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Shiers, Walter Henry (1889–1968)

by T. H. Cooke

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Walter Henry Shiers (1889-1968), by unknown photographer, c1918

Walter Henry Shiers (1889-1968), by unknown photographer, c1918

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6100

Walter Henry Shiers (1889-1968), aircraft engineer, was born on 17 May 1889 at Norwood, Adelaide, son of William Thomas Shiers, plasterer, and his wife Annie, née Haire. He came from a family of twelve. He attended Richmond Public School, Keswick, until 1902 when he began work with a market gardener and learned the rudiments of pump and motor maintenance. On the death of his mother in 1904 he lived with his eldest brother at Broken Hill, New South Wales, and worked at the Broken Hill North Mine until December 1912. It is uncertain whether he was indentured, but in 1913 he began an electrical contracting business at Leeton and worked there until 1915.

Having enlisted as a trooper in the 1st Light Horse Regiment, Australian Imperial Force, on 9 April 1915, Shiers embarked for Egypt in June. In July 1916 he was transferred to No.67 (Australian) Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, which later became No.1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps. He was promoted 1st class air mechanic in November 1917, possibly as a result of his experience before enlistment.

Shiers won prominence as engineer on the first flight from Cairo to Calcutta in November-December 1918 and, a year later, on the first flight from England to Australia with (Sir) Ross and (Sir) Keith Smith and J. M. Bennett. These flights extended both aircraft and crew further than had previously been achieved. They were fully documented by Sir Grenfell Price, and taped reminiscences, which demonstrate Shiers' ability as a raconteur, are held in the National Library of Australia.

He was promoted sergeant from 10 December 1919, the date of the Smiths' arrival in Darwin, and on his discharge in 1920 he was granted the honorary rank of lieutenant, A.I.F. He was awarded the Air Force Medal and a Bar for his part in the two flights. His medals are held by the Art Gallery of South Australia.

Shiers married Helena Lydia Alford (d.1951) at Bellevue Hill, Sydney, on 17 February 1920, with Methodist forms. They had no children. Early in the 1920s he operated a garage at Bondi Junction and, following a visit to England in 1922 with the Smith brothers (when Sir Ross died in a plane crash), he worked for various aviation companies at Mascot. In 1925 he began barnstorming with Dave Smith, a Sydney pilot who owned a Ryan monoplane, with whom, after obtaining his pilot's licence (No.408) on 20 November 1929, he planned to fly to England. They left Sydney on 30 March 1930 but after a forced landing in the Ord River area of Western Australia and a crash landing in Siam (Thailand) the flight was terminated. On his return to Australia Shiers joined New England Airways, which later became Airlines of Australia for which he was chief engineer until 1939. For the next six years he was in charge of the textiles branch of the Light Aircraft Co. which manufactured parachutes for the defence forces.

Shiers received a war pension for injuries received in World War I and from 1945 his health deteriorated; he lived quietly at Dover Heights, Sydney. At the dedication of the memorial of the first England-Australia flight at Adelaide airport in April 1958 Shiers, the only surviving crew member, was present; he is depicted in the sculpture of the four aviators by John Dowie.

From 1965 he lived in Adelaide where he died of heart disease on 2 June 1968; he was buried in Centennial Park cemetery. Friends and acquaintances remember Wally Shiers as a short nuggetty man of great character who had a strong will and abrupt manner. He was generous to a fault, had a disregard of material gain and placed a high value on comradeship.

Select Bibliography

  • A. G. Price, The Skies Remember (Syd, 1969)
  • Broken Hill Historical Society, Journal and Proceedings, Dec 1970
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 28 Apr 1958, 3 June 1968
  • H. de Berg, interview with W. H. Shiers (transcript, 1966, National Library of Australia)
  • CRS A458, item 314/4 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

T. H. Cooke, 'Shiers, Walter Henry (1889–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/shiers-walter-henry-8419/text14789, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 1 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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