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A Ballooning Humourist

Albert Smith ( 1816 - 60 ), a qualified physician turned humorist, who unlike some of the more famous writers for Punch, is rather forgotten now, was, for a short while, an enthusiastic balloonist, until he came a cropper. One of the letters featured here is addressed to a certain Barton, and may refer to an impending ascent, because 'Vauxhall Station' is described as 'a meeting place' and we know that in this period many balloons took off from Vauxhall Gardens. In the other letter, written on a Monday night, he warns ‘Sir Edwin ‘ (possibly the painter Landseer ) that he has a morning ‘ascent’ on Tuesday morning ( no date, alas), but will come to see him in the late afternoon, when he has landed.

The letter to Sir Edwin may refer to an impending balloon flight from Cremorne in July 1847 in which Smith and nine other passengers, who included fellow Punch contributor Shirley Brooks. The ecstatic Smith recalled the novelty of his experience thus:

‘ The first sensation experienced was not that we were rising, but that the balloon remain fixed whilst all the world below was falling away; while the cheers with which they greeted our departure grew fainter, and the cheerers themselves began to look like the inmates of many sixpenny Noah’s Arks grouped upon a billiard table…’

But in the following October the writer had a different and grimmer tale to tell. This time, it was planned to ascend from Vauxhall Gardens and drop fireworks over Pimlico. Unfortunately, at 7,000 feet (over a mile up) there were problems with the balloon and the basket began to descend rapidly. Ballast, including bottles of wine, was jettisoned in an attempt to lighten the load, but to no avail.

The descent became still more rapid as discharging fireworks sent sparks into the balloon fabric and a thunderstorm wrought its own havoc. Smith recalled the horror:

‘We now saw the houses, the roofs of which appeared advancing to meet us, and the next instant, as we dashed by their summits, the words ‘ Hold hard !’ burst simultaneously from all the party…We were all directly thrown out of the car along the ground, and, incomprehensible as it now appears to me, nobody was seriously hurt.’

It would seem that the three ended up bruised and battered on the Belgrave Road. It is not known exactly what injuries were sustained that day, but it is likely that this brush with death put paid to Smith’s love affair with balloons. Instead, he took to mountaineering, ascended Mont Blanc in 1851 and eventually became a founder member of the Alpine Club.[RMH]

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