October 18 2017, updated 6:07am

WWI flying ace had Maori roots (+pics)

Last updated 01:01 30/04/2008
Alexander Turnbull Library
FAMILY PORTRAIT: William Rhodes-Moorhouse with his son William and father Edward Moorhouse.
Alexander Turnbull Library
ACE PILOT: A BE2 airplane of the kind that William Rhodes-Moorhouse piloted when he was fatally wounded.
Alexander Turnbull Library
'MILLIONAIRE OF WELLINGTON': William Barnard Rhodes, his wife Sarah Anne, and his illegitimate part-Maori daughter Mary Ann, later the mother of VC-winner William Rhodes Moorhouse.

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He was a pioneering flyboy and a war hero to boot, but the mystery of William Rhodes-Moorhouse's Maori connection has never been solved.

The 27-year-old ace was the first airman to receive the Victoria Cross after a daredevil mission in World War I that claimed his life.

Now documentary film-maker Julian Arahanga is following the trail of Rhodes-Moorhouse's whakapapa.

But with the search focused on an unknown Maori grandmother who gave up her daughter - the pilot's mother - as a child, Arahanga said he needed help. "We're having real trouble trying to find out who his grandmother was."

Early research suggested Rhodes-Moorhouse might have been of Ngai Tahu descent, though his Pakeha relatives settled in Wellington so Te Atiawa and Ngati Toa were also candidates, Arahanga said.

William Rhodes-Moorhouse grew up in England - a bit of a daredevil, says Arahanga.

He later became friends with pioneer aviators the Wright brothers and was one of the first people to hold a pilot's licence.

But his connections to New Zealand ran deep - his grandfather William Barnard Rhodes was an early settler known as "the Millionaire of Wellington" for his landholdings and business interests.

Rhodes had two wives but no children, but a liaison with a Maori woman produced a daughter, Mary Ann.

Her whanau sent her to live with her father and she inherited much of his huge fortune and moved to England.

The young William came to New Zealand about 1906 and was given a full ceremonial powhiri, Arahanga said.

A motorbike fanatic, he raced in the Monte Carlo grand prix before turning his attention to planes. When World War I broke out, he flew a BE2 fighter plane and was apparently deeply affected by the sight of the victims of German gas attacks.

Intent on doing his bit to end the war, he flew lower than advised on a 1915 mission to Kortrijk in Belgium and was met by a hail of small-arms fire.

With a wounded thigh and several fingers shot off, he released his bomb with his other hand.

After continuing to fly through gunfire back to base, he insisted on filing a report before being taken to hospital, where he died the next day.

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Arahanga's documentary is being made for Maori Television.

"Even before we get to the VC part of the story, people will be captivated," he said.

- The Dominion Post

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