by Tim Harding, B.Sc. B.A.
Major Harry Turner Shaw OBE (1889-1973) was an Australian pioneer aviator, both in wartime and peace, and later a boat builder. He lived at ‘The Point’ mansion overlooking Ricketts Point, Beaumaris from around 1922 until he sold it in 1959. He and his wife then moved to their former servants’ quarters and coach house ‘Pointside’, which still stands as a renovated family home at No. 17-19 Lang Street, Beaumaris.
In the 1920s and 30s, Major Shaw had a private airstrip on the estate at what is now Nautilus Street. He used to fly to and from his engineering factory at Fisherman’s Bend, sometimes even flying home to Beaumaris for lunch. The existence of this private airstrip was not widely known, and so sometimes there were reports to police of a possible air crash when he landed.
Aerial view of Beaumaris looking south to ‘The Point’ estate and Ricketts Point. Major Harry Turner Shaw took this photograph from his aeroplane in 1927. His private airstrip (now Nautilus Street) as shown by arrow, is at the centre of the picture. Source: Bayside Library Service (image on public access).
Harry Turner Shaw was the son of Thomas Turner Shaw (1864 -1949) and Agnes May (nee Hopkins). Agnes May Turner Shaw (1865-1967) lived in good health until the ripe old age of 102 (I once met her at a garden party at Pointside). Harry was raised at a 30,000-acre sheep station called ‘Wooriwyrite’, on the Mount Emu Creek near Mortlake in Victoria’s Western District. His father and grandfather were breeders and producers of fine Merino wool.
Harry was educated privately before attending Geelong College from 1903 until 1906. He then studied engineering at the Melbourne Working Men’s College (which later became the RMIT). He appears to have inherited his father’s interest in things mechanical. (Thomas Turner Shaw invented a patented fence post lifting machine and was a one of the first motor car owners in Victoria).
Major Shaw’s younger sister Mary Turner (Mollie) Shaw (1906-1990) was born in Caulfield, but raised at Wooriwyrite. She was one of the first women to be employed as an architect in the early 1930s in Australia. She also became a distinctive figure as an architectural historian, when she started writing books and articles (including a book about Wooriwyrite).
As I mentioned in the last (February 2019) issue of this newsletter, I was brought up at No. 6 Point Avenue, Beaumaris, on the corner of Lang Street. I knew Major Shaw (we called him ‘the Major’), his family and servants very well. His daughter Raithlyn was a lifelong close family friend of ours. I have a vague recollection of being bitten or kicked by their malevolent Shetland pony named ‘Mintie’ when I was very young.
The Major married Violet Laura Willis, daughter of Herbert and Alice Willis, of Koolomurt sheep station near Harrow in Western Victoria. I knew her as ‘Mrs. Shaw’. She was taller than the Major, and although debilitated by arthritis was very much in charge of the house and servants in the traditional landed gentry manner. She was always very nice to us children. When I knew her, Mrs. Shaw drove a large Rover saloon car, but my mother told me that earlier on Mrs. Shaw drove a Rolls Royce. Once a week she would drive to Dandenong South to collect rents from her caravan park ‘Shawlands’, which still exists today (owned by the Dandenong Christian Reformed Church). The Major himself drove a small 1930s German DKW car with a two-stroke engine that sounded like a lawnmower. Why he drove such a dinky little car while his wife drove a large Rolls Royce is lost in the mists of history.
Neil Follett, Editor of Aviation Heritage magazine wrote of Shaw’s war service: ‘He travelled to England in May 1913. After the outbreak of World War One, he missed the first intake of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), enlisting as a dispatch rider with the Royal Engineers on 19 September 1914. Sometime in 1915 he transferred to the RFC and trained as a pilot at Shoreham, Kent. He soloed on a Maurice Farman Longhorn on 13 December 1915 and two days later received his FAI licence (No 2196), before going to Gosport [on the English south coast] on 1 February 1916’.
Maurice Farman S. 7 Longhorn Reconnaissance and Training Biplane c.1915. Source : Wikimedia Commons
As the Royal Air Force was not established until 1918, the RFC at this time was part of British Army – hence his rank of Major rather than an Air Force rank. He served and saw action in France as a Flight Commander before returning to Home Establishment as a flying instructor at Doncaster. By the end of the war, he was Officer Commanding No 27 Training Wing RFC as Acting Lieutenant Colonel. Somewhere along the way, he had also become a certified aircraft engineer.
On 26 June 1916, Major Shaw wrote in a letter to his father Thomas Turner Shaw: ‘I was playing round among the clouds over their [the Germans] lines yesterday, at from 1500 to 2500 feet—playing ‘tig’ over and under and round the small drifting clouds, trying to ‘spot’ our bursting shells and ‘wireless’ corrections to our guns….then I was cruising round at about 400 feet, doing no harm to anyone, when suddenly I heard a hungry metallic sort of bonk behind me, and found a nasty black smoke puff* only about ten yards distant, and right on my level. I put on the brake—or rather jambed the right rudder hard, which had the effect of making me skid about a hundred yards and drop a hundred feet. The rest of his shooting was wide and wild, but he must have had a couple of dozen shots at me in about as many seconds. I didn’t like him!’ [*Of exploding anti-aircraft fire, called ‘Archie’ – the word ‘flak’ was German and not used by the British during the First World War].
Major Shaw himself used to tell me stories from his war exploits. Sometimes these were told in his large workshop at ‘Pointside’ where he built prototype wooden boats; and other times when we were both sitting on the horizontal poles at Ricketts Point beach, where he took his Great Dane dogs for a walk. For a young boy like me, the Major was my own personal Biggles! A particular childhood recollection I have is of the Major telling me: ‘One day in the air I saw the red aeroplane of the Red Baron [German air ace, Baron von Richthofen] in the distance. So, I hid in a cloud and came up behind and underneath him, where I fired a row of .303s into his fuselage!’. He told me that he hit the Baron’s plane but not the Baron himself. Presumably he jambed his rudder again and dove away before he could become the Baron’s 81st kill. The Major also told me that he kept a rack of small bombs by his feet in the cockpit, and when he saw a suitable target on the ground, he would drop a bomb by hand over the side of his plane.
Major Shaw’s canvas flying helmet and aviation tool box, 1918.
Source: Museum Victoria.
The Geelong College Pegasus Journal reported that Major Shaw was awarded the ‘Mons Star’. This medal was given only to the men of the first seven divisions who were actually serving in France for the Retreat from Mons and the Advance of the Marne. He was also entitled to wear the red and three blue chevrons for his length of active service, which dates from the outbreak of the war. He was later appointed an OBE in 1919 for his meritorious war service.
On 25 October 1917, Major Shaw wrote in a letter home: ‘Flying has come to stay. The machines of the future will be simple and inexpensive. The ordinary man of mechanical taste could get a working knowledge of its riggings and engine in a few days. Up-keep should compare quite favourably with an ordinary large car. Breakages will depend on the pilot to a large extent, and a couple of smashes would of course boost the up-keep tremendously’.
In 1919, Major Shaw returned to Australia on the ‘SS Nestor’, and on 8 January 1920 established the Shaw-Ross Engineering & Aviation Company at Fishermen’s Bend. His business partner was H. Galsworthy Ross who, with two passengers, was killed in a crash at Port Melbourne on 22 May 1922. The Shaw-Ross company had an agency for Bristol and Farman aircraft; and in 1921, they imported several of the first post-World War I aircraft into Australia. Major Shaw also had an aerial photography business named ‘Airspy’, with a photographer named Hansen.
In 1924 Major Shaw was elected as committee member of the Victorian Section of the Australian Aero Club and later chaired the Air Convention, a lobby group comprised of various aviation interests. He was influential in selecting suitable sites for aerodromes, including Essendon Airport in 1921. (Moorabbin Airport was not established until much later, in 1949). Major Shaw became the No. 3 commercial pilot’s licence holder in Australia, and he was one of the first tenants of Essendon airport when it still had a grass runway.
Major Shaw (centre) inspecting potential aerodrome sites in 1921 near Old Man Plain in north-western Victoria. Source: Civil Aviation Historical Society & Airways Museum
On 25 February 1950 Melbourne’s Argus newspaper carried the following Report: ‘Pioneer pilot will retrace flight. The aviator who made the first civil Melbourne Sydney flight in 1922 has never flown in a modern passenger aircraft – until today. In 1922 Major Harry Turner Shaw piloted a 50-h.p. single-engined Farman aircraft at an average speed of 60 mph, and was awarded the Oswald Watt Memorial Medal for the year’s best flight by an Australian. Today he will retrace his pioneer flight (at 180 mph or more) in an Ansett DC-3, which will take three hours for the trip that once took him four days (‘including engine trouble’). Major Shaw, who is now 61, and lives in Beach Rd., Beaumaris, made his 1922 flight to attend a Sydney air regatta. He took off from an aerodrome ‘opposite the cement works in the Williamstown ferry short road’, and got as far as Moss Vale (NSW) before the engine spluttered. Repairs took two days, but he reached Sydney in the next ‘hop.’ ‘I wasn’t even in time for the regatta’, Major Shaw said yesterday, ‘but I stayed in Sydney for two days, and then flew back, spending a night at Tumut. There were no such things as airports on the route then’.
Major Harry Turner Shaw (right) with his boat building business partner Gerald Benson (left). Date on calendar looks like January 1947. Source: Black Rock Yacht Club via Sandringham & District Historical Society
Major Shaw and Gerald Benson were partners of the Melbourne boat building firm of Benson & Shaw, on the Mordialloc Creek. (Their boat building factory later became the Bolwell car factory). The Major had built sailing boats late in the Second World War. He used a jig on which he had built a Sabot for a tender in the early 1930s. The plans came from the American ‘Rudder’ magazine which he had started reading in 1904. Another six boats followed in 1945 as soon as the firm of Benson & Shaw was established at the end of the war. In Shaw’s own words: ‘Both Gerry Benson and I sailed at Black Rock. I only weighed nine stone wringing wet, so was suited to Sabots. When we sold out, we had built over 3,000 boats, some 250 being Sabots. We built them as dinghies as well as for sailing. I built a special Sabot as a motor boat which did 28mph with a 14hp motor. Our work was condemned for being too light, but today 80% of builders have copied our ideas. I was an aircraft engineer and used ideas I had in the construction of aircraft’.
Initially plywood was used in the construction of aircraft and it was these two men, through their vast experience in this field who realised that plywood could be adapted for marine construction as well. Ultimately in 1946 they built the first plywood boat in Australia. They also built a twin-hulled fibreglass power boat called the ‘Shawcat’.
Major Harry Turner Shaw was an intriguing and colourful Beaumaris identity – possibly even a little eccentric. But he was also much more than that – a distinguished war pilot and a pioneer of the Australian aviation, aerial photography and boat building industries. It was a pleasure to have known him.
Anon. (1918) ‘Military Distinctions’ The Pegasus – Journal of The Geelong College Vol X, No. 3, December, 1918.
Anon. (1950). ‘Pioneer pilot will retrace flight’. The Argus newspaper, 25 February 1950 page 6, Melbourne.
Anon. (undated) ‘Flying Helmet – Major H.T Shaw, RFC & RAF, circa 1918’. Museum Victoria <https://trove.nla.gov.au/version/248098806>
Disney, Graeme and Tarrant, Valerie (1988) Bayside Reflections. City of Sandringham, Sandringham.
Serle, Jessie. (2012) ‘Shaw, Mary Turner (Mollie) (1906–1990)’. Australian Dictionary of Biography Online. Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre, University of Melbourne.
Turner Shaw, Harry (1918) ‘Letters from Old Boys at The Front’. The Pegasus – Journal of The Geelong College Vol X, No. 3, December, 1918.
Turner Shaw, Mary (1969) On Mount Emu Creek. Robertson and Mullens, Melbourne.
About the author: Tim Harding is a member of the Sandringham and District Historical Society. He has studied history, philosophy and science at Monash University; and works part-time as a regulatory consultant.