History of the New Zealand Wall of Death.


Before the Wall — The Pioneers

The Staig Troupe.

Our narrative begins with the Staig Troupe, a vaudeville steeplejack cycling act from Watford, England, who had been playing to tremendous acclaim at the London Hippodrome.

Staigs Original Motor Sensations, The Circle of Death, 1904.
In 1903, The bottomless Ring of Death appeared with Staigs Original Motor Sensations at the Olympic Circus in France.
Staigs Original Motor Sensations
Around 1905, Staigs Original Motor Sensations ran a lineup of Opels on the suspended, bottomless Ring of Death.

When Australian producer James Brennan saw them, he realised their unique entertainment value and signed them to tour Australia, with their first performance in November 1910 at Sydney's National Ampitheatre, again to outstanding acclaim.

After successfully completing their tour of Australia, they crossed the Tasman and began touring New Zealand's numerous Circuses and Shows with their bicycle and motorbike performances in May 1911.

The "Whirl of Death" was the opening act for the Staigs. It was the size of a giant tea cup, standing 4.5 metres (15 feet) tall with a top diameter of 5.5 metres (18 feet).

The cage had a bottom diameter of 2.4 metres (8 feet) and a width of around 1.5 metres (5 feet) from the floor, where the sides were perpendicular.

Beginning at the bottom of the cup, the performers rode the sides at high speeds, generating enough momentum to ride at right angles to the perpendicular wall on a variety of bicycles, motor bicycles, and motorbikes.

Arthur Stone (Wizard Stone, Aviator Stone) was travelling with Wirth Bro's Australian Circus with his bicycle act when the Staigs bought a 5.5-meter (18-foot) "Globe of Death" from him.

They made their New Zealand debut with it in October 1915 at the Baker Bro's Circus in Hastings.

Because of its spherical steel latticework frame, spectators could readily watch the surreal activities (defying gravity) taking place inside the Globe of Death from any angle.

Staig's Globe of Death, 1918
In Hastings in 1915, The Globe of Death was performed by The Staig Troupe for the first time in New Zealand.
Laurence Staig riding the Globe of Death
Globe of Death rider Laurence Staig is seen at the apex of looping the loop.

The Wall of Death

Staig Enterprises

The Staig's subsequent new act was a "Silo Drome" with dimensions of 5.5 meters (18 feet) by 9 meters (30 feet) in diameter, which was constructed in the United States.

They acquired the rights to the act from American stunt rider Ernest Ibsch (Fearless Jackson, Jack Jackson), who was touring Australia with his own wall known as the "Whirl of Death."

On September 20, 1928, The Staigs gave The Silo Drome its debut ride in New Zealand at the Wellington Winter Show. The Staigs wall was purpose-built in Coney Island, New York, constructed of strong Oregon Pine and weighed approximately 5.5 tonnes (6 tons). It took several months to complete.

When not travelling the country, the Silo Drome and the Globe of Death were stationed in Auckland's "Luna Park." The Silo Drome was dubbed "The Wall of Death" shortly after it launched in the 1929 season.

Staig's Wall of Death, 1932
The Wall of Death was first performed in 1928 at the Wellington Winter Show, New Zealand, by the Staig Troupe.
Staig's Wall of Death with Baby Austin, 1932
A Baby Austin on The Wall of Death in 1932 in Masterton, New Zealand, driven by Laurence Staig.

Laurence Staig added driving a supercharged Baby Austin racing motorcar to the Wall of Death Act in February 1932 at the Masterton Showgrounds.

Unfortunately, the Great Depression had begun in the 1930s and was having an unavoidable negative influence. As a result, the show business sector came to a halt, with the final performance taking place in October 1935 at the Hastings Royal Show in Hawkes Bay.

International Girl Riders Team

The next Wall of Death Show was held during the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition in Wellington, which lasted from November 1939 to May 1940. Greenhalgh and Jackson (Australia's top sideshow organisers) brought the Act from the New York World's Fair in 1939.

New Zealand Centennial, 1940 Wall of Death
The New Zealand Centennial Exhibition, The 1939 Wall of Death featured the International Girl Riders Team.
Pat Gamble and Moy Wong Wall of Death riders.
In a 1939 photo Pat Gamble (left) and Moy Wong (right), the International Girl Riders Team, pose in front of the Wall of Death.

This Wall of Death stood 4.9 metres (16 feet) tall and 8.5 metres (28 feet) broad. The International Girl Riders Team consisted of American Pat Gamble and Moy Wong from China, and also included Canadian male rider Edmund Du Barrie (Victor du Barry).

The Moorharts

Les Moore, who was born in Hobart, Tasmania, got inspired in February 1939 while watching the International Girl Riders Team perform on the Wall of Death at Tasmania's Royal Hobart Showgrounds.

He created his own temporary training Wall in the backyard and learned to ride it via trial and error.

The Moorharts, 1943 Wall of Death
The Moorharts maiden show was held at the Royal Hobart Regatta, Hobart, Tasmania in March 1943. Les Moore is shown here riding with no hands.
Highly dangerous opposite directions Wall of Death
In a 1963 photo from Carterton's Wairarapa Show, Graham Pickup and Ronnie Moore can be seen riding in opposite directions together, on the Wall of Death.

Despite being shallow and difficult to ride, the improvised structure drew other motorbike riders from all around the State.

Moore recalls the passionate amateurs frequently crashed and unwittingly gave the circular track such a beating that it turned egg-shaped.

Les soon built a 3.6-meter (12-foot) high and 9-meter (30-foot) wide Wall and developed his own Wall of Death Act, with riding partner Lionel Hart, known as the Moorharts.

In March 1943, they staged their first public performance during the Royal Hobart Regatta in Tasmania.

Ronnie, his ten year old son, was already riding pillion with Les and could also ride the bally rollers. "Bally" is an old sideshow term meaning a free show used to draw customers into the main attraction.

They were quickly asked to tour other Australian shows due to their overwhelming popularity.

Post War — The Wall of Death

The Moorsons

In October 1946 at the Albury Show, New South Wales, at the tender age of 13, Ronnie and Les became renowned as the Moorsons. The act was a great success because of the tenacious boy's trickbook.

A promotional photograph of Les Moore, 1947.
A promotional photograph of Les Moore, a stunt rider from the Wall of Death. Les participated in the Hutt Speedway inaugural race at Taita, New Zealand, in January 1948 as an Australian feature rider.
Moorson's Wall of Death from Tasmania, Australia.
An early shot of Moorson's Wall of Death, initially completed in 1942, in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.

At the Camperdown show in Victoria, in November 1946, Les spiced things up by developing an outrageous act with two riders — himself and Lionel Hart riding in opposite directions simultaneously.

After Les's tyre blew out, this resulted in a disastrous head-on (their second) collision, effectively putting Les's partner out of business.

Greenhalgh & Jackson approached the Moorsons to ride The Great Whirl of Death after rider Victor du Barry fractured his pelvis on stage in Queensland.

In June 1947, they appeared on the Mackay Show and the Charters Towers Show alongside the Reckless Jacksons (Ernest Ibsch) and the International Girl Rider, Pat Gamble.

Les Moore Wall of Death Rider
Les Moore, speedway rider and star of the Wall of Death.
Ronnie Moore Wall of Death Rider
Future speedway champion Ronnie Moore, a rider on the Wall of Death.

Following this was the Cairns Show in July 1947, and the audience was astounded to see The Moorsons riding in the opposite direction (counter clockwise) compared to all the other straight wall riders.

They finished their Queensland contract in August 1947, when they rode with the sensational Dare Sisters at the Brisbane Exhibition.

Following a performance at the Perth Royal Show in October 1947, the family was immediately given a personal contract to tour either South Africa or New Zealand.

Les chose New Zealand, and after completing a whirlwind six-month tour with Skuthorpe's Rodeo and Circus, the family chose to live in Christchurch in 1948.

The Mahon Bros.

Even with full-time work available, Huntly coal miner Roy Mahon quickly realised he was not going to make any progress working with coal.

Mahons Amusements opened, 1947 Wall of Death
Roy Mahon and his brother "Huck", the Idols of Belle Vue, English Speedway Stars.
Roy Mahon riding the red line on his original Wall of Death, circa 1947.
Roy Mahon is shown riding the Wall of Death, circa 1947.

He managed to obtain a 6.1-meter (20-foot) tall and 7.6-meter (25-foot) wide Wall of Death. He taught himself how to ride it, and perform with his brother "Huck" in the weekends.

It wasn't long before they debuted as the Mahon Bro's, the "Hell Riders". Their first official Wall of Death performance was at the Northland Exhibition, held in June 1947 at Whangarei.

This Wall was infamous for being difficult to ride, and accidents were common. After Huck was seriously injured and out of commision for eight months, the decision was taken to replace the Wall with Les Moore's "Short Wall", a 3.6-meter (12-foot) high and 9-meter (30-foot) wide Wall of Death. This was originally used on June 29, 1949, at the Whangarei Big Winter Exhibition.

Roy Mahon riding on his original Wall of Death, 1947.
Hell Rider, Roy Mahon riding a Francis Barnett on his original Wall of Death in 1947.
Roy Mahon riding the red line on his original Wall of Death, circa 1947.
In about 1947, Roy Mahon is seen travelling round the red line at the top of his Wall of Death.

Like working with coal, Roy rapidly realised that operating the Wall of Death, with its limited season, transportation costs, risk of injury, and continuous upkeep, was not going to yield a lot of money. It made more sense to grow and supplement the business with carnival rides that could be operated throughout the year.

Roy founded Electric Speedway Limited (ESL) in 1961 to run a business focused on providing carnival rides, sideshows, and other entertainment at events such as the Agricultural and Pastoral Society fairs held around New Zealand's North Island.

Mahons Amusements Limited (MAL) was founded in 1990 to take over ESL's business and is still in operation today, with Roy's grandsons in charge.

Ronnie Moore.

Graham Pickup and Ronnie Moore Wall of Death
Ronnie Moore, showing his balancing skills on a Matchless G9 500, while riding the Bally Rollers at a Wall of Death show.
Graham Pickup on the microphone and Ronnie Moore on stationary rollers, The Wall of Death
Graham Pickup holds the microphone, Ronnie Moore stands on his bike, and the McNabb family looks on.