The Melbourne balloon riot of 1858

Coppin's balloon medal, 1858

In the rather enjoyable Falling Upwards, Richard Holmes spends most of his time discussing the history of ballooning in Britain, France, and the United States. However, he does briefly talk about the first balloon flights in Australia:

In 1858 the British balloon the Australian made some startling flights over Melbourne and Sydney. There was a late-summer ascent in March from Cremorne Gardens, Melbourne, in which a basketful of local dignitaries sailed over the Botanical Gardens in bright moonlight, with a magical sight of the festival fireworks far below. But, attempting to land at Battam's Swamp, they found themselves in a working-class district, and the balloon basket was seized by a violent crowd. Amid vocal democratic objections to such 'superior' transport, the distinguished guests were forced to escape by jettisoning champagne bottles, picnic hampers, several bags of sand ballast, and finally throwing off a few hardy objectors still clinging to the sides of the basket. 1

I'd never heard about this 19th century aerial riot, or near-riot, in my home town. However, Holmes doesn't cite any sources; and while something like this did happen, when compared with contemporary press reports his account appears to be deficient in several respects.

The balloon involved -- 19 metres high, seen on the commemorative medal above -- was the very first to make a successful ascent in Australia, on 1 February 1858. 2 However, it was not called the Australian but the Australasian (apparently an easy mistake to make). 3 I can't find any 'Battam's Swamp' in early Melbourne; presumably this should be Batman's Swamp in West Melbourne, which as it happened is where the Australasian was inflated before each flight, due to it also being the site of the city gasworks (coal gas was usually used in balloons in this period, as it was safer than hydrogen, and easier to get thanks to the spread of gas lighting). The balloon was then transported through the streets on by horse and cart to the Cremorne Gardens in Richmond on the north bank of the Yarra (in an area now called Cremorne, though the gardens themselves are mostly long gone). This was a pleasure garden, named after a similar venture in London -- not by chance, as it was founded by James Ellis who had managed the original. 4 The antipodean version was taken over by George Coppin, who imported the Australasian and its aeronauts, Joseph Dean and Charles Henry Brown (and incidentally also put on nightly re-enactments of the recent Battle of Canton throughout the summer). The balloon appears to have been quite the sensation, with up to several thousand people coming to view its ascents, whether tethered or in free flight; though whether it made money is another question, as apparently many spectators were content to watch from outside the Gardens without paying. 5

The errors so far are trivial. More importantly, I can't find any flight which quite matches the description given by Holmes. I can find four five [edited 26 July 2022] Melbourne flights (as opposed to the more frequent tethered ascents) in total in 1858:

  • 1 February: the first flight, which landed 'somewhere the other side of Heidelberg'. 6
  • 15 February: the second flight, and the first night flight, which landed in or near Brunswick. 7
  • 25 March: another night flight, which landed in 'Spring Vale' (now Springvale). 8
  • [Added 26 July 2022]: 29 March: a night flight which landed at Emerald Hill. 9
  • 12 5 April: the fourth and final flight, also at night, which landed at Heidelberg. 10

Holmes says the flight in question was made in March, but the only flight that month landed without interfence; in fact the aeronauts slept in the basket and then had to walk some distance to find civilisation in the form of the Spring Vale Hotel where they 'were treated in true British style'. 11 The first and last flights also seem to have been unmolested. However, an account given by Brown of the second flight, the one on 15 February, does sound something like the description given by Holmes:

At this time I had reached the current I first encountered, and, floating onward at a mean altitude, I arrived over a spot which I thought favorable for landing. I drew the valve-string and came down in the most gentle manner possible on the road between Collingwood Stockade [actually in Carlton North] and Brunswick, about four miles from Cremorne, after a voyage of 44 minutes. On my descent, I was treated in a most brutal manner by the people assembled. Why, I know not; but they tore the hair from my head, bruised, crushed, and almost suffocated me besides damaging the balloon by tugging at, and trampling on it. This does not apply to Mr. Hugh Peck, of Collingwood, to whom I am under the obligation of returning the balloon to Cremorne in safety, and declining to receive any remuneration for his trouble. Mr. Needham, of the Gas-works, assisted in extricating me from the savages. 12

This would indeed have been a working class area at the time (the locations can be found on a geological survey map from, as it happens, 1858). However, Brown was alone in the basket, not accompanied by local dignitaries; and the escape from the mob seems to have been effected on the ground, not by jettisoning ballast and flying away. Nor does Brown allow that he had any inkling of why he was assaulted by the crowd, whereas Holmes is quite firm in ascribing it to class consciousness. Unfortunately Falling Upwards is coy about its sources at this point, but judging from this it may have been Helene Rodgers' Early Ballooning in Australia (1989) which contains the information that 'when Charles Brown flew two weeks later [after the first flight], he was bashed on landing in Collingwood by a superstitious mob who thought it evil for humans to fly'. On the other hand, the Bendigo Advertiser commented at the time that the rough handling of Brown and his balloon 'does not say much for the improvement of our manners or morals, but it is to be presumed the perpetrators were bachannals' (and indeed, the Cornish Arms and the Sarah Sands -- which sadly is just about to close -- wouldn't have been far away). 13 And a snippet from what looks like the book to read on this subject, Terence FitzSimons' The Unfortunate Endeavours of Charles Henry Brown (2015) instead suggests that

the public [...] appeared to have adopted it as a new game to ‘capture’ the descending balloon. The object of the sport seemed to be to entice the aeronauts to descend and then try to shake them out of the basket. On a number of occasions the balloon and the aeronauts were manhandled on landing.

From this it looks like there was actually more than one 'rough' landing, meaning I've missed something (and I owe Holmes an apology). But FitzSimons's ebook is expensive and I'm too cheap to buy it right now! 14

Either way, incidents like these make it easier to understand that while the soaring symbolism of balloons might have appealed to 19th century radicals, the (always potentially revolutionary) crowds that gathered to see them worried reactionaries. The Melbourne balloon riot of 1858 would seem to be a black mark against Victoria's proud status as the birthplace of Australian aviation. But it is some consolation to learn that an unsuccessful attempt to fly a balloon in the Australian colonies just over a year earlier resulted in a much bigger riot. And that was in Sydney. 15

Update 26 July 2022: There was indeed a flight I missed, that of 29 March 1858, and according to Helene Rogers's new book, Lighter Than Air: Australian Ballooning History (Affirm Press, 2021), this 'had problems with crowds assaulting them at Batman's Swamp, so flew on to Emerald Hill (South Melbourne)' (43). So whatever Richard Holmes's source, he was right!

Image source: Museums Victoria.

  1. Richard Holmes, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air (London: William Collins, 2013), 94-5.
  2. Argus (Melbourne), 2 February 1858, 5. Although there's an outside chance it was pipped at the post by a rival in Ballarat: see Terence O'Neill-FitzSimons, 'A balloon on the Ballarat: Green's balloon extraordinary', Victorian Historical Journal, 71, no. 1 (2000), 19-30.
  3. Argus, 16 February 1858, 5.
  4. Age (Melbourne), 15 April 1858, 5.
  5. Age, 2 February 1858, 5; Adelaide Times, 5 April 1858, 3.
  6. Argus, 2 February 1858, 5.
  7. Argus, 16 February 1858, 5.
  8. Argus, 27 March 1858, 4.
  9. Bendigo Advertiser, 31 March 1858, 2; Portland Guardian, 31 March 1858, 2.
  10. Sydney Morning Herald, 13 April 1858, 5. Andrew May's eMelbourne entry on ballooning seems to suggest that this landing, or perhaps an additional one, was actually at Emerald Hill (now South Melbourne), but I haven't been able to find this in the press.
  11. Argus, 27 March 1858, 4.
  12. Argus, 16 February 1858, 5.
  13. Bendigo Advertiser, 16 February 1858, 2.
  14. An interesting read on the sad fates of both Brown -- suicide -- and the Australasian -- Australia's first air disaster -- can be found on FitzSimons' website.
  15. Sydney Morning Herald, 16 December 1856, 5.

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4 thoughts on “The Melbourne balloon riot of 1858

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  2. Alison Gee

    I’ve been trying to find some history on ballooning in Australia (particularly rural Victoria). My mother (born in 1920) had an early childhood memory of large balloons with people riding in them. There was a crowd of people watching and a large number of balloons. It was held in a field, probably in the Beechworth/Mount Buffalo area. When she mentioned this memory later in life to her much older sisters, they were surprised and said it was true and she was just a baby when it happened. Perhaps she was a toddler and the year would have been 1922 - 1925. The family moved to NSW when she was 5 so the event would have been between the years mentioned. Is this event recorded anywhere? It seems the sight of these balloons became more accepted in time. Seems to have been a carnival atmosphere.

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