dividers rising from the globe to the cup itself symbolically span the portion of the orbit encompassed by the speed race. The triangulation signifies the measured precision in the science of navigation, surveying, and engineering, which are epitomised in the nature of the contest.” [2]

From Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision’s Sound Collection, here is a radio broadcast, International Air Race Report of 5 October 1953. The four items report on the crowds at London’s airport; quarantine checks at Christchurch; squeezing pilots and navigators into the Canberra cockpits; and the risk of falling coconuts at Ngombo airfield.

Credits

All the Christchurch Movie Club members who collaborated on the original 1953 film:

LTC Hudson
SD Bain
GM Dixon
NA France
RW Geoghegan
LD Hepburn
KA King
AV Stewart
GM Tapper
TM Evans
G. Ferris
WN Jarvie
AH Rees
WJ Thompson
A. Whetter

And the names of those who re-edited it on video in 1997:

AC Stanbury
WJ Kerr
RLE Burton
JB Barton
RG Lagan

 

Reference Websites

 Airforce Museum

Christchurch City Council Archives

Colin McCahon online catalogue

Flight Aeronautical Weekly

Pathé newsreel

Christchurch Video Camera Club

 

Sources

[1] Amateur Cine World, XVII (10), February 1954, p. 1010.

[2] Christchurch City Council Archives. CCC/ARC/700/4/(82)