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24 May 2022

Australia's first aeronaut went down like a lead balloon

The journey from earth-bound mortals to the sky-high realms of domestic and international travel is littered with tall tales. European monks donning feathered wings before leaping from towers and ingenious boffins inventing locomotive kites and steam-powered sky boats are among the early attempts by proto-pilots to fly. Closer to home, The Domain was the scene of some of the first fraught steps taken in Australia's aviation industry.

Aviation's early daredevils were greeted with suspicion, chastised for wanting to 'rule the air' and accused of presumptuously desiring powers deemed fit only for angels and demons. There was a great deal of speculation about what exactly the atmosphere was made of and the harm it could cause if a person were to have ideas above their station and mingle with it.

Onwards and upwards

When the world's first hot air balloon ascent was accomplished by two French brothers, Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier, in 1783, the news spread like wildfire, and King Louis XVI requested a repeat of their miraculous experiment on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles.

The brothers obliged, launching Le Réveillon in the presence of Louis, his wife Marie Antoinette and a crowd of onlookers. The balloon was made of taffeta coated with alum and hand-painted, gilded wallpaper, which added a decadent decorative touch to what was already a spectacular science experiment. Travelling in the balloon's basket were a sheep, a duck and a rooster.

Possibly sensing that revolution was also in the air, the brothers had refused King Louis' generous offer of human prisoners as crash-test dummies. Much to the delight of all who were present, the balloon's ascent was a success, the animals survived, and flights were deemed safe for human passengers.

1830s Print of the Montgolfiers piloted Hot Air Balloon launch
A print of the first piloted launch of a Montgolfier brothers' balloon a few months after the ascent at Versailles. Image: "Histoire aéronautique par les monuments peints, sculptés, dessinés et gravés, des origines à 1830 : deux cents reproductions en noir et en couleur" via State Library of New South Wales (SLNSW)

The eye in the sky

Over subsequent decades balloons gradually became more common in Europe, foreshadowing drones for aerial photography and surveillance; they were deployed for aerial reconnaissance on the battlefield. 

Ninety years after the first flight in France, the public had become more accepting of the idea of air travel. Five weeks in a Balloon was a best-seller, launching Jules Verne's career as a science fiction writer and hot air balloons were popular fixtures at London's famed Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.

Australia's first successful flight was funded by George Coppin and piloted by William Dean, who had completed ascents at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. They were, however, not the first to attempt an ascent, let's turn our gaze to the first of the daredevil aeronauts who tested their mettle in Sydney's Domain.

Portrait of Governor General Sir William Denison, Sydney, 1859, by Freeman Brothers Studio, from vintage albumen. Via State Library of NSW
Portrait of the Governor General, Sir William Denison, Sydney, 1859, by Freeman Brothers Studio. Image: SLNSW

Hot air balloons were not Pierre Maigré's jam 

The news reports covering Australia's first ballooning attempt read like a fever dream. French aeronaut Pierre Maigré gained approval from the Governor-General, William Denison, to launch the nation's first flight in the Domain in December 1856. He promoted the event in the weeks prior with a vigour that was later his downfall, pasting vainglorious promotional posters to trees in the area.

Although the tickets were expensive, the event was well supported. By the time the balloon was full of gas, 12,000 people had thronged the Domain to witness the spectacle. Denison cast doubt on the craft's buoyancy but Maigré's self-confidence was undiminished.

As Maigré climbed into the basket and raised his top hat to the strains of La Marseillaise, the balloon pulled on its ropes and tore. The crowd were roused having just sung God Save the Queenand the minor setback triggered the swelling of their ranks into the front row from the cheap seats. After some quick sewing, he again attempted to ascend, but the surging crowds interfered with the ropes, and the balloon failed to leave the ground.

Reports of what happened next vary, but miscreant children are said to have knocked Maigré's hat off and trampled it. Fearing for his safety, he fled to the South Lodge of the Domain with 'upwards of four thousand boys and youths with yells and hootings' in hot pursuit. All of the building's windows were later smashed when the rampaging mob threw rocks in a failed attempt to lure him out.

Watercolour by ST Gill of the first intercolonial cricket match between NSW and Victoria in 1857
The first cricket match between New South Wales and Victoria was played in the Domain a few months after the riots in January, 1857. Image: Samuel Thomas Gill. 1857. via NLA

It's not cricket

As if that wasn't enough excitement for one day, what remained of the hordes swarmed the balloon, kicking the brazier used to heat the gas over, throwing a shower of sparks in the air and igniting the flags that had been tied to the basket. The balloon was next to go, accompanied by the crowd's chants of 'burn, burn, burn the balloon', the wooden seating was torn apart and tossed on the blaze and the tent where Maigré had kept the fuel was torched. Nothing was sacred and nothing was spared; even the fencing erected for the upcoming intercolonial cricket match between Victoria and New South Wales went on the bonfire. 

When anything that wasn't tied down had been destroyed, the mob turned its attention to the two wooden masts that held the balloon in place while it was inflated. Two young boys were trapped when one of the masts toppled, one received minor injuries, and the other, 11-year-old Thomas Downes, suffered a fatal head injury and died in hospital the next day. The rioters threw the offending pole on the fire.

Sailors from the HMS Juno and a civilian who had sworn at the police were later variously charged with disturbing the peace and inciting a riot. The jury found that the disappointment of the failed ascent was the reason for the rioting; there was no apparent perpetrator to charge for the death of Thomas Downes; and if anything was to blame for Thomas' death, it was Maigré's false advertising and 'sham' balloon ascent. It's difficult to know how to reconcile the series of events and this outcome today, but rum was mentioned in one report and we cannot discount the part it played in the early years of the colony.

What happened to Maigré and the money earned from ticket sales is unknown, understandably, he appears to have faded into obscurity. However, a notice related to the death of a man with the same name appeared in a Government Gazette in 1932, listing his profession as 'preserve maker'. If it was indeed the same Pierre, it gives pause to wonder whether the aeronautical mishap led to him walking away from the riot relatively unscathed with 'money for jam'.

Up, up and away…

Image: George Coppin, ca. 1855. Image: Dixson Library, SLNSW.

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References & further reading

Australia’s First Air Wreck. Victorian Historical Journal, 77(1), Terence Fitzsimons, 2006.
The Sydney Balloon, The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 December ​1856, p. 5. via NLA
Mob Fury, The Newcastle Sun, 20 May 1935, p. 6. via NLA
Fiercer than EaglesWestern Mail, 20 January 1955, p. 10. via NLA 
The Day the Balloon Didn't Go Up!Truth, 19 July 1953, p. 40. via NLA

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