In the late 1960s, Waikato engineer Lloyd Brownlie used the barren landscape that would eventually become the Hamilton Gardens as a pistol shooting range. As part of the Army, he would spend Sundays honing his skills on what was merely a sand-pit.
Then over time, he watched the site become a rubbish tip before it’s gradual transformation into themed gardens. Brownlie opened his Hamilton engineering business in 1977 and worked alongside many of the key craftsmen who shaped the earliest structures within the Gardens. “It has been intriguing to watch the Gardens develop from a wasteland into what we have today,” he says. “And to have been part of the process is special.”
In 2017, he was approached to construct the propulsion system for a fantastical steampunk airship that was to be installed within the Braithwaite Court. “Steampunk was a new concept to me and there was a fair amount of googling involved,” he admits. “Then I sketched the dinghy and system on my workshop floor with chalk.” In conjunction with Hamilton architect Mark de Lisle and Gardens Director Peter Sergel a final idea was agreed during a lengthy design process.
Construction took less time. The majority of the components came from a local scrap metal dealer. “He’d put things aside for me as they came in. The more curious the better.” The airship’s boiler was shaped from a hot water cylinder, the gearbox from a huge CLAAS forage harvester while the noses on the balloon were stainless steel cooking bowls from Briscoes.
“When I get invited to the Gardens I’m never too sure what the project is going to be. I’ve done a few jobs for the Gardens’ development project but the Huddleston is the most offbeat one to date.”
There was a significant amount of interest from his customers as the project took shape in his workshop. “No-one could guess what it was going to be! And, this was part of the challenge too. Steampunk is known as fiction whereas we had to design a steampunk inspired airship that actually looked like it could float above the Gardens pruning trees and delivering mulch. It is an interesting contradiction.”
Brownlie visited with his wife Sherley shortly after the airship was unveiled to the public. “It was so interesting to stand there and listen to people’s comments. I had to smile as people debated whether it could fly.
“Right from the beginning Peter knew exactly what he wanted but not necessarily how it could be achieved. That’s where we came in. Now, something has been created that people can wonder about.”
The Huddleston was sponsored by David and Rae Braithwaite. Lloyd donated his time and materials to construct the mechanism within the dinghy. Additional advice in constructing the Huddleston balloon and support structure was provided by Bryce Weal, Mark de Lisle, Mat Bailey and Tony Brinkworth.