WARNING: Do not try this at home. (But if you do, post me a comment and let me know how it turned out.)

G’day there!

In a bid to keep things fresh, here’s an obscure little tale from way out there in the good ol’ left field of Island history. How did I find it? Admittedly, quite by chance – but then again, that’s about par for the course for me. In all its glory, I present to you the story of the Great Balloon Ascensions of 1891.

We’ve all heard it said: What goes up must – eventually – come down. Gravity can be clingy like that. Of course, nowhere is it written that the descent has to be graceful. The world just ain’t a perfect place. Such proved the case for one enterprising, gravity-defying, late-Victorian daredevil of the skies; in fact, it very nearly killed him.

Our story begins with the arrival of the Provincial Exhibition in Charlottetown in October 1891. The precursor to today’s famed Old Home Week (held in August), it looked then much as it looks today: horse races, agricultural contests, entertainment, fun and games and so on and so forth. For many, it was the highlight of their year (sound familiar?). But organizers had a little something extra tucked up their sleeves that was sure to be a major draw. Somehow, they’d managed to convince a balloonist to take his craft to Charlottetown and dazzle the crowds with feats of aeronautical daredevilry. But not just any balloonist. No, organizers had succeeded in attracting the attention of a world famous balloonist: Stanley Edward Spencer.

Aeronaut, balloon and airship-builder, Spencer was the scion of a high-flying family in England. Born in Islington in 1868, he’d taken to the skies quite early in life, making his first ascent alongside his father at London’s Crystal Palace at the age of 8. From there, he kept at it until the day he died an untimely death (malaria) in Malta in 1906, garnering worldwide acclaim and a fearsome reputation to match, with well over 2000 ascents to his name.

Let’s stop here for a moment and toss in a bit of context. In 1891, the world was still more than a decade away from Orville and Wilbur Wright’s history-making flight on December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, which gave birth to modern aviation; however, for a little more than a century mankind had been taking to the skies…in balloons. The first such flight, made by a hot air balloon, had come in November 1783 courtesy of Paris, France, followed in December 1783 by the first manned flight in a gas balloon, credited to frenchmen Jacques Charles and Nicholas-Louis Robert. You’ll note the italics, because there is an important distinction to be made: Whereas hot air balloons are inflated with heat, gas balloons are powered by inflating the balloon with a gas lighter than air, such as helium or hydrogen. Typically tethered, they were put to use during the Napoleonic Wars and the American Civil War for observational purposes, and were favoured by hobbyists and performers. This is what the great Stanley Spencer was bringing to the skies above Charlottetown.

The balloon ascensions were heavily publicized and much anticipated. Reading this in the 21st century, it may sound a bit strange; however, consider that for many people, it was likely the first time they would be seeing anything quite like it. And to add to the hype, Spencer wasn’t going up in a tethered balloon. Rather, as advertisements revealed, he would be making a “wonderful leap from the Clouds.”

In other words, he was going to skydive.

Advertisement in the Examiner promoting Spencer's balloon ascensions.
Advertisement in the Examiner promoting Spencer’s balloon ascensions.

The balloon ascensions were scheduled to take place over two days, on October 7 and 8. Now, because I’m taking the time to ramble so, evidently something went wrong. Actually, make that very wrong.

On Wednesday the 8th, the Examiner reported that large numbers of people had flocked to the exhibition grounds the day before, while many others took to the streets, housetops, or any vantage point they could find to catch a glimpse of Spencer’s first ascent. It gave a detailed account of what turned out to be the near disastrous proceedings:

The balloon ascension took place about four o’clock yesterday [October 7] instead of at noon, as was at first intended. The ascent was very rapid. When the balloon was about two miles above the earth, and over the land on the south side of the Hillsborough [present-day Stratford], Mr. Spencer, the aeronaut, pulled the cord which connected the balloon and parachute and let himself drop. He fell about three hundred feet before the parachute opened. The ascent thus far was very rapid. After the parachute opened, however, the velocity was not so great. The parachute descended gradually, swaying to and fro with its living freight until it dropped in the Hillsborough near Kelly’s Cove, some distance from the shore. The balloon landed some two miles further on, in a south-easterly direction. The water was almost to the top of the aeronaut’s head where he landed, and he had to hold the aneroid barometer, which he always takes with him on his aerial voyages, above the water to keep it from being spoiled. After reaching the shore, and arranging with a farmer to go after the balloon, Mr. Spencer rowed back to the city, changed his wet clothes for dry ones at the Hotel and was about as usual last evening.

Basically, Spencer had been hoping for a quick descent and a clean landing on the Stratford side of the Hillsborough River; instead, a wind kicked up, pushing him out over the water and smack dab in the river itself. Fortunately, he landed just close enough to the shore to survive the plunge. Any further out, and he likely would have drowned.

The next day brought inclement weather in the form of a torrential downpour, and both the horse races, and the balloon ascensions, had to be postponed until the final day of the Provincial Exhibition.

And so on October 9, the events of two days ago behind him, Spencer took to the skies for a final time. Given what had happened, this was his chance to redeem himself and shore up his reputation as a consummate professional. He did not disappoint. Again, I turn things over to the Examiner:

The balloon ascension was made shortly after five o’clock this afternoon. When about two miles up the parachute drop was made. The aeronaut landed in a field at Southport [Stratford], near the Mutch property, apparently among some trees. The balloon landed near the ferry wharf on the Southport side. 

The Ferry Wharf in Southport (now Stratford) as it appeared c. 1910.
The Ferry Wharf in Southport (now Stratford) as it appeared c. 1910.

It was a practically flawless landing. I’ve done up a couple of images to illustrate some of the locations involved in this story. The first is a satellite shot highlighting the exhibition grounds in Charlottetown, and the area of the river where Spencer landed on his first ascent.

The next two illustrate the locations involved in Spencer’s second ascent on October 9. One is a detail of Southport taken from Meacham’s 1880 Historical Atlas of Prince Edward Island; the other is another satellite shot of the same area. The holdings of the Mutch family are outlined in red, and the Ferry Wharf (Minchin Point in 1880) can be seen on the left.

So there you have it: The story of how the Provincial Exhibition, a bit of wind, and the Hillsborough River inadvertently conspired to nearly claim the life of a famous daredevil in 1891. I’ll leave you now with Spencer’s thoughts concerning his time on the Island. Crash landing aside, in his professional opinion the gas he obtained in Charlottetown proved to be of the highest calibre he’d found on this side of the Atlantic, and of a superior lifting quality than that of Montreal and other towns he’d visited.

Hey, at least it’s something.


PEI History Guy