Historical Review of the RAeS in Australia

50 Years, 1927 - 1977



This review of the first 50 years in the life of the Society in Australia must start in England 61 years earlier. The Society was founded as the Aeronuatical Society of Great Britain on 12 Jan, 1866 with 65 members by the Duke of Argyll who was its President till 1895. Its interest was centred in balloons, kites, the flight of birds and research into the principles of flight. The first mention of an Australian was in 1892 when Lawrence Hargrave was experimenting with cellular kites. He was made a Life Member in 1897 and gave his paper on Box Kites in 1899. All this was before 17 Dec, 1901 when the Wright brothers made the first powered flight. In 1918 its name became the Royal Aeronautical Society although its Royal Charter was granted later.

1919, after World War I, saw the emergence in England of another aeronautical body known as the Institution of Aeronautical Engineers. Though there were members of both bodies resident in Australia, it was the new body that set up an Australian Branch in 1921, based in Melbourne. The initiative centred on Captain P. Boach-Pierson who later became private secretary to Dame Nellie Melba. Branch membership extended to other parts of Australia, especially Sydney. In December 1924, inspired by a light aircraft corporation organised by the Royal Aero Club of NSW, a group of young engineering graduates from the University of Sydney held regular weekly seminars on aerodynamics and aircraft design during 1925. In the following year a part-time evening course at the University created much enthusiasm that a view was made to organise a learned body in Sydney. The modus operandi involved forming a NSW Division of the Australian Branch of the Institution of Aeronautical Engineers.

The inaugural meeting of the Division took place on 21 March 1927 and it is interesting to record that the Chairman was Wing Commander L.J.Wackett, the then C.O. of the Experimental Section of the RAAF. Present members of the Australian Division and many others here and abroad know Sir Lawrence Wackett DFC, AFC, BSc, FRAeS, who was the General Manager of Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation for many years. At this meeting attended by over 200 people he delivered a paper dealing with aircraft engineering in Australia and in the RAAF in particular. He has maintained his interest in the Society - lecturing to various branches in 1956 & 1958 and again in 1974 when he gave the Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith Memorial Lecture. Truly he is the "grand old man" of the Australian Division.

Later in the same year, 1927, the the Australian Branch in Melbourne and its Division in Sydney decided to transfer their headquarters to Sydney. Shortly afterwards, on 1 October 1927, the parent body in England and the Royal Aeronautical Society agreed to amalgamate. The official title was "The Royal Aeronautical Society with which is incorporated the Institution of Aeronautical Engineers" and the local body became its "Australasian Branch". 1977 is therefore deemed to tbe the Golden Jubilee of the Society in Australia. Her Majesty the Queen is the Patron of the Society and her visit to our shores at this time is therefore most appropriate.

Whether it was the impact of the apparent take-over of the Institution by teh Society or perhaps due to the onset of the "big depression", it was not till 30 Oct, 1928 that the provisional committee of the new body held its first meeting. Melbourne and Sydney rivalries were apparently met by the appointment of Professor H.Payne of the University of Melbourne as Chairman and W/C L.J.Wackett of Sydney as Deputy Chairman. The Honorary Secretary/Treasurer was T.D.J.Leech. The other two members of the Committee were H.W.Henn DFC and J.O.Johnson of the then Civil Aviation Board.

"Tommy" Leech became interested in aeronautics in his graduate days at the University of Sydney in the early 1920's and was the prime rover among the young graduates mentioned earlier. A short period after graduation he returned as a lecturer where he enthused his students in matters aeronautical until 1939 when he was appointed Professor of Engineering at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Returning after World War II, he was appointed Engineer-in-Charge of Scientific Services Division of the Snowy Mountains Authority. In Society activities, he retained the position of Secretary/Treasurer of the Branch till 1932 when he became Chairman, a position he held till 1939. He presented papers to the Branch in 1929, 1939 and 1935 and again in 1963 he gave a lecture to the Melbourne Branch. He maintained his interest in the Society until his death a few years ago.

The Society in Australia was born when the country and indeed the world was starting to experience a long period of economic depression and this had its effect on Society activities. In 1928 Tommy Leech records in once of his papers that the average attendance was only 14. The drive for increased membership was not successful and it was not until 1935 that the drift was arrested. However, in spite of dwindling membership, interest in subjects presented at meetings increased and the attendance by 1935 averaged 45. Approximately 4 meetings were held each year and the topics make interesting reading. "Air Resistance of Cables" and "Electricity as an Aid to Night Flying" would hardly be considered as suitable subjects in this modern jet age. The vitality of the Branch in this early period can be illustrated by mentioning some of the projects undertaken by members - assisting a glider club at the University of Sydney, organizing lectures to non-technical bodies and giving talks to groups of school children.

This short period was one of growing interest in aeronautics and consolidation in activities of the Branch. The most important single event was the visit to Australia of Mr. H.E. Wimperis, the President of the Society in England. This was the first visit by a President and he repeated his Presidential address to Branch members on 28 Oct, 1937. At that time, Mr. Wimperis occupied the post of Director of Scientific Research at the Air Ministry in UK. He has been asked by the Commonwealth Government to advise on teaching/research facilities which should be set up in Australia. The writer was privileged to accompany Tommy Leech and Mr. Wimperis during part of his tour of the P.N.R. School of Engineering at the University of Sydney. Meeting him again in London in late 1939, he told me that his report to the Government was one of very few that never saw a pigeon-hole! His three recommendations were adopted by the Government without question - establishment of the National Standards Laboratory in Sydney, the Aeronautical Research Laboratory in Melbourne, and a Chair of Aeronautics in the University of Sydney. These decisions gave a big fillip to interest in the Society in the years ahead. The period ended just after war was declared and the last meeting was held on 23 November 1939.

Sad to record, during these years only two meetings were held and both were after VJ-day on 15 August 1945. Nevertheless, membership slowly grew to well over the 100 mark. The administrative machinery was maintained; correspondence, accounts, subscriptions etc. dealt with, but little else. Professor A.V. Stephens was appointed the first Hargrave Professor of Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Sydney. This resulted in some increase in student membership and by 1943 the first batch of graduates began to swell the roll. In Melbourne, Mr. L.P. Coombes had taken up his post as Chief Superintendent of ARL and this had its effect on the number of the corporate members in the Branch. In later years both Professor Stephens and L.P. Coombes contributed much to the post-war growth in the Branch. Two talks by the Professor are worth mentioning - the "Aerodynamics of Sailing" and the "Flight of a Cricket Ball".

The Society in U.K. in 1945 inaugurated a series of named lectures - The British Commonwealth Lecture. The first lecture in the new series had the title "Australia in Empire Air Transport" and the speaker was none other than the founder of Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services - W.H. (later Sir Hudson) Fysh. He repeated the talk to the Branch in May 1946. Sir Hudson was a Fellow of the Society for many years and always gave quiet but helpful assistance to the Australian body from time to time. Mr. Coombes and others have been added to the list of lecturers in this series.

From December 1946 the Branch really "took off" as if trying to make up for lost opportunities during the war period. Considerable thought and planning had been going on behind the scenes and finally a policy was adopted to constitute some "centres" of the Society in various capital cities. These centres were modelled on the branches of the parent body in England. They would consist of the Society members and other non-members of the Society who elected to be associated with the life and work of a centre. The Sydney Centre was thus inaugurated at a well attended meeting on 6th December 1946 with 138 members on its roll. The establishment of a similar centre in Melbourne was inopportune at the time owing to the fact that there were two other organisations fulfilling the need. One was the Institution of Engineers, Australia through its Aeronautical Engineering Branch, and the other was the Institution of Automotive & Aeronautical Engineers. Both were very active and certainly no further body was needed.

Records do not say very much about the finances of the Society in Australia in the early days - two facts are known however, and are worth mentioning. The Australasian Branch inherited 200 pounds in Commonwealth Government Bonds from the Institution when the amalgamation took place, quite a considerable sum for those days. The other fact was that after the sudden 25% drop in value of the Australian pound at the beginning of the depression, all monies received by the Australian body from its members was at the same rate without converting to sterling and the monies were retained in Australia. It was apparently hoped that some day, sometime, the rate would be reversed and enable the finances to be satisfactorily settled. These arrangements continued till late in 1948 when Captian C.E. Uwins the Honorary Treasurer of the parent body visited Australia and had discussions with the Committee members, resulting in a firm basis of financing being established. This was one of the ingredients of the reorganisation of the parent body preparatory to receiving its Royal Charter and reconstituting overseas branches into divisions. The Australasian Branch was divided into two - the Australian Division being allowed to retain about 48% of accumulated funds, the New Zealand Division being constituted and receiving about 2% of the funds and the remaining 50% being remitted to England. These changes came into effect on 1st January 1949. A companion change was made at the same time when the Sydney Centre became the Sydney Branch.

The rules of the Division were drawn up to make provision for the Branches and the size and composition of the Council established at 10 elected members. A number of changes in these rules have been made from time to time. The first major change arose from a recommendation by Dr. A.M. Pallantyne, Secretary of the Society in UK during his visit to all overseas Divisions and Branches in August 1954. This change made provision for each Branch to elect 2 representatives to sit on the Council. This move was welcomed by the Branches and improved communications between Council and the Branch committees. The second change involved a number of amendments to bring the Council election rules more into line with those of the Society's Council. The Chairman was termed a President, he could only hold office for one year and each member of Council was elected for two years with provision that 50% of Councillors retire each year. Finally, commencing in 1962, all the time values in the rules were doubled. Thus Councillors are now elected for four years and the President serves for two years.

After 7 years successful operation of the Sydney Branch, the scene in Melbourne had changed. In September 1953 the Melbourne Branch held its first meeting at which one of the Councillors, Mr. J.B. Mills was present. Spurred on by this further success of the branch scheme, Adelaide members of the Division sounded out the situation with the result that the Adelaide Branch came into being in March 1956, when the President, Professor Stephens, delivered the inaugural address. To complete the branch picture, the formation of one in Canberra was approved by Council in late 1962. Consisting of only 5 Society members and 31 other members, it got off to a good start at its first meeting in Feb, 1963 with Sir Mark Oliphant FRS as the Speaker and a roll of 85 members at the end of the year.

For many years the Division's official address was Science House, Sydney. Late in 1969 a decision was made to transfer its address to (check reference) House, Melbourne, where it shares an office with other members of the Council of Engineering Institutions. A wise move for a body of members then nearing 500.

The practice of the Society and its branches in UK having named lectures on a regular basis was not lost on the committeemen of the four branches; each has its own memorial lecture. The Melbourne Branch and the Institution of Engineers, Australia also hold a joint meeting each year and this is now the Sir Lawrence Wackett Lecture. Details of the named lectures are given in the table in the order in which they were founded.

Named Lectures

BranchName of Lecture1st MTG.Period
Melbourne Lawrence Hargrave (M) Apr.1957 Annual
Adelaide Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith (M) Apr.1958 2-yrly
Sydney Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith (M) Nov.1959 Annual
Canberra Pioneers (M) Sept.1969 2-yrly
Melbourne Sir Lawrence Wackett Nov.1973 Annual

Legend: (M) - Memorial Lecture

The four branches between them have shown considerable resourcefulness in the variety of special seminars, symposiums and other events in compiling their annual programmes. Details are given in their annual reports. The following gives some idea of their enthusiasm and range of topics. Seminars/symposiums have been held on the use of aircraft in agriculture, in bush fire control; aicraft tyres, wheels and brakes; fuels, oils and lubricants; quality control and reliability engineering; problems facing the aircraft industry; engine control monitoring; and light aircraft. Open air events have included air displays, large and small; a hovercraft race on Lake Burley Griffin and a display of air-cushion vehicles in Adelaide, to name but a few.

To strengthen the links between the Division and Branches, the Council inaugurated an annual prize of 100 pounds (now $200) and a medallion for the best lecture given at a normal branch meeting, the main provision being that it is suitable for publication. This "Australian Division Lecture Prize" commenced in 1961 and the winners to 1975 are shown in the table below.

Winners of Australian Division Lecture Series

1961 Dr. I.C. Cheeseman 1968 Dr. R.J. Stalker
1962 Dr. R.R. Shine 1969 Dr. L.F. Henderson
1963 (No award) 1970 Mr. C.D. Bennett
1964 Dr. L.F. Henderson 1971 Mr. J.M. Warner
1965 Mr. J.H. Baxter 1972 (No award)
1966 (No award) 1973 Mr. K.C. Sayers
1967 Mr. B.J. van der Water 1974 & 75 (No awards)

Another link between the Division and Branches is for a normal branch meeting to be replaced by a Divisional Lecture, chaired by the President.

Links between the Division and the Society in UK are also important. The best evidence of this has been the increasing frequency of visits from the President of the Society. As stated earlier Mr. Wimperis was the first President to visit the Australian body during his term of office, but the first official visit of this nature was made by Mr. B.S. Shenstone in Nov, 1963. He offered a choice of two topics for a lecture to the Branches and all opted for his talk on "Manpowered Flight", which he presented 4 times, including a group at Woomera. During Dr. G.S. Hislop's visit in Nov, 1974, he presented the Division with a replica of the badge of office used for official occasions by the President in UK. Whilst Dr. A.M. Ballantyne was Secretary in UK he paid two visits to Australia and endeared himself to many members. It was "Archie" who arranged for a large blue flag with the Society's crest in gold together with a reference to the Australian Division to be available for special occasions. It has flown outside the President's tent at a number of air displays and been displayed inside at named lectures. In the reverse direction, Division Presidents have attended meetings of the Council in UK when possible. It is also worth recording that the coat-of-arms of Australia and each of the four cities where branches are established are mounted on the walls of the lecture hall at 4 Hamilton Place. The Secretary's chair in this hall and the Chairman's gavel were also gifts from the Division.

To compress 50 years history into 2 pages has not been easy - much has been said but much more remains to be recordered. If it has been of interest to the younger generation and a reminder tot eh older members it will have achieved its purpose for our 50th birthday. For myself this review has been a rewarding experience. Having been 30 years in the administration of the Society in Australia, it is time to make way for new blood to initiate new ideas for the promotion of the Society's aims in the future. May the next 50 years produce an equally exciting record.


Office Bearers

  Chairman / President Honorary SecretaryHonorary Treasurer 
1927 - 1932 Prof. H. Payne  1962  J.B. Millo 1927 - 1932  T.D.J. Leech 1927 - 1932  T.D.J. Leech
1932 - 1939  T.D.J. Leech 1963 - 1964  L.F. Coombes 1932 - 1935  J.V. Connolly 1932 - 1935  J.V. Connolly
1940 - 1945 P.H. Vyner  1965 - 1966  D.B. Hudson 1935 - 1939  P.H. Vyner 1935 - 1938  P.H. Vyner
1945 - 1956 Prof. A. Stephens 1967 - 1968 Dr. M.H. Woods 1939 - 1946 J.B. Mills 1940 - 1948 M.N. Waghorn
1956 - 1957 L.F. Coombes 1969 - 1970 P.S. Langford 1946 - 1968 W. Isbister 1949 - 1969 W. Isbister
1958 M.N. Waghorn 1971 - 1972 T.B. Fleming 1968 - 1969 R.R Green 1969 - 75 F.W. Hooton
1959 Dr. R.R. Shaw 1973 - 1974 W. Isbister 1969 - B.A.J. Scoles 1975 - N.W. Foote
1960 R.J. Ifield 1975 - 1976 J.M. Warner        
1961 Prof. V. Wittrick            

Notes: The titel of Chairman changed to President on 5th April, 1956.