Maria Wynands has a love story for the ages, being flown on a ‘Bride Flight’ by her beloved Peter from their home country of the Netherlands to New Zealand as part of an international air race.
The official centenary for the province of Canterbury was December 1950. But it was 1953, a few years later than, a London to Christchurch challenge was organised. The reward for first place (in what was then the world’s longest air race – of 19,756 kilometres) was mainly glory but also a Harewood Gold Cup, named after Christchurch Airport’s operating name in the 1950s.
Maria’s betrothed Peter Wynands had already been out in New Zealand for almost a year-and-a-half, with the young couple writing weekly letters to each other. Maria fondly remembers the couple met by chance on a Dutch skating rink, after she was invited by a girl friend to go.
“We often went skating after work... I was putting my skates on and there was a big light, and I said hey get out of my light. At that time I was 18 or 19 and then my friend introduced me to him and then he came over and put my other skate on, pulled me up and we went skating.
“He had very strong hands and I felt so secure, and I said (to my friend) oh I really like him.”
When her parents questioned her about her new boyfriend, they soon said they didn’t want him to be someone who worked in a factory, so she had to check and was relieved to find out he wasn’t. The couple were soon engaged just before Peter left in early 1952 for a secure job in New Zealand.
Maria, now aged 91, adds that many years later when she met her future daughter-in-law, Tracey, the first thing she did was help her put a pair of ten pin bowling shoes on.
Maria, speaking from her apartment at Diana Isaac jokes that Peter (who’d had his outward ship fare paid by the New Zealand Government) arranged the flight because he didn’t want her to repeat his trip on the boat, given all the shenanigans he had witnessed on board.
The couple had decided to move away from post-World War II Europe. Due to housing shortages, and a slow gradual economic recovery, they would have been left living with family, Maria says. “It’s all Hitler’s fault we’re here. Because we’d had five years of war... and if Peter and I wanted to get married in a couple of years we had to live with our parents. I didn’t want to live with his parents and we couldn’t live with my parents because I still had two younger siblings,” she says.
While living in Tilburg, Holland she’d grown up in a loving family, with two older and two younger siblings. Her father was an officer in the Dutch army and had strict views on some things, including the trip out to be with her fiancé, she remembers.
In the race she well remembers travelling on a Douglas DC-6A. Other competing airlines, amongst the eight airlines, included the Netherlands’ KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, on which Maria travelled. There was also a BEA Vicker Viscount 700 and the RNZAF’s Hadley Page Hastings. There is a photo of the competing aircraft, including the RNZAF Hastings (sometimes jokingly referred to as ‘the finest 3-engined aircraft in the world’ on account of the frequency with which one of its four engines would break down), lined up at the starting point at Heathrow Airport.
There was also some history to such a challenge with there having been a London to Melbourne air race in 1934.
Initially Maria and other passengers flew from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to London, and remembers mixing with some of the other 63 passengers at a posh Kensington Palace Hotel in the capital. “We had a tour through London, we had a beautiful dinner and we met all the staff – so it was absolutely fantastic.
“We were one big family in the plane.”
On departure from Heathrow, October 8, the aircraft, known as Dr Ir M H Damme (named after a top level aeronautical official) was waved off by the Duke of Gloucester. The flight was long. Different aircraft made various stopovers including airports in Rome, Baghdad, Karachi, Rangoon, Jakarta, Colombo, Darwin, Brisbane and onwards.
There were some hairy moments on the flight, particularly as the DC-6A crossed the Tasman sea, with the weather proving particularly rough. Electrical storms were the bane of many and the New Zealand entry was forced from the race.
Maria was with two other girls from Tilburg including Sjaan Priemus and Engeline Haans. She and Engeline were seated by each other during the bumpy section between Brisbane and Christchurch. “The captain (Captain Cooper) halved the engines, so Engeline and I were sitting with arms around each other... anyway the steward came and sat next to us and we said ‘oh we’re so scared, we’re so scared, we’re going to crash’.
“The steward said ‘no don’t worry, there’s ships down there, if we go down they’ll pick us up.”
The organisers took the most of marketing opportunities, for example there were DC-6A sweets and biscuits and Christchurch shops helped celebrate KLM week.
Maria remembers a frosty pre-dawn arrival at Harewood Airport on Sunday October 11, though the RAF’s Canberra had already taken honours in terms of speed, finishing the day before. The arrivals were heralded on the front page of The Christchurch Star-Sun. The DC-6A Liftmaster won the transport section (given it was carrying the prospective brides and others) in 49 hours, 57 minutes.
There was a Maori welcoming group as part of the arrival, and future husband Peter was slightly late, and he didn’t have flowers as many of the other men did, but that didn’t matter as she was so happy to see him. Reports at the time had fiancés and husbands breaking barriers and jumping fences to kiss and embrace.
Maria remembers being very young. “My mother said ‘child, child... how can you do this’ but I was in love and when you’re in love you go to the other side of the world.
“My father said I want you to not get married for one year, because he said ‘if you want to come back, you can, if you’re married it’s not so easy.”
Apart from the passengers, there were a host of items brought as cargo including 1953 Royal Tour scarves, plus nylon stockings, watches and jewellery. Later after a thorough check by maintenance crews, the ‘Dr Ir M H Damme resumed its usual role as a freight plane across the North Atlantic.
The unmarried couple did not cohabit. Maria remembers being in a flat in Cashel Street. The couple waited exactly a year to get married in Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church in Papanui. She soon joined the church choir, which later became a ‘second family’ for her.
She worked at Young Hunter’s, a solicitor’s office in Cashel Street, and discovered retail delights such as Ballantynes and Beaths. She and Peter had four children: Robert, Michael, Philip and Louise bringing them up in a family home in Grahams Road, Bryndwr. She took on nursing at Coronation Hospital in Hillmorton looking after patients with tuberculosis. Peter worked as a Customer Services Manager for Crown Crystal Glass, which had a factory in Hornby, Christchurch.
Her younger brother John had followed Peter out to New Zealand and was living in Wellington, so she already had family in New Zealand.
Later on, there was a Dutch-made film, Bride Flight, released and eventually shown in New Zealand in 2009. The romantic drama, written by Marieke van der Pol (who interviewed Maria) was based around three women, from different backgrounds. The three characters’ lives are forever changed when they emigrate to New Zealand as intended or recent brides. One of the New Zealand actors in the film is Rawiri Paratene, who also appeared in Whale Rider.
The race, upon which the film was based, was called ‘the last great air race’ because it was considered unlikely the companies or governments would ever put up the money again to put up the money again to take part in such a long-distance flight. For the 2008 film a remnant DC-6 was repainted in the KLM colours of that early 50s era.
From the 1970s onwards Maria and Peter enjoyed travelling back to Europe, where Maria’s father was fulsome in his approval of a successful marriage. “My father said, ‘no I’ve forgiven you’, because he could see how happy I was.” The couple were very happily married and in their 65th year of marriage when Peter passed in 2019.