Balloon ascent of Mr Thomas Gale from Victoria Park 14 January 1871

Balloon ascent of Mr Thomas Gale from Victoria Park, 14 January 1871. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, A928616/F8/40. The Illustrated Sydney News, 21 January 1871, p1, Dixson Library

Continuing her talks about Sydney summer traditions and celebrations in January, Lisa took to the air this morning on 2SER with Tim Higgins with stories of Sydney’s first balloon flights and a crazy event that happened 143 years ago.

Nineteenth century Sydney loved spectacle – the more dangerous the better. In the 1870s, balloon flights were all the rage. International aeronauts transfixed crowds with their daring. Among those who attempted balloon flights were Henri L’estrange, Professor Rufus Wells and Thomas Gale. Sydneysiders could not get enough!

You begin to have more respect for these men when you realise that the balloons were not filled with hot air, but will gas – which made them a lot more volatile. Mishaps were not uncommon and the very real chance of disaster added to the crowd’s excitement. People paid real money to see an attempted balloon flight.

British  aeronaut Thomas Gale made a number of celebrated attempts at the start of the 1870s. His first were over the Boxing Day/New Year period of 18696-70. Eventually he made a successful ascent from the Outer Domain on 5 January 1870 when he floated across to Glebe.

Buoyed by his success, Gale sought the limelight once again in September 1870 during the Intercolonial Exhibition held at Prince Alfred Park. After several disappointments over consecutive weekends he made an ascent and floated precariously over Redfern and Waterloo.

But the longest balloon flight of Thomas Gale took place on Saturday 7 January 1871, from Victoria Park outside Sydney University. This event took on a carnival atmosphere with the public paying an entrance fee to see the entertainment. Before the flight attempt there was music from the German Band, acrobatic feats, pony races and other sports. Over 3,000 people came along, but not all of them paid the entry fee. Many climbed the fences to be part of the action.

The balloon itself had been constructed under Gale’s supervision and was named the ‘ Young Australian’. According to the newspapers, the balloon was ‘by far the largest machine of the kind that has ever been used in Australia, being 72 feet high and 112 feet in circumference at its widest part’.

It took half an hour to inflate the balloon with gas. Gale, along with a passenger from the Sydney Morning Herald, hopped in the basket and the balloon released at 4.15pm.

The balloon rose rapidly and at one stage reached an altitude of 2 and a half miles (approximately 4 kilometres). The flight was very crudely controlled by letting out gas through a valve to descend or throwing out ballast to lighten the load and gain altitude. The aeronauts went directly over the University, across Five Dock and Cockatoo Island, before drifting along the Parramatta River.

After about 2 hours up in the air, Gale and his travel companion came down in the Parramatta River near Gladesville. They almost drowned, the basket stuck in the silty mud of the river bed, but the precious balloon was unharmed. The aeronauts returned to the city by steamer to great acclaim and the lucky passenger enthusiastically described the amazing birds eye view of the city he had witnessed.

Descriptions of the balloon flight can be read in the digitised newspapers:

BALLOON ASCENT. (1871, January 9). The Sydney Morning Herald, p. 4-5. Retrieved January 14, 2014, from

BALLOON ASCENT OF MR. THOMAS GALE PROM VICTORIA PARK. (1871, January 21). Illustrated Sydney News, p. 1. Retrieved January 14, 2014, from

The Dictionary has great images of balloon flights here.

Don’t forget to tune in again next Wednesday on 2SER at 8.20am for another history fix from the Dictionary of Sydney.

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