Australia’s First Air Wreck
The story of early aviation in Australia is one of enthusiastic expectations and recurrent frustrations, attended by no small danger to those intrepid aviators who lifted themselves skyward in an array of hot-air and gas-filled balloons. Sooner or later, something of a spectacular nature was bound to occur. When it did it was three Melbournians who, on two separate occasions, through their aeronautical endeavour, visited social chaos upon the citizens of Sydney. In consequence of a misreporting of one of these events, an inexactitude crept into Australia’s aviation history.
Australia’s first air wreck?
On 19 March 1881, the Australasian, in a tone of righteous civic indignation, begged to acquaint its readers ‘with a new danger of civilised life’. The Melbourne adventurer, Henri L’Estrange, formerly a funambulist and latterly an unsteady aeronaut, had crashed his balloon, the Aurora, in the centre of Sydney, with explosive results. The novel danger, to which the Australasian alluded, was ‘
new…in the sense that it never, so far as we are aware, assumed reality before, although, of course, it was liable to occur whenever a gas balloon descended amongst habitations. We allude to the explosion which followed the fall of the balloon due to the ignition of the escaping gas.
L’Estrange, as a rope-walker, had styled himself ‘The Australian Blondin’. He had turned to aeronautics after developing a ‘cancer’ on his leg as a result of constantly shinning up hempen ropes to commence his act. With a proven head for heights, he turned to ballooning as a means of securing a livelihood. Ballooning was not a profession for gentlemen but, rather, a hobby in which to indulge, though with the lesser classes the undertaking of aerostatic feats for a fee was perfectly acceptable. In the late 1850s George Coppin had featured balloon ascents as a special amusement at his Cremorne Gardens—‘the playground of Melbourne’.
In 1879, when L’Estrange opted for his career change, there was very little competition to be faced in the field of Australian aerostation. He acquired a balloon named the Aurora. It was a cotton sphere, coated with indiarubber and a varnish solution. The story was put about that it had been used in the siege of Paris, and had carried dispatches over the Prussian lines: a great tale, but without any factual foundation.
L’Estrange planned his Sydney ascent for Monday, 14 March 1881. The Premier, Sir Henry Parkes, had been persuaded to allow L’Estrange the use of the Outer Domain for the venture. The event was billed as a ‘Grand Moonlight Balloon Ascent’, with E.C. Cracknell Esquire to provide illumination by electric light during the inflation and ascent. The Prince of Wales Band and other musicians were to be on hand to provide entertainment for the spectators.
From the outset, proceedings did not run according to plan. The gas company failed to supply sufficient gas to properly inflate the Aurora. The Australian Gas-Light Company had been in operation in Sydney since 1837, and had provided the city with its street illumination from 1841. The first gas-lamps were lit to mark Queen Victoria’s twenty-second birthday and a gas-filled balloon, five meters in diameter, was release from Church Hill during the afternoon. Thus, while the company had at least some familiarity with balloons, it failed to meet their contractual obligation to L’Estrange. The considerable crowd that had gathered to witness the spectacle was sent away disappointed. The next day L’Estrange issued an apology:
Henri L’Estrange expresses his deep regret to the public that, owing to the totally unexpected failure of the Gas Company to supply the necessary quantity of gas, the Balloon ascent which he intended to make last evening was perforce cancelled. The Gas Company having, however, given a guarantee to fill the balloon today, the Ascent will be made this evening in the Inner Domain, between the hours of 9 and 11 o’clock, and the Aeronaut trusts that the public of Sydney will support him with their usual liberality.
And support him they did. The inflation of the balloon took a considerable time, and, when all appeared to be ready for the lift-off, there were about ten thousand people in attendance. But all was not well. Again, the gas company was to blame. Owing to ‘the bad quality of the gas the balloon would not rise with the car attached’. The crowd became very impatient. L’Estrange, at first understandably irritated then became apprehensive that the spectators would become unruly and not only destroy the balloon but also do him some personal injury. He opted to cut away the basket and make the ascent perched in a loop of rope rigged to the netting. While this was a procedure that aeronauts had previously adopted when in extremis, it was never a sensible course of action. Ballast and all but one of the grappling hooks had to be abandoned. This left the aeronaut with the gas-control valve as the only device to regulate ascent and descent, a totally unsatisfactory state of affairs. However, there was a larrikin element in the crowd that threatened to get out of hand, so at 9.30 p.m. L’Estrange gave the order for the Aurora to be released, and, swinging in the netting, he rose to an altitude of some 1,600 metres.
Ten minutes into the already blighted flight, things took a further turn for the worse. L’Estrange discovered that the gas-control valve on his machine was stuck. He stood up in the netting and wrestled with the errant device, which suddenly snapped open and jammed in that position. Swiftly losing what little lifting power it had, the Aurora plunged towards Woolloomooloo. Swinging from his arms in the netting, L’Estrange managed to seat himself again in his looped piece of rope. As the balloon crashed onto the roof of a house in Palmer Street, L’Estrange fell against the chimney, then slipped to the roof of a shed eight meters below. Well-meaning members of the gathered crowd, believing the aeronaut to be injured, rushed him to a nearby hotel. Meanwhile the grappling hook had worked loose, and the Aurora was swaying free in the street, before coming into collision with a street lamp. Then, as L’Estrange reported in a letter to a friend, ‘there was witnessed a sight Sydney never saw before, and I hope never will see again’. The streams of gas wafting from the collapsing balloon came in contact with the flaming jets in the street lamp, and the Aurora exploded in a ball of flame. The hordes of spectators who had followed the balloon were jammed into Palmer Street and the adjoining lanes. There was no easy escape from the inferno, nor were there any police on hand to control the crowds. In the confusion that followed, a number of people were injured, with most seriously hurt being a Mrs Hawke, ‘an elderly lady, [who] was very severely burned about the face, in fact the skin on the right side was charred, and her eye so severely injured that she is not expected to recover her sight’. There was little L’Estrange could do but view the scene in frustration from the window of the hotel. At that moment he vowed he was finished with ballooning for ever.
This dramatic event understandably excited a considerable response in the local newspapers and, by 9 April, an artist at the Australasian Sketcher had worked up a harrowing sketch of a flaming balloon lighting the fearful faces of a stampeding mob. Not to be outdone, within a fortnight an artist at the Illustrated Sydney News and New South Wales Agriculturalist and Grazier had re-worked the scene—still the same flaming Aurora, but the location of the disaster is depicted in all its architectural detail, and this time the crowd is portrayed as nonplussed rather than panicked, while some of the ladies are drawn as if on a mere evening stroll. Perhaps this was the way in which the Illustrated Sydney News preferred to imagine its readers would have reacted to the exploding balloon. News of the crash and explosion had been conveyed to Melbourne by telegraph. In a bizarre twist, the Australasian connected the event with the recent assassination of Alexander II, Czar of Russia:
It is of course obvious that a balloon surrounded by streams of issuing gas constitutes a very formidable danger if it drops in the midst of inhabited houses where there are fires, and gas jets, and other lights burning. The wonder is that accidents have not taken place before this time. But surely quiet citizens who are not czars or autocrats of any kind ought to be exempt when at home in their family circle from being blown up by an explosive which, if not so fatally destructive as dynamite, still may cause great havoc and loss of life.
Shortly after the fiery destruction of his balloon, L’Estrange, now bereft of his stock-in-trade, left Sydney and, true to his promise, never again entered the field of aeronautic endeavour.
Close on a century later, Greg Copley, in his book Australians in the Air, reproduces the graphic illustration from the Australasian Sketcher and captions the scene as, ‘Australia’s first air wreck’. And Brian Carroll, writing in Australian Aviators, introduces L’Estrange’s mishap as ‘Australia’s first aviation accident’. Both Copley, Carroll and the unnamed author of the Australasian article, from 95 years earlier, got it wrong. If an ‘air wreck’, or for that matter ‘aviation accident’, were to be defined in terms of a crashed machine, flames, destruction and injury to persons, then the wreck of the Aurora had been anticipated by an event that occurred close on quarter of a century earlier.
Australia’s first air wreck
George Selth Coppin could fairly be described as a ‘go-getter’. Not content with making his mark only on the Melbourne stage, he also introduced to the Australian colonies the first soda fountain, a zoo, and any novelty that he believed would catch the public’s fancy. In partnership with the erratic Irish actor, G.V. Brooke, he purchased the Melbourne amusement centre, Cremorne, in September 1856. Its proprietor, Mr Jack Ellis, having made a success of Cremorne Gardens in London, was finding the entertainment business in Australia a little less financially attractive than he had first hoped.
Over the following years Coppin visited Britain, securing novelty acts and bringing out groups of actors to appear in the theatres that he also operated with Brooke. On one such trip during 1857, Coppin resolved to return with a giant balloon and an aeronaut to fly it. He had seen aerial ascents billed as an exciting entertainment throughout Great Britain and Ireland, and knew of aerostation’s popularity as a spectacle. In the end he returned not just with one, but with two balloons and two aeronauts to fly them. The machines were the Australasian and the Tavistock, the latter a refurbished model, though passed off by its seller, Henry Coxwell, as new. The flyers were Charles Henry Brown, a serious-minded aviator of limited experience, and Joseph Dean, a self-commissioned ‘Captain’, an experienced balloonist and a rollicking drunk.
With an entertainer’s sense of timing, Coppin intended this novelty to be launched at Cremorne Gardens during the height of the end-of-year festivities and in time to herald the new year, 1858. Bad luck, however, dogged the undertaking from the beginning. Coppin, with his balloons, was delayed for five weeks in Egypt. He arrived at Hobson’s Bay on 9 January 1858. Interviewed by the Argus, he complained: ‘I have brought out two balloons and aeronauts. I, of course, intended these for New Year’s and Boxing Day’.
Irritated, but undaunted, Coppin quickly set about puffing Cremorne’s new attraction. He placed a series of advertisements in the Melbourne newspapers advising the public that:
The first Balloon Ascent in the Australian colonies will be made by Messers Brown and Dean in Coppin’s Australasian Balloon on Monday 1st February at 5 o’clock. Mr. Brown is a pupil of the celebrated English Aeronaut Mr. Henry Coxwell, and Mr. Dean is well know in England for having made 119 ascents from Vauxhall and Cremorne gardens in London and various towns in England. The Inflation at 2 o’clock. An Extra Grand Gala in the evening. Admission 5/- Children Half Price. The Gas will be supplied by the Melbourne Gas Company under the direction of Mr. A.K. Smith.
Melbournians attended in their thousands, but the vast majority contrived to view the ascent from vantage points outside Coppin’s Cremorne Gardens, and the event, when it came off on the Monday night, proved a limited success. The lift provided by the locally manufactured gas imparted sufficient buoyancy to lift one aeronaut only—in this case Dean. From this and subsequent balloon ascents Coppin and his partner received a poor financial return. In an attempt to put the project in the black, Coppin tried one last toss of the coin. He sent his duo of aeronauts to Sydney, there to fly the Australasian balloon, in the hope the public in that city would be more generous with their crown, half-crown and shilling donations.
The two aeronauts arrived in Sydney during November of 1858. Brown was excited by the prospect of establishing himself as that colony’s premier aeronaut, and Dean was flushed with anticipation of the highlife on hand for him to experience. Five ascents were made without any serious mishap, though as a result of his socialising Dean, on a number of occasions, was too drunk to fly. At that time Coppin’s partner, Brooke, was appearing at Sydney’s Prince of Wales Theatre. With the help of his popular co-performer, Henry Edwards, Brooke contrived to keep the Australasian Balloon in the public’s notice. The governor-general, Sir William Denison, was inveigled into attending the first ascent on 13 December. Edwards made a much-publicised trip in the machine and undertook to regale the audience at the Prince of Wales with an account of the ascent, and the company at the theatre concluded the evening’s entertainment with a sketch entitled, ‘You can’t see the Balloon’.
All these efforts proved to be of no avail. The money did not roll in as plentifully as had been hoped. The public in Sydney, as in Melbourne, contrived to watch the balloon ascents from vantage points outside the reserved enclosures. Brown and Dean returned to Melbourne in early January of 1859. Coppin was bitterly disappointed with the poor financial returns from the trip, so much so that he decided to sell both his balloons. Charles Brown, who had always objected to his partner’s drinking, saw an opportunity of dumping Dean and shaping an aeronautical future for himself. He formed a new partnership with William Green Jnr, an established English aeronaut at that time living in Melbourne. With Green as guarantor, Brown bought the Australasian and the Tavistock from Coppin and straightway headed back to Sydney. There Brown called on an acquaintance, Mr Abraham Polack, and informed him of his new undertaking. It was essential that Brown have a central and accessible location for the ascent, and, since he was not as well connected with local government officials as were Coppin and Brooke, he had little hope of being granted the use of the Domain. Polack, an aeronautical enthusiast, had a large allotment between Pitt and George Streets, at the rear of the post office, and he offered this to Brown for his ascents. A site having been secured, the date of the ascent was set for Monday, 18 April. Green meantime had been touting for business about the city and had secured a paying passenger, Mr Alfred Wardell. Young Mr Wardell was the son of the proprietor of the Vauxhall Gardens in London, and in all likelihood had made balloon ascents before. It is not clear why he would want to lay out a deal of money for one more aerial jaunt, but it could well have been ‘for old times’ sake’ since the Vauxhall Gardens were just about to close, and Wardell senior had been thrown into bankruptcy.
Drawing on his experience gained at Coppin’s Cremorne Gardens, Brown contrived to make the balloon ascent a gala event. Pilot balloons were released at regular intervals so as to keep the large crowd entertained. However, in the few months Brown had been away from Sydney, little had happened to change the attitude of the public towards aerostation as a spectacle. The view was still generally held that, if it can be seen for nothing, why pay anything? The majority of people contrived to secure themselves vantage points outside the reserved enclosure. The post office overlooking the Pitt Street site was packed with spectators, as were the roofs of the surrounding buildings.
Brown, as always cautious to the point of punctiliousness, oversaw the inflation of the balloon by the Gas Light Company but was not entirely happy with the process and believed something was amiss. Nonetheless the Australasian took to the air a little after five o’clock and Green and his passenger were able to ascend at good speed to a reasonable height.
The balloon soared over Hyde Park and, after some minutes, started to float seaward. A landing at sea was an aeronaut’s least preferred option and Green, operating the gas-control valve, began a prudent descent. However, something went awry. The Australasian picked up speed to such an extent that the anxious Brown, on the ground, believed the balloon had burst. But then fortune appeared to favour the aeronaut. Picking up an air current blowing back from the Cove, the balloon crossed the lower end of Pitt Street and came down in the backyard of the Woolpack Inn at the Haymarket. The area was crowded with hundreds of people who had followed the balloon as it made its descent. They were now seated atop sheds, fences and crushed in the laneways, as they watched the giant machine lumbering to the yard. Two things happened in quick succession, however, resulting in disaster.
First, the owner of the Haymarket Inn, Mr Boyd, had some four or five bullocks corralled in his yard—a convenient supply of fresh steak for his hostelry. Unfortunately, the Australasian as it swayed and billowed past, was impaled on one of the beast’s horns. Gas gushed from a large rent; young Wardell, overcome by the fumes, was carried in a state of unconsciousness into a shed. Thus with the balloon lightened by the loss of its passenger, Green imagined he could float it out of the yard, and bring it down in a nearby paddock. But the situation was now becoming totally confused. The crush of people in the area had caused some concern to the police, and Captain M’Lerie, with a number of constables, had quickly arrived on the scene to find the ripped Australasian was still venting gas.
Charles Brown had joined the crowd in tracking the swiftly descending balloon, but, when he got to the already crowded yard at the Haymarket Inn, he held back from the crush. He had noticed an open forge nearby, and, having seen the balloon ripped, he feared that the gas would ‘get to some fire—either in the blacksmith’s shop or houses’. In that particular regard he need not have worried, for just at that moment there occurred the second event that shaped the evening’s outcome. In the midst of the chaos, a spectator in his shirt sleeves (with his cabbage-tree hat tucked under his arm) casually lit his pipe and tossed aside the still flaming match. The report of the incident in a Melbourne newspaper justifiably referred to this unknown miscreant as ‘an ignoramus’. No sooner had the lighted lucifer made contact with the gas than the whole yard erupted into a huge ball of flame, from the perimeters of which sprang searing jets of gas.
Later, in a letter to his mentor, the veteran English aeronaut Henry Coxwell, Brown spoke of the horror of the scene: ‘I was about 30 or 40 yards from the balloon—the heat was scorching at that distance. People came running from the yard with their faces horribly disfigured and their hair burnt off. I hope I shall never witness such a scene again’.
Four or five spectators were indeed badly burnt, but most of the injuries suffered were in consequence of people being crushed and trampled in the wild rush to escape from the flaming yard. Brown himself fled, having been warned off by friends, who believed that once the panic abated there was every likelihood the crowd would turn nasty and be out for blood. He jumped into a passing cab and sought refuge in his hotel in Castlereagh Street at a safe remove from the scene of the air wreck.
Green sensed that his best course lay in exciting what sympathy he could. He claimed his ribs were broken and had himself carried to the residence of a local surgeon. When he met up with Brown a few hours later, he received no sympathy whatsoever from that source and his claimed injury was dismissed by his irate partner as a complete sham. Green further angered Brown when, the following day, he told a reporter from the Herald that he had invested in the purchase of the Australasian, and, in consequence of its destruction, was now a ruined man. The reporter noted that a subscription was to be opened on the aeronaut’s behalf.
It is true that the whole Australasian misadventure was the result of bad fortune rather than bad management of the balloon, but it left Brown convinced he was now caught in a partnership as bad as that with the drunken ‘Captain’ Dean. A few weeks later, Brown terminated his partnership with Green and, to thwart Coppin, who was seeking to call up the promissory note drawn against the purchase of the balloons, he had himself declared insolvent.
Brown never recovered from this disaster. A year later, in Melbourne, he built a gas balloon but failed to achieve any commercial success with the venture. In March of 1863 he wrote to his old friend in England, Henry Coxwell, and excitedly reported: ‘I have made a grand discovery—a new sort of balloon requiring no gas or fire—a fact!’ Nothing further was heard of this extraordinary discovery.
On 18 January 1870, a hot Tuesday afternoon, Charles Henry Brown, fully clothed, stepped into the Yarra River just across from the old Cremorne Gardens. He waved to a watching angler and drowned himself—burdened by failures, an eventual—and final—victim of Australia’s spectacular first air wreck.
1 ‘News by electric telegraph’, Australasian, 19 March 1881, p. 370.
Agnes Paton Bell, Melbourne—John Bateman’s Village, Melbourne, Cassell, 1965, p. 83.
Michael Cannon, Life in the Cities, Melbourne, Thomas Nelson, 1975, p. 95.
‘Siege of Paris September 1870 – February 1871’, The Romance of Ballooning, New York, Viking 1971, p. 108.
‘Amusements’, Sydney Morning Herald, 12 March 1881, p. 2.
‘Amusements’, Sydney Morning Herald, 14 March 1881, p. 2.
J.D. Keating, The Lambent Flame, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1974, p. 16.
‘Notices’, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 March 1881, p. 2.
‘A Sensational Balloon Ascent’, Australasian Sketcher, 26th March 1881, p. 110.
‘The Balloon Explosion in Sydney’, Illustrated News & NSW Agriculturist & Grazier, 23 April 1881, p. 9.
Sydney Morning Herald, 17th March, 1881, p. 5.
‘The Explosion of Mr. L’Estrange’s Balloon near Sydney’, Australasian Sketcher, 9th April 1881, p. 116.
‘The Great Balloon Explosion in Sydney—Scene in Palmer Street’, Illustrated Sydney News & NSW Agriculturist & Grazier, 23rd April 1881, p. 9.
‘Editorial,’, Australasian, 19th March 1881, p. 370.
Greg Copley, Australians in the Air, Adelaide, Rigby Ltd, 1976, p. 4.
Brian Carroll, Australian Aviators-An Illustrated History, Melbourne, Cassell, 1980, p. 13.
Ian Bevan, The Story of the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, Currency Press, 1993, p. 36.
Alec Bagot, Coppin the Great, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1965, p. 213.
Charles H. Brown, Aeronautica – Mss notebook, La Trobe Manuscript Collection, p. 259.
Argus, 12th January 1858.
Argus, 28th January 1858.
Bells Life in Victoria, 20th February 1858, p. 2.
Brown, p. 319.
‘Notices’, Sydney Morning Herald, 8th December 1858, p. 1.
Sydney Morning Herald, 20th December 1858, p. 4.
Sydney Morning Herald, 17th December 1881, p. 1.
Brown, p. 322.
‘Balloon Ascent on Monday’, Bells Life in Sydney & Sporting Review, 23rd April 1859, p. 4.
William Kent, ‘Vauxhall Gardens’, An Encyclopaedia of London, London, Dent 1937, p. 692.
‘Balloon Ascent and Terrible Explosion’, Sydney Morning Herald, 19th April 1859, p. 5.
Brown, p. 323.
‘The Balloon Ascent on Monday’, Bells Life in Sydney & Sporting Review, 23rd April 1859, p. 4.
Brown, p. 323.
Bells Life in Victoria, 30th April 1859, p. 2.
Brown, p. 323.
Brown, p. 324.
Brown, p. 396.