Leila Adair at Palmerston North

Leila Adair ran into problems with her balloon ascent at the Palmerston North Racecourse on 24 May 1894, held during a tournament organised by the Manawatu Mounted Rifles. When the supply of kerosene proved insufficient to inflate the balloon, Captain Dunk (standing on the far right in the photo below) confiscated their takings of £28 and five shillings. Leila sued, and during my research, I discovered the records of the Palmerston North Resident Magistrate’s Court proceedings held at Archives, New Zealand. Several men in this photo gave evidence in court about the confrontation and stormy dispute that followed.

Manawatu Mounted Rifles
Officers and NCO’s of Manawatu Mounted Rifles – Unknown
circa 1890, No Known Copyright. Palmerston North City Library.

Back Row: L to R Sgt. James; Sgt Salmon; Sgt. – Maj Barnett; Cpl Wallace; Lt. Pringle; QM Rockstraw; Capt. Dunk. Front Row: Sgt Innes; Cpl Matheson; Bugler Salmon; Cpl Monro; Sgt Bett.

Prior to her case being heard and two days after the fiasco with the Mounted Rifles, Leila made a successful ascent from The Square in the centre of Palmerston North. This montage of three photographs from W.H. Smith’s photo album (shown below) are the only known photographs of Leila’s 1894 tour of New Zealand. The left-hand picture shows the balloon being inflated (obscured behind the balloon is the Occidental Hotel on the Church Street side of The Square). The top picture is Miss Adair in the act of rising, while the right-hand view shows the balloon as a speck in the air.

Leila Adair
Balloon ascent of Miss Leila Adair – Attwood and Co. June 1894, No Known Copyright. Palmerston North City Library.

The Manawatu Times reported that: Miss Adair’s return to the Square was a triumphal march. Driven in a cab, and attended by a cavalcade of at least fifty horsemen, she returned to the Club Hotel amidst the tumultuous cheers of the spectators. Arrived at the hotel Miss Adair addressed the assembled crowd. She stated that several people had been kind enough to call her a fraud, and asked those present if they thought so. (Cries of “No! No!”) Miss Adair then said she had been prevented from giving an ascent on the racecourse, and in order to keep faith with the public she had that day given a free show.

The Club Hotel
Club Hotel, Church Street east – George W Shailer, circa 1880 to circa 1889, No Known Copyright. Palmerston North City Library.

Nicholas Rowe recorded a more prosaic view of the occasion in his diary MS-4429: Went to PN to have teeth attended to and see about a few other things. Saw a balloon ascend with a lady about a mile high and come down again. Got wet coming home.

In between these two balloon exhibitions, Leila appointed a new manager, her “brother,” Arthur B. Adair. Her previous manager, Frank Cornell, did not give evidence during the court case but as “the Court was crowded all day with eager listeners,” it presumably provided as good an entertainment as the balloon ascent itself. The case features in Chapter 21 of The Only Living Lady Parachutist.

In 1894, this building (pictured below) was located around the corner on Main Street where it served as Palmerston North’s Court House until repurposed and moved to Church Street in 1895.

Court House 1894
Old Wooden Police Station in Church Street East, Palmerston North – The Press circa 1910, By Attribution Alone, Palmerston North City Library.

These photographs from the Palmerston North Libraries and Community Services website, show the buildings that surrounded The Square at the time of Leila Adair’s balloon ascent in 1894.

  • Church to Broad Street 1893
  • Main to Church Street 1893
  • Broad to Main Street 1893
  • Rangitikei Street to Coleman Place 1891
  • Main Street West 1893
  • SW corner The Square 1893
  • Church Street 1893
  • Church Street 1889
  • Church Street Parade

For more information about Leila Adair’s 1894 tour of New Zealand, I recommend A Passion for Flight: New Zealand Aviation before the Great War, Volume 1 by Errol W. Martyn.

Postscript: A series of letters have come to light at Archives NZ where Leila Adair complains to the American Consul about her treatment at Palmerston North and demands compensation from the NZ Government.

5 thoughts on “Leila Adair at Palmerston North

Add yours

  1. Interesting… they didn’t have things like this when I lived in Palmie. I think the Club Hotel is still there.


    1. The Club Hotel had sixty bedrooms and was built on two acres of land laid out in gardens and lawns for the use of guests. It consisted of a wooden building dating from 1882 (with additions) and a brick building, built in 1905. The hotel continued to operate until 1977 when the wooden buildings were demolished to make way for the then PDC department store developments. The 1905 building is like you say, Shani, still at 374 Church Street:


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