Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A most melancholy and affecting catastrophe, or: Up, up and away!

It's interesting what you find when looking for something completely different.

One of the various projects on which I'm currently working involves a lot of poking around in eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century newspapers. Which are not, let me tell you, always that exciting. Loads of text, few things we would identify as 'headlines' and much of the content obsesses about the doings of now-obscure nobility, the threat of the (now-harmless) French navy or the variations in the price of (the now not-so-popular-or-vital) tobacco.

However, they're useful for the project on which I'm engaged (which doesn't, in fact, deal with any of the three above-named topics) and, as an added bonus, they occasionally contain something unexpected and fascinating.

For instance, yesterday I ran across something titled (rather unpromisingly, I thought) 'Garnerin's Balloon' in the London Times, 6 July 1802. The history of aviation being--as we historians say when at a loss for words--'not my area', it took me a few minutes to track down the reference.

As Wikipedia tells us, André-Jacques Garnerin was the Paris-born inventor of the 'frameless parachute' and a pioneer in hot-air balloon aviation. (As an added informational bonus, his intrepid-sounding wife has a good claim, it seems, to have been the first female hang glider rider.)

In any case, the Times article recounted one of Garnerin's balloon trips, and it sounds like it was quite an event:
Of all the scenes which for a length of time have attracted the attention of the Public, we have never witnessed any that drew forth so large an assemblage of people as was yesterday collected in the vicinity of Lord's Cricket Ground, to view the second Ascension of Garnerin's Balloon.
To have formed any idea of the numbers which occupied the Jews-harp Fields, the Nursery Grounds adjoining, the Cricket Grounds, and the tops of the houses for some distance round the neighbourhood, would be utterly impossible. Carriages, Hackney coaches, and market carts, filled every avenue, and for more than a mile and half on the New Road, vehicles of every description were standing in rows three deep. The foot-paths were also completely blocked up by crowds of Pedestrians.

So, anyway, Garnerin ensured that his balloon was ready to go, and loads of Londoners turned out to watch his 'ascension' in the rain, including a bunch of toffs, among them the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Devonshire.

Here's a painting that might represent this event (there was more than one ascension at Lord's in 1802):

The assorted nobles made a bunch of fuss about this crazy, flying Frenchman who lifted off at 'precisely five minutes before five' (emphasis in original...they did have funny ideas about italics in them days) and later landed safely.

Or, at least, mostly safely:
[W]e have the pleasure to say, that notwithstanding the violence of the wind, they landed in safety, with the exception of a bruise Mr. Garnerin received on his back at ten minutes after five [like I said...what's with the italics?], in a field of Mr. Owen's, at Chingford, in Essex, having traversed a space of seventeen miles in fifteen minutes.
Good for Mr. Garnerin!

And...um...not so good for the people on the ground.

As we find out at the end of this long article, things did not go nearly as well for the people who had turned out to see this stupendous event:
Before and after the ascension of the Balloon, the most flagrant and atrocious acts of plunder and robbery, were committed by gangs of thieves and pickpockets. Their numbers enabled them to carry on their depredations in security, and several instances occurred, where finding it impossible to steal with success, they did not scruple to seize and carry off the property openly and by force.
It gets worse:
The breaking down of a scaffold or platform, upon which a great number of persons had taken their stand, produced a most melancholy and and affecting catastrophe.
By this unfortunate accident seven persons were most dreadfully crushed, a child was killed on the spot, a woman had both her legs broken, a man had a leg broken, and two others their arms. Another had his head and face crushed in so dreadful a manner as to leave little hopes of his recovery.

This shocking event happened about half after three o'clock. A little boy was trampled to death by the crowd before he could be raised from the ground; and we are fearful that many more accidents of a similar kind have taken place.
Yes...but not so fearful that you wouldn't spend a thousand words or so blathering on about the antics of the Prince of Wales and a crazed French balloon enthusiast before you mention a collapsed viewing stand or a crushed child.

Ah, the good old days, eh?

(Full cite: 'Garnerin's Balloon', The Times, Tuesday, 6 July 1802, p. 2, Issue 5455; col B)

Previous found history:

Sunday Bloody Sunday
Tales of pistol-packing parsons and fistic friars
On unhealthy, sickly, womanish tendencies and the threat of feral ruffians
Cantankerous, prosy and full of mutual hatred
The Flotsam and Jetsam of History

1 comment:

The Honourable Husband said...

A most melancholy and affecting post. And I mean taht in a good way.