Category Archives: Cremorne Gardens

Death defying feats – a day at Cremorne

The time machine has been parked in Mr Hedderly’s back yard (we have a special arrangement with him –we’re promoting his work in the 21st century). We’re here for another three weeks. Put down that instalment of the Old Curiosity Shop, we might as well go out. This is the first era of mass entertainment after all. Music halls, panoramas, dioramas, exhibitions, zoos and menageries, gambling, any amount of sport to watch or play. Or we could go to a place where there is music, dancing, fireworks, performing animals, balloons, plays, ballets, magic, freaks, prostitutes and above all stunts – death defying feats. That’s Cremorne Gardens – not quite the greatest show on earth…but close enough.

Her? If you’re lucky I might get Mr Rossetti to introduce you to her later. In the meantime check out the show bill.

In the afternoons it’s all harmless stuff. Educational even.

It’s that sea bear (or walking fish) I want to see. Arctocephalus Ursinus no less. You or I might be slightly let down to see the fish / bear in the flesh.

Later in the evening the real fun starts.

I can’t help feeling that actual necromancy might be asking a little much even from the renowned professor, but I would be prepared to be convinced. I could do without the dogs and monkeys but the fireworks could be good. Mr Whistler the American artist is said to like them. His sometime friend Walter Greaves painted him at Cremorne, but that’s a story for another day. I’m waiting for the next event. This should be worth seeing.

Cristoforo Buono Core is also known as the Italian Salamander (Salamanders were credited in folklore with the ability to bathe unharmed in flames). No photographs this week but we do have an artist’s rendition of the event:

Some of the ladies and gentlemen are standing a little closer than modern health and safety regulations and maybe common sense would allow I think. (Ladies, remember those scare stories in the equivalent of Daily Mail about crinoline fires?) This is basically a man in protective clothing I suppose so it’s just a case of good equipment and strong nerves,but I wouldn’t want to try it. As it turned out Coro was in more danger from a disgruntled former partner (Francisco Filliponi, the Emperor of Fire) who later tried to kill him with poisoned strawberries.

If we’d come on another afternoon we might have seen strong nerves and a high degree of skill.

She was a tightrope walker who went by the name of the Female Blondin. A few years before our visit in August 1861 she attempted to cross the river from Battersea to Cremorne. I don’t think Death literally accompanied her but it was a close run thing. The rope seems to have become a little slack over the final third of the course. She stopped and was forced to climb down the guide ropes to be rescued by one of the boats.

The engraving makes it look as though the river was thick with boats but there would still have been plenty of open water. Onlookers reported that the daring young woman wept tears of frustration when she was forced to climb down, cutting her hands in the process. She was vindicated later in the month when she successfully crossed both ways. Now that’s entertainment.

Our final act today moves from calculated risk to an idiotic disregard for safety, and brings us back to balloons, a Cremorne favourite. Jumping from a balloon with an improvised parachute can be done as was demonstrated at Cremorne by a Mr Hampton as early as 1839. But in 1874 in the final decade of the Gardens a Dutchman named Willem de Groof attempted a far trickier feat, jumping from a balloon wearing a set of homemade wings attached to a kind of wooden platform, intending to glide safely to earth. You wouldn’t really have wanted to see the result.

De Groof fell to earth in Sydney Street near St Luke’s Church (see last week’s post). He died a few days later. The proprietor of Cremorne at the time, John Baum was probably grateful the tragedy occurred outside his grounds as he already had financial troubles along with respectable citizens trying to shut down the Gardens on the grounds of immorality. De Groof was the subject of many stories like the one above and even a narrative poem. So we end with a salutary tale.

Now what about that immorality? Back to the night of our visit, Derby Day 1865. On the show bill it says “dancing will continue till the close of the Gardens”. Dancing and whatever else went on in the grottos and the shadowy corners of the gardens. Let’s leave them to it and get back to the Time Machine. Unless you fancy one last dance?

Author’s note

I’m sure that readers of this blog are not quite as interested in the number of page views as I am but nevertheless I want to tell you that this week we passed 20,000 page views since the beginning of the blog. And 21,000, and 22,000 and 23,000. In fact it was a busy couple of days, thanks to a post on Metafilter, some tweeting and some Facebook activity. So thanks to everyone who passed the link to the Linley Sambourne post on in any way.

Sometimes I follow my own obsessions when I’m selecting pictures and writing posts, but I also take note of what readers seem to like. So if you want more Linley Sambourne, more Hedderly, more Cremorne, more empty streets and more picture of 1970s Kensington and Chelsea let me know.

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Night flight 1861: runaway balloon at Cremorne

This is a detail from a James Hedderly photograph. Among the trees on the right you can see the firework platform of Cremorne Gardens, one of the great entertainment attractions of Victorian London now gone almost without trace. There seem to be very few photographs of the place at all although there are plenty of prints on posters and handbills and illustrations in magazines like the Illustrated London News. So we think we know what it looked like and we think we know what it was like to visit the place. Mass entertainment as we know it today began in the nineteenth century in the pleasure gardens and music halls of Victorian cities. 

The staples of Cremorne were music, dancing, variety shows and fireworks. At first these would have been enough to pull in the crowds. But the various proprietors of Cremorne also needed spectacle. Death defying stunts were provided on a regular basis including performers such as the Female Blondin, the Flying Man and the Italian Salamander. I’ll return to those three on another occasion but for our first visit to Cremorne I want to talk about the first great sensational obsession of proprietors and punters alike – balloons.

Balloons were the first invention that got us into the air and although they had been in regular use since the eighteenth century for military and scientific purposes as well as the occasional spectacular public show it wasn’t until places like Cremorne started regular shows that large numbers of people got a chance to see them in action on a regular basis.

Here’s an early poster advertising a balloon event and a later print of a balloon taking off near the fireworks platform.

Of course once you’ve seen a balloon ascend a few times it might start to seem too easy and just not thrilling enough. Mr Green, the Nassau Balloon man livened up proceedings by taking “a lady and a leopard” up with him as passengers.  Later someone asked themselves what if we suspended something from underneath the basket? A horse maybe? Or a cow? How about a woman in classical costume riding the cow while the balloon ascends? She can then represent the goddess Europa whose sacred animal is the bull – educational as well as spectacular. This actually happened and I wonder how they persuaded the woman in question, a Madame Piotevin that it would be perfectly safe to sit on a terrified animal while ascending hundreds of feet up in the air dressed as a Greek goddess.  Other variations on the theme followed including the trip I’m going to describe now.

On July 24th 1861 the aeronaut Mr Lythgoe was scheduled to take paying passengers for a flight in his balloon. Mr Arthur Vivian and his friend Noel Anderson “having been disappointed a month before at Crystal Place” put their 5 guineas down to make sure they would secure a place. But the afternoon of 24th July turned out to be cloudy, windy and looking like rain. By 4.00pm Mr Lythgoe was on his way home, but after “a gleam of sunshine” Mr Adams, the secretary authorised the inflation of the balloon and Mr Lythgoe was summoned back.  The balloon took a long time to inflate and Mr Lythgoe had some misgivings but Mr Adams thought it would be a great climax to the evening’s entertainment if they set off after the fireworks at 10.30pm. “Several bystanders now endeavoured to dissuade us” according to Mr Vivian but despite strong winds and a torrential downpour they set off at 10.45.

Night flights had been done before. The adventurous Mr Green had set off fireworks from above to the general delight of the crowds. On one occasion he ascended at night during a heavy rainstorm. He and all his equipment were soaked. He was blown off course as far as Harrow where he was rescued, dirty and dishevelled by “four young ladies” who had been following the balloon from below.

All went well at first for Mr Lythgoe and his companions. At 1000 feet they could see London laid out underneath them like a map, the streets and squares “distinctly traced by the lines of gas light” and the sounds from below, carriages and carts, human voices and even music strangely clear. They shouted out themselves startling unsuspecting animals and people below. They went higher, up to 8000 feet, now much colder.  They thought they might be 20 miles or so from London as they descended and threw out the grappling iron. They stopped for a moment but with a loud crack the rope to the grappling iron broke. They were swept upward “at a frightening pace”. “Our situation was now anything but pleasant”. Without a grappling iron the only way to land was to descend and “run the balloon against a tree or other sharp object” and burst it. The first time they tried this they crashed into some trees. Vivian was momentarily stunned and regaining consciousness found Anderson gone, flung out of the basket when they touched the ground. The balloon was ascending again “at the most awful velocity” with most of their ballast gone. Lythgoe reckoned they got to 17000 feet before they could regain control and begin to descend. They were travelling through banks of cloud. Vivian thought he could hear water below. Lythgoe assured him they could be nowhere near the sea, but a break in the cloud cover showed that they were in fact above the ocean. After this terrifying realisation there was a moment of relief. They were heading towards the shore. Once over land again a landing was imperative. They climbed out of the basket and clung on to the ropes so they could drop immediately when they were close enough to the ground. The balloon bounced along, the basket hitting the ground only to be pulled up again until Lythgoe saw them about to hit a windmill and gave the order to let go. They landed “comparatively unhurt” and tried to follow the balloon. But after Lythgoe fell into a dyke they sought shelter at a cottage “not far from Southwold”. Once they persuaded the occupants that they had arrived by balloon they were given some welcome hospitality by the farm labourer and his family. At dawn they borrowed some clothes and went out time looking for debris from the balloon. They found Vivian’s umbrella among other items. Back in their own dry clothes by 6 am they made their way to Darsham Station and caught the 7.20 train which connected with the London express. They were in London by 10.00am “without hats and coats, to the great astonishment of many bystanders”. Anderson turned up at 1pm. He had been thrown into a field of beans in Essex and had made his way by omnibus and train back to Cremorne to enquire after the fate of the balloon. The three men were re-united later in the day.

Mr Vivian wrote an entertaining pamphlet about “our balloon adventure” with some observations about future safety precautions. Mr Lythgoe foreswore further night ascents.

It’s an excellent account with all the Victorian virtues, boldness, calmness in the face of adversity and some modesty in the telling of the story. I’m glad Mr Vivian saw fit to record the adventure. I can’t help wondering though if a modern balloon party faced a similar situation, and found themselves reluctantly transported from Central London to Suffolk on a stormy night whether the transport system would get them back by 10.00am the following morning.


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