How a 'celebrated parachuting monkey' was the toast of Europe in the 1830s - a fantastic glimpse into the early days of ballooning and aeronautics in the UK, in a guest post from the Royal Aeronautical Society's Chief Librarian, Brian Riddle.

The early days of aeronautics also involved one of the most famous British landscape painters in history  - J.M.W. Turner who expressed an interest in pioneering balloon flights.  


Turner and  'Aerostation'

On March 13 1837 from ‘Queen Ann Street’ J.M.W. Turner wrote to Robert Hollond the following letter:-
“Your Excursion so occupied my mind that I dreamt of it, and I do hope you will hold to your intention of making the drawing, with all the forms and colours of your recollection”.

The date and location of this letter - which are omitted from the Collected Correspondence of J.M.W. Turner (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1980 page 163) edited by John Gage, in which Gage notes:- “MS. Untraced (Maggs Bros. 1920, No.1774). Publ. Lindsay 1966. p.183” - are recorded on a page from a 1926 sales catalogue of Maggs Bros [Item No.2423] which has been pasted into Vol. XII. of the William Thomas Whitley (1858-1942) collection of newspaper cuttings etc. [British Museum – Department of Prints and Drawings], the catalogue description of the 1 page letter concluding after the opening sentence quoted above “Etc., etc., etc.” implying there may have been more text to the letter. A much earlier reference to it before Jack Lindsay Turner: his Life and Work (Adams and Dart Ltd. 1966 Chapter 15) is to be found in J. E. Hodgson ‘s The History of Aeronautics in Great Britain (Oxford University Press. 1924 page 253), the ‘Excursion’ to which Turner refers to being the November 7 1836 flight in the 'Royal Vauxhall' (later known as the 'Nassau') balloon achieved by Charles Green , Robert Hollond and Thomas Monck Mason - the flight of some 480 miles lasting 18 hours being the longest that Man had accomplished up to that time.  

'The Monkey who has seen the World'

The dream of flight - the conquest of the air - haunted successive generations and over the centuries various designs for flying machines were recorded on paper, models were made, but it was not until the late-18th century during the Enlightenment pursuit of scientific knowledge that Man gained the ability to travel through the air - by balloon. The balloon was born in France in 1783, animals (a sheep, cockerel and a duck) becoming the first aeronauts due to uncertainities as to what effect travel through the upper atmosphere would have upon the human body. The first untethered human balloon voyage was made on November 21st 1783 by Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes in a Montgolfier hot-air balloon from the Chateau de la Muette in the Bois de Boulogne to the Butte aux Cailles in south-east Paris ( a distance of about 5.5 miles). As early as January 7 1785 an aerial crossing of the English Channel was made by Jean-Pierre Blanchard and an American Dr. John Jeffries. The sensation of Aerostation - and the freedoms it opened up in an era of great social revolutionary change - led to a ‘balloon mania’ sweeping across Europe encouraged by the circulation of numerous published accounts, lithographs and various other balloon fashions and memorabilia. However by the mid-1830s - a half-century had passed since the excitement of these pioneering flights - and “Aerostation had gone to sleep” (Thomas Monck Mason Account of the Late Aeronautical Expedition from London to Weilburg; Accomplished by Robert Hollond, Esq., Monck Mason, Esq., and Charles Green, Aeronaut [London: F. C. Westley. 1836]). The sight of balloons were no longer an unusual event and to retain the public interest in aerial flight they had to be promoted in a different way, the leading aeronaut in Britain in Turner’s time being the balloonist Charles Green (1785-1870). Green produced 100s of theatre-style posters and handbills reflecting a time when balloon flights became a public spectacle, as fireworks, night ascents, ‘Mount Vesuvius’ eruptions with orchestral background, ascents on horseback and double ascents with two balloons are amongst the promised attractions offered to attract the viewing paying spectators at such venues as the Jamaica Tavern in Bermondsey and Ben Jonson’s Fields in Stepney (courtesy of the Commercial Gas Company). As such balloon flights became more commonplace, the accompanying attractions became more bizarre, Green’s 198th and 199th ascents - in the Grand Coronation Balloon from the Surrey Zoological Gardens on May 26 1835 - “ ... being accompanied by the Celebrated Monkey Jacopo who will Descend in a Parachute !!!”, his 200th and 201st ascents on July 20 and 22 1835 featuring from the balloon’s basket a performance from:- “Herr Davide Joel, the German Siffleur, will give his unrivalled IMITATIONS of the Animal Creation !!”.  

More serious expeditions

The services of the Siffleur and Jacopo (by which time he was billed as “… the Monkey who has seen the World”) were retained for Green’s 1836 season, but behind the spectacle Green was pursuing a serious advance in aeronautics. The popularity of Green’s shows led him to transfer his aerial entertainments to a new venue in the summer of 1836 - the Royal Gardens Vauxhall - whose owners Messrs Gye & Hughes financed the construction of a 80 foot tall mammoth balloon containing 70,000 cubic feet of coal gas, built under Green’s design. Green’s intention was to attempt a long-distance flight to the continent, using his invention of a 1,000 foot ‘guide rope’ with specifically designed copper floats to relieve the balloon of part of its weight as trailed along near the ground. In his intention Green was supported by the aeronautical enthusiast Robert Hollond (1808-1877) – by profession a lawyer - who organized and financed the proposed expedition, in which Green and Hollond were joined - for there was safety in numbers - by the Irish musician Thomas Monck Mason (1803-1889), “The balloon having been lent for the occasion by the proprietors, Gye and Hughes, and the desire to make money out of the expedition being laudably absent, it was not advertised” [Hodgson. Ibid. page 250]. Thus after some initial trial flights at 1.30 pm on the afternoon of Monday November 7 1836 the ‘Royal Vauxhall’ balloon ascended to begin the expedition and nothing was heard of the aeronauts until news was received that the balloon has landed at 7.30 am the next day near the town of Weilburg, in the County of Nassau, having crossed the English Channel by night. There the intrepid voyagers were feted by a series of public balls, dinners and other festivities, the balloon being formally rechristened ‘The Great Balloon of Nassau’ in a civic ceremony held before the day of its departure back to England - via Paris - where the aeronauts returned in triumph.  

Reaction to the flight

“The strong interest which has been felt in all parts of the kingdom in the expedition, demands as accurate a statement of the plan, and accomplishment, of it, as can be obtained “ noted ‘W.P.’ in The Athenaeum of November 19 1836 who concluded a description of the background to the flight by noting:- “And what could have furnished the mind with more sublime impressions than a voyage through the trackless air during the whole of a dark night, with the mysterious uncertainty, which the travellers must have felt, as to the region through which they were travelling …” ‘W.P’ was probably the lawyer and poet Walter Prideaux (1806-1889) who is included in a group portrait oil painting by John Hollins (1798-1855) that was produced of the aeronauts and their friends [National Portrait Gallery NPG 4710] depicting Hollond at the centre of the group mapping out the proposed aerial voyage, with the striped balloon itself visible in the background, an engraving of the Hollins painting being produced by J. H. Robinson. Hollins also undertook a separate portrait study of Charles Green of which an engraving by George Thomas Payne was published on June 6 1838 by Hodgson & Graves ‘From the original in the possession of Robert Hollond Esq MP’ Another version of the preparations for the flight soon appeared in a little pamphlet entitled Authentic Narrative of the Great Balloon Voyage and Descent in Germany: Mr. Green’s Own Account (London: W. Marshall. 1836) which began “On Monday Mr. Green and his travelling companions dashed off in the Royal Balloon …” noting:- “The “stores” which the adventurous travelers took with them, consisted of twelve fowls, two tongues, eight dozen of biscuits, two dozen penny rolls, a large piece of cold boiled beef, two gallons of coffee ready made, one gallon of sherry, two quarts of brand, two four-gallon kegs of water ….” concluding “ They were furnished with passports from the Dutch and French Embassies, and with a letter for the King of Holland from his Representative in this country”.

The first landing card ever?

The actual passport used by the aeronauts - signed by Robert Hollond and J. W. May of the Dutch Consul and stamped on its reverse by various continental officials - is held in the Cuthbert-Hodgson Collection [National Aerospace Library, Farnborough]. Written in French it is translated as follows:-
“With authorization of his Majesty the King of Netherlands, Prince of Orange, Duchy of Luxembourg, and so on, the undersigned General Consul of his Majesty in Great Britain and Knight of the Order of the Lion, respectfully requests from civil and military officers, to allow Mister Charles Green, English Aeronaut, accompanied by Mister Holland and Mister Mason, to freely journey from England, London, to Netherlands by balloon, and to provide support and protection if needed. Valid for 6 months, written in London the 2nd of November 1836, The General Consul, General Consulat of Netherlands in London”.

Before the year was out Monck Mason’s Account ... was published - dedicated to Robert Hollond - large extracts from it being published in Holt’s Magazine December 28 1836 with the editor noting:- “Though the prominent facts of this extraordinary voyage were already made known to the public through other sources, the particular incident s were either unknown or slightly and obscurely glanced at ... The little work of Mr. Monck Mason has not only supplied these deficiencies but .... is calculated to awaken feelings such as a mere retailer of facts picked up on terra firma could never communicate. Whether the sanguine expectations of the writer be ever realised or not, they have contributed to stamp upon his work a vivid character of animation with which it is impossible even for those who have never ventured so high as a chimney, not to sympathize for the moment”. Monck Mason himself observed:- “The enormous extent of the prospect - the boundless variety it embraced - the unequalled grandeur of the objects it displayed - the singular novelty of the manner under which they were beheld .... Better by far to leave it to a fertile imagination to fill in the faint outlines of a rough and unfinished sketch, than by a lame and imperfect colouring, run the risk of marring a prospect, which, for grandeur and magnificence has certainly no parallel in all the vast and inexhaustible treasures of nature” [ Monck Mason. Ibid. page 38].  

The Nassau Balloon painting

And what of the “watercolour drawing of the subject” (James Hamilton Turner: a Life [Hodder and Stoughton. 1997. Chapter 13] that Turner - writing in 1837 from his studio which backed onto his house at 64 Harley Street - encouraged Hollond to produce. Held in the Cuthbert-Hodgson Collection [National Aerospace Library, Farnborough] is a fine watercolour drawing by an unknown artist identified by Hodgson as ‘The ‘Vauxhall’ or ‘Nassau’ Balloon over the Medway. 1837’ (Hodgson. Ibid. page xvii), the balloon with its gilded eagles’ heads at prow and stern depicted flying through clouds. A few days before Turner wrote his letter a paper entitled ‘Practical Remarks on Aerial Navigation’ by Sir George Cayley (1773-1857) was published in Mechanics Magazine, No.708, Saturday March 4 1837. Now widely regarded as 'The Father of Aeronautics', Cayley's understanding of the principles of heavier-than-air flight was first published in his paper 'Aerial Navigation' published over three parts in Nicholson's Journal 1809-1810. This work was a great advance over anything that had previously been written on the subject of aeronautics. Prior to 1837, Cayley had not published anything for almost 20 years, the great interest which the ‘Nassau’ balloon flight had aroused in the correspondence to Mechanics Magazine causing him to come forward once more, his paper concluding with the call for the formation of ‘The Society for Promoting Aerial Navigation’. Cayley was to revive the idea in 1840 - issuing a prospectus for ‘The Royal Aerostatic Institution’ - and wrote to Robert Hollond inviting him to a meeting at the Polytechnic Institution “respecting Balloons - Mr. Mk Mason, Mr. Green & several others will be there ...”. Hollond replied on May 1 1840:- “I shall be most happy to join you in any plan which you may think advisable for promoting the science of Aerostation”. [Cayley Papers. National Aerospace Library, Farnborough].  

The transatlantic Balloon hoax

Cayley’s enthusiasm proved not enough but that was not the end of the story. A few years later on April 13 1844 the New York Sun announced:- ‘Astounding News! … The Atlantic Crossed in Three Days!! - Signal Triumph of Mr. Monck Mason’s FLYING MACHINE !!!!’ leading to a rush of newspaper sales. Hollond, Green and Cayley were also referred to in a journalistic spoof ( later known as ‘The Balloon Hoax’) compiled by Edgar Allan Poe in which he appropriated large sections of Monck Mason’s Account ... Poe’s writings in turn inspired the French Symbolist painter Odilon Redon (1840 - 1916) to create the striking lithograph image of ‘A Edgar Poe: L'oeil, comme un ballon bizarre se dirige vers l'infini’ [To Edgar Poe : the Eye, like a Strange Balloon, Mounts toward Infinity] [Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris]. Ultimately it was left to the next generation to found on January 12 1866 the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain (of which Robert Hollond was a founding member) which over time evolved into the Royal Aeronautical Society - the oldest aeronautical society in the world. In time the Society's Library acquired the notable Cuthbert-Hodgson collection to add to the Poynton, Maitland and other collections of early ballooning, airships and other early aeronautical material now held in the National Aerospace Library - probably one of the finest of its kind in the world. Included within the Cuthbert collection of early ballooning fabrics is a sample of silk used in Charles Green’s ‘Nassau’ balloon - possibly one of the last surviving fragments of what in its time was known as ‘The Monster Balloon’. Brian Riddle - Chief Librarian, National Aerospace Library, Farnborough
  (This article was orginally published by The Turner Society) [ For their kind assistance with this research, acknowledgement should be made to Jenny Ramkalawon [British Museum – Department of Prints and Drawings], Rhonda Grantham [Institution of Mechanical Engineers] and Christine Woodward and Nadege Brossier [Royal Aeronautical Society]. [Turner’s letter to Robert Hollond is untraced, it probably being included amongst the sale of Hollond’s original log of the ‘Nassau’ balloon voyage with various letters relating thereto offered for sale in 1919 by the Guildford bookseller T. Thorp, the log and Turner’s letter being offered for sale by Maggs Bros in subsequent years].

Tim Robinson
25 May 2012