By BH Rowlings ZL1WB
From 1913 until 1930 VLA Awanui was New Zealand’s foremost spark wireless telegraph station, operated by the Post and Telegraph Department. Communication with ships at sea out to about 500 miles and point-to-point with Sydney and Apia along with a 24-hour listening watch filled the working day.
During the Great War a detachment of some sixty solders guarded this vital installation from possible enemy action. Several who survived the rigours of war are alive today – all over the age of 80. Their number is not known, but several live in Whangarei. Their memories now are failing. Some operators are also known to be living but again their number is not known. Many photographs taken during the construction, and throughout the existence of VLA show many individuals whose names are not known.
In an effort to draw attention of the public to these and other serious deficiencies in the historical records about VLA, the Northland Branch of NZART accepted a proposal that, assuming the special callsign ZLIVLA could be obtained for a restricted period, a commemorative amateur station could be established at or near the original site of VLA on some significant date. It was found that the station closed on the 10th February 1930, and therefore February 1980 would be exactly 50 years later.
An application was made to the NZ Post Office, and the special callsign ZL1VLA was granted in December 1979, to be available for the month of February 1980 only. The 10th February 1980 was set down as the opening day for the commemoration. The topic was raised with Mr Ricky Lisle whose family had purchased the property from the government in 1934 for £10,000, with the buildings “thrown in”. Mr Lisle immediately offered us the use of at least the original equipment room, with the prospect that the entire building, of six rooms, could possibly be vacated during February. Finally we rented the building from 1st February through to 29th February 1980.
It was planned that a public display of photographs from the Whangarei and Kaitaia museums and private collectors would be staged in the display window of the local authorities building in Kaitaia. All in all, the venture fired the imagination of residents in the Kaitaia district. Appeals were made for material suitable for display and as many of the old guardsmen as could be located were visited and photographed. However, petrol restrictions prevented the Whangarei Lions Club from providing transport of the men to Kaitaia during the commemoration. Their names and addresses were also given to the radio, television and newspapers for possible follow-up action, which did not eventuate.
Sponsors were sought for the venture, in particular the provision of a distinctive QSL card, which Vicom generously offered help on. Many branches of NZART came to the rescue with donations – without which this venture could not have been staged. We are most grateful to them for their support.
As the month of February approached antennae were erected, and equipment installed. At 2 pm on the 10th February 1980 Stan Sutherland, president of Far North Radio Club, introduced the Mayor of Kaitaia, Des Bell, who addressed the large gathering of local and distant visitors and radio amateurs. Upon turning the “big switch” he declared the commemorative station “open”.
The coveted “ZLlVLA” station licence was handed to special guest Les Elliston ZL1GR who, with his wife Florence, had travelled from Auckland to be present at this ceremony. He was the last superintendent of VLA and began working there as an operator in 1918 at the age of 19. Les proceeded to make the first transmission on 20-metre CW and this was acknowledged by A35SM, Sione in Nuku’alofa.
Thereafter operation on SSB, CW and teletype began on all bands with a choice of five rigs, or the personal equipment in the case of many visiting operators. The president of NZART “Jumbo” ZL1HV and Northland Branch President Ian ZL1AF joined the long list of privileged operators, and each added dozens of entries to the logs while operating the station.
A Visitors Book recorded the names of 108 individuals who chose to visit the historic site during February 1980. Some near neighbours took the opportunity to “see inside” the building for the very first time, others journeyed back for a nostalgic review of “yesteryear”. Some even had not previously known of its existence. Most made more than a solitary visit, and interesting anecdotes were exchanged with them. Hazy memories were often jogged into sequence as names were appended to hitherto unknown or long-forgotten faces in the photographic records that remain of the station staff and associates. Some of course, had become household names – never to be forgotten.
Memories came flooding back. It is known that Les himself married a Miss Crene of a well-known local family. Another operator married a Miss Matthews, which shows that romance blossomed even amongst the epoch-making exploitation of “spark wireless”. Even a guardsman “succumbed” and was married during a tour of duty.
“Acting Sar-Major” Bill Birch, now 84 years old, (22 Kamo Road, Whangarei) was best man when “Puckey married Matthews” and tells how the horse bolted near the bridge on the way to the ceremony. He had never handled a horse and gig before. His memory has failed now, but he previously narrated some interesting “tales” of those eventful bygone days when the nation was at war. The brandishing of a revolver by an angry officer was revealed (wouldn’t you if your wife had almost been shot dead in bed by a nerve-shattered guard?). Yet another guardsman shot and killed a cow that had “failed” to respond to his urgent challenge “who goes there?”. Daylight revealed the defenceless animal.
Today only the sturdy creations of man stand prominent to show something of what must have been an awe-inspiring sight. The gigantic mast, some 394 feet tall, weighed 120 tons and supported an aerial array covering some sixty acres. It was felled in December 1930, witnessed only by a handful of people, when conditions were “just right”.
Farmer Puckey tells how he happened to glance towards the tower at about 6 o’clock that morning, and thought he saw “something move”. He looked away, but glanced back again in time to see the mast continuing its fateful descent towards ultimate destruction.
Apparatus and machinery were reduced to scrap and the staff moved away to other posts, but those buildings will linger much longer and despite little maintenance are in good repair today. The equipment room measures 30×20 feet, and the operating room 20×14 feet. Every partition and outside wall is at least 12 inches thick of concrete and shingle, barged from the Cavalli Islands. The massive guy anchors, three in number, stand proud of the ground more than 20 feet and weigh around 40 tons apiece.
VLA and ZL1VLA have now passed into history. There may well be opportunities in the future to commemorate similar events, but none can surpass February 1980, when ZL1GR – ex operator and VLA superintendent – joined us to perpetuate the station that he had been instructed to dismantle 50 years before. To all those who came to ZL1VLA to visit, to operate, or show an interest, our grateful thanks. Our regret is that the news media failed in what we believe was its duty to record for tomorrow the events of yesterday.
Viva La Spark!
Originally published in the November 1980 edition of Break-In magazine