The farming family of Pearse lived in the hamlet of Trewarlett, situated in the parish of Lezant, on the border with South Petherwin. In 1864 a son of Farmer Pearse, at the age of 21 years, left the homestead for New Zealand where he would begin a new life. Somewhere along the road he met a young lady from County Derry, Ireland, by the name of Sarah Browne and married her.
Digory Sargent Pearse and his bride settled down in a ‘soddy’ (turf and timber house) in their new land and began a family in the new ‘Trewarlet’, near Waitoha, New Zealand. In a total of nine children born to this family, the fourth was born on December 3rd, 1877 and was named Richard William Pearse. This young man grew up on the family farm and attended the local school where it appears, he learned well, for in later life he studied all available material regarding the possibilities of flight by man. Young Richard appeared obsessed with the idea of building himself a machine capable of carrying himself into the air and to this aim he devoted all his spare time. He collected anything he thought may be useful in building his dream, bits of wire, drain pipes, bamboo, bicycle wheels, – in fact, anything he thought ‘useful.’ Having seen only steam engines in his life, he set to work to engineer an engine to run on petroleum, the finished product being a two-cylinder, horizontally opposed engine of four strokes fired at both ends which gave tremendous power-to-weight ratio. To this end he had to invent and build himself a lathe, which he did, using mechanical cast-offs he ‘rescued’ from the locality and a bamboo foot-operated ‘spring’ to drive it. The two cylinders of his engine were made from cast-iron drainpipe with an internal diameter of four inches. It is suggested he had help in designing the ignition from a local engineer, but appear to have made the rest of it himself. The fuel was probably pre-heated paraffin, fed through a ‘tin can’ carburettor, and started on full power, estimated later to have given more than fifteen horsepower. (The noise created greatly upset the neighbours, who would keep their children in while ‘the devil practised his evil work.’) The propellor was made from flattened tin cans and bolted onto the crankshaft – all of this made from scrap and scrounged bits. He must have tested the engine for a long time before he actually fitted it into a body – one neighbour is remembered as saying Richard’s father spoke of his son probably killing himself if he ever flew his contraption.
Latter day evidence point to March 31st, 1902 as Pearse’s first test flight, a year and a half before the Wright brothers. It was along the roadway from the Upper Waitohi School – and ended in a gorse hedge his father had planted when he first began farming in the area. Another flight was made on April 11th, 1903; this time along the ‘Terrace,’ a geological feature along which a road and several houses were constructed and on this occasion a flight of about five-eighths of a mile was achieved before landing on the bed of the Opihi River. From Pearse’s own notes it is made clear he would not claim to have flown until he could fly from one place to another by choice; later he wrote, “I decided to give up the struggle, as it was useless to continue against men who had factories at their backs.”
Pearse’s brother, Warren said he was sure the honour of flying the first heavier-than-air machine should go to his brother. “I can recall,” he said, “how disheartened he was when, having accomplished so much, he heard that the distinction – and the $40,000 prize – was shared by the Wright brothers.” Pearse remained the quiet, shy man, leaving no personal records at all, no photographs and no diary of his life and trials. A model of his flying machine has been erected at the Flambards Aero Park, near Helston, to the memory of this remarkable New Zealander of a Cornish family.
Pearse moved to Milton in Otago in about 1911 and discontinued his flying experiments due to the hillier country there. Much of his experimental equipment got dumped in a farm rubbish-pit. However, he continued experimenting and produced a number of inventions. He subsequently moved to Christchurch in the 1920s, where he built three houses and lived off the rentals.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Pearse continued to work on constructing a tilt-rotor flying-machine for personal use – sometimes described as a cross between a windmill and a rubbish-cart. His design resembled an autogyro or helicopter but involved a tilting propeller/rotor and monoplane wings, which, along with the tail, could fold to allow storage in a conventional garage. He intended the vehicle for driving on the road (like a car) as well for flying.
However, he became reclusive and paranoid that foreign spies would discover his work. Committed to Sunnyside Mental Hospital in Christchurch in 1951, Pearse died there two years later. Researchers believe that many of his papers were destroyed at that time.
On his death, the Public Trustee administered Pearse’s estate. The trust officer in charge of disposing of his personal effects recognised the significance of his aeronautical achievements and brought them to wider attention. As a result, aviation pioneer George Bolt saw Pearse’s last flying machine.
In 1958, Bolt excavated the South Canterbury dumpsite and discovered some components, including a propeller. His research in the 1960s produced evidence for flight in 1903 people who had left the district by 1904 remembered the events and recalled a particularly harsh winter with heavy snow.
During the filming of a television documentary in the 1970s, the crew attached a replica of Pearse’s 1902 machine by a rope to a team of horses. When the horses bolted, the machine took to the air and flew, prompting Pearse enthusiasts to assert that the design was flyable. The event was not filmed, because the crew had packed away their cameras at the end of the day’s shooting.