In my beautiful balloon

Get back to work, Emerson

During a regular working week, certain research themes and activities keep coming up – family history research, for example, or research on some aspect of industry or political events. This is different in January, the month of pavlova and sand. Away from the beaches, the holidays and laden tables, the research information resources of the Library world feel a bit like ghost-towns over the summer break.

For those of us still in the (Library) office it affords a bit more space to take a relaxing look at the very cool things we work with every day – a little time to luxuriate in the resources we champion across the rest of the year.

A year or two ago the standup comedian Te Radar toured the country with a stage show that a colleague of mine reviewed glowingly. He’d gone to the show with his partner and reported back in positive terms the mention that Papers Past had received in the performance.

He related a story Te Radar told about an ill-fated balloonist, and described a tragi-beautiful image of a man sitting atop a hot-air balloon as it disappeared off into the sunset over the pacific, never to be seen again.

True story, as it turns out.

So what’s the story?

In the mid to late 1890’s, a young kiwi called David Mahoney made his name in the UK as “Captain Charles Lorraine”, a balloonist/parachutist, performing at public exhibitions and events. His modus operandi was to ride his hot-air balloon up to a high enough altitude to enable him to jump off and parachute back down. The balloon would cool and descend by itself, and presumably, be found later.

However, these weren’t parachutes as we know them today. Instead, these were essentially trapeze swings suspended beneath a body of cloth which was probably not controllable to the extent that a modern parachute is. During the descent, he would perform trapeze tricks for the watching crowd.

In late 1898, word came to the Auckland Star that the Captain was looking at returning to NZ with his aerial spectacle – from the August 19th “Personal Notes” column:

I hear that 'Captain' Charles Lorraine, the Auckland parachutists, who has gained a considerable amount of cash and notoriety since his arrival in the Old Country three years ago, intends to return to New Zealand shortly, with a view to getting an engagement to thrill visitors to the Auckland Exhibition with his long drops from cloud-land. Captain Lorraine's longest drop was one of 15,000 feet, but I understand he did not take this risk intentionally... Auckland Star, 26 September 1898, Page 4.

Shortly after, on the 30th of November of that year, the Evening Post reported his arrival in Wellington on the ship Ruahine.

“Captain” Lorraine had arrived. By the 5th of December, a notice appeared in the Personal column of the Auckland Star, asking Captain Lorraine, Balloonist, to stop by their office to collect a letter intended for him.

PERSONAL: Will Captain Lorraine, Balloonist, please call at 'Star' Office for Letter. Auckland Star, 5 December 1898, Page 1.

The Captain found his promotional feet in New Zealand very quickly – on that same date, in that very same newspaper, an article ran announcing the young aeronaut’s arrival “from the south in order to take part in the amusements for the public at the Auckland Industrial and Mining Exhibition”. In the article “He states that the highest ascent he has made in a balloon is 27,000 feet. The biggest drop he has performed with a parachute is 15,000 feet.” Being a showman, this man didn’t quite fit the mould of the “unassuming kiwi”.

Later that month, in the Bay of Plenty Times, the Caledonian Sports Society advertised (in lovely fonts, it has to be said) that Lorraine would perform “one of his thrilling acts” at the Domain Cricket Ground on January the 2nd. Admission, one shilling. Children under twelve, sixpence.

The ascent on the second went well, with four thousand people attending. Reportedly the “Boomerang throwing of Mr Kennedy and the Balloon ascent of Captain Lorraine proved strong attractions” for the crowd. Apparently, Lorraine performed his array of tricks on the parachute descent, which included hanging by his toes. He landed in a garden not far from the domain, and the balloon fell into the grounds of the Hon. E. Mitchelson of Newmarket.

Detail of a photo of Lorraine's balloon, from the Observer, 1899. Observer, 21 January 1899, Page 8.

You can read a full account of the day, including sporting results.

Gosh! I bet everything always went swimmingly

Unfortunately, it didn’t always go quite so smoothly. In April of 1899, Captain Lorraine had scheduled a dual ascent/descent at the Takapuna racecourse, where it was planned that two people would ascend, and jump at different altitudes. Miss Frances Juriss was to be the second parachutist, and the plan was for her to jump at 7000 feet, and for Lorraine to hit the silk at 10,000.

Few people paid for admission, but the surrounding streets and hillsides were covered in freeloading onlookers. Lorraine decided to do the jump by himself in light of the small paying crowd. However, the wind had the final say on the matter and dragged the balloon parallel to the ground, with the Captain forced to give a performance in jumping over barbed-wire fences whilst attached to a large hot-air balloon. He failed to gain altitude, and was (according to the Auckland Star of April 10 1899) “much grieved at having for the first time in his life disappointed those who paid admission”.

A few weeks later, the Auckland Star printed some happier, more personal news. The Captain had gotten married to Miss Juriss – in fact, had married her on March 22nd.

LORRAINE-JURISS: On Wednesday, March 22, at St. Paul's Church, by the Rev. Canon C.M. Nelson, Captain Charles Lorraine (late of London) to Frances Fanny Juriss, eldest daughter of Antonio Juriss of Christchurch. Wellington, Christchurch, and English papers please copy.. Auckland Star, 11 May 1899, Page 8.

His new bride was from Christchurch, and this may have played some role in the Lorraines taking the show to Christchurch in the spring of 1899, following some performances in Wellington at the Basin Reserve. An advertisement in the Press appeared, promoting a “Complimentary Benefit to Captain Lorraine”, scheduled for November the 2nd at Lancaster Park.

Further, it was announced that the Captain intended to make the ascent “his record one”, by attempting to make the jump from the balloon at an altitude of over 15,000 feet.

Tell me more!

The attempt was set for 4pm, and “Everything seemed to favour him in his adventure”. The afternoon was warm, and the wind was gentle enough before the launch. His balloon, named “Empress”, was successfully inflated, and the Captain attached the canopy of his parachute with a slender tape to the side of the balloon.

The trapeze of the parachute was handed to him by his wife Frances, and with a cry of “Now then gentlemen, let her go”, up shot the balloon. Immediately there was a cry of horror from the spectators – the parachute had broken free and hung below the balloon, and inflated, slowing the ascent. The Captain held the trapeze but found the strain too great and the parachute won the tug-of-war, and collapsed to the ground in a bundle of silk and cord.

The balloon leapt upwards, and a strengthening north-westerly drew the rising craft towards Sumner. Spectators saw the Captain climb the netting up the side, and it was recalled that he had no knife with him to let out gas, so it was surmised that he was going to try to turn the balloon over gently to let hot air out and descend.

The globe travelled away from the spectators, growing smaller and smaller, and it became clear that the Captain had passed the coastline.

The above passage is a paraphrasing of the account that appeared in newspapers across the country the following day. In my own minds eye, Lorraine sits on top of that balloon in perpetual sunset across an endless Pacific ocean, and drifts on and on.

I’m glad everything worked out. Wait, what?

The facts are somewhat less mystic. The Marlborough Express was one of many to provide a summary of the event and its conclusion.

The signalman at the Harbour Board’s station saw the balloon drop from the sky, the deflated cloth acting like a poor parachute as it plummeted toward the water near the Port Levy rocks (roughly in the lower area of the compass points on the map below). A tugboat was dispatched by the harbour master to the scene, but the Captain was never seen again.

Port Cooper, Port Levy and Pigeon Bay, Great Britain, Hydrographic Office, John Lort Stokes, 1811-1885.

You’re a downer, Vandy

Thank you, summer holidays, for providing a humble service manager the time to enjoy the very service he exhorts everyone else to use.

By Emerson Vandy

Emerson is Digital Services Manager, taking good care of Papers Past, nzresearch.org, and occasionally a beard.

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