January has long been the time for big days out in New South Wales. One such day, 22 January 1870, saw crowds gather in the Domain to watch aeronaut Thomas Gale fly his balloon.
Aeronauts had been flying balloons since the 1780s, some in the name of science, others for entertainment. Thomas’s father, Lieutenant George Burcher Gale, was an aeronautist of the entertainer variety.
Originally an actor, George had toured the USA and returned to England with six Native Americans. The group, along with George, were ‘exhibited’ in London until their novelty wore off. He then retired from the stage to Ireland, acquiring his naval title as a coast guard. There with his second wife, Matilda, he had six children including Thomas.
But the lure of the limelight was too strong and George returned to London and took up ballooning. He proved very successful at this, completing 114 flights and making a name for himself crossing the English Channel to France. However, the showman in George was to lead to his death. Just a few months after the channel crossing he was in Paris proposing to fly while seated on a pony suspended beneath the balloon. All went well until the landing. The balloon was not secured properly and ascended again, without the pony, but with George clinging to it. His body was found the next day.
At this time Thomas was about 12 years old and for the rest of his life he would try to emulate his father’s achievements. In 1867 his attempt to cross the English Channel failed and shortly after he left for Australia. The balloon ascent of 22 January 1870 was to be a day of glory in a life with only a few of those days.
So, Gale arrived in Sydney with an illustrious pedigree, limited resources and a lot to live up to. His very first flight in NSW was to be in his ‘Monster Balloon’ made from a cotton cloth called jaconet often used for bandages. He would top the bill on a full day of activities held at the Sir Joseph Banks Hotel on 27 December 1869.
Gale began inflating the balloon (the jaconet was oiled to make it airtight) at a private residence on the Newtown Road about 5 o’clock in the morning. But when almost inflated, a gust blew the balloon against a tree and it was torn. He was unable to make repairs and so did not get to the launching ground at the hotel in Botany Bay.
After an enormous build-up, which had brought a crowd of about 15,000 to the hotel grounds on a very hot day, the fee paying public was understandably disgruntled. Stories circulated that the whole thing had been a “swindle” and a “sham and a delusion”. To relieve some of the pressure, Gale wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald promising that he would make good with a free event at the Domain.
This second attempt on 15 January 1870, started from the Outer Domain near the entrance to the Botanic Gardens. Failure looked certain as the balloon bobbed about in front of a reported 20,000 spectators. After first removing his fellow occupants (named only as a journalist and a young lady), then the ballast and finally the basket underneath, Gale, seated on the ring below the balloon, ascended. He managed to fly as far as the head of Darling Harbour, near Glebe before descending and crashing into some trees.
This success spurred Gale to try again on 18 January, this time with the opportunity to replenish his finances. Using the same balloon as his Glebe flight so soon after its troubles may have been a mistake. This time the balloon tore along a seam just as it was ready to go and it quickly deflated.
But Gale’s enthusiasm did not and he announced a fourth attempt for 22 January.
Surprisingly, given the previous disappointments, a crowd of about 2000 gathered on the Outer Domain and paid a fee for entry. They also paid extra to get into the enclosure where the balloon was being inflated. This took 10 hours, with coal gas being supplied by the Sydney Gas Company. Stalls, booths and a merry-go-round with its own band were employed to keep the crowd distracted. At 4 o’clock in the afternoon the balloon had still not fully inflated, but with time running out preparation was made for ‘lift off’.
Not being fully inflated made weight an issue once more. Again, Gale sat alone on the ring beneath the balloon, having jettisoned the sand ballast and the undercarriage.
The balloon rose to about 300–400 feet and drifted south-west over Sydney and then Newtown. Gale feared he was being pushed out to sea and so released some gas to lower the balloon. This worked and it dropped towards Petersham before rapidly descending into a paddock near Petersham Railway Station. Luckily for Gale a number of Petersham locals were on hand as he was dragged behind the balloon. They were able to hold the balloon fast so that a slightly injured Gale could get himself clear.
An enthusiastic crowd, which had followed him by horseback and vehicle, now cheered and rode with him all the way back to the Domain, perhaps as relieved as Gale that he had succeeded.