Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Henry Mayhew Takes to the Sky

In 1852, the year after his groundbreaking survey of London's working classes was published in book form, Henry Mayhew (1812-1887; DNB bio here, Wiki bio here) climbed into the wicker basket of a hot air balloon piloted by the legendary aeronaut Charles Green (1785-1870; DNB bio here, Wiki bio here). 

"I had seen the world of London below the surface, as it were, and I had a craving to contemplate it far above it – to behold the immense mass of vice and avarice and cunning, of noble aspirations and humble heroism, blent into one black spot," he writes in his vivid account of the evening voyage, which began in the bright pleasure-grounds of Vauxhall Gardens and ended in a Surrey swamp. And indeed, as the famous Royal Nassau balloon rose into the air, the geography of the lives of the costermongers, oyster sellers, flower girls, hawking butchers, and pickpockets whose activities he recorded in London Labour and London Poor came into undifferentiated view. 

This occasion marked Green's 500th ascent in the Royal Nassau; in 1836, in the same balloon, he had led a voyage from London that ended 480 miles and eighteen hours later in Weilburg, Germany—a flight that was at the time (and until 1907) the world’s longest. 

"In the Clouds,” or, Some Account of a Balloon Trip with Mr. Green
By Henry Mayhew

The Illustrated London News, 18 September 1852

I am naturally a coward – constitutionally and habitually timid – I do not hesitate to confess it. The literary temperament and sedentary pursuits are, I believe, seldom associated with physical courage. Fear, or the ideal presence of prospective injury, is necessarily an act of the imagination; and the sense of danger, therefore, closely connected with a sense of the beautiful and the aesthetic faculties in general. Your human bull-dogs are mostly deficient in mental refinement, and perhaps if there be one class of characters more fancyless than the rest of the world, they are those who are said to belong to the “fancy.” My creed is that all imaginative men are cowards; and that I am one I have at least moral courage and honesty enough to acknowledge.

Then why go up in a balloon?

Yes, why? These are times when men’s principles of action are sure to be canvassed; so, to prevent the imputation of any false motives, I will make a clean breast of it, and confess that it was merely “idle curiosity,” as the world calls it, that took me into the air.

I had seen the great metropolis under almost every aspect. I had dived into holes and corners hidden from the honest and well-to-do portion of the cockney community. I had visited Jacob’s Island (the plague spot) in the height of the cholera, when to inhale the very air of the place was almost to breathe the breath of death. I had sought out the haunts of beggars and thieves, and passed hours communing with them as to their histories, habits, natures, and impulses. I had seen the world of London below the surface, as it were, and I had a craving to contemplate it far above it – to behold the immense mass of vice and avarice and cunning, of noble aspirations and humble heroism, blent into one black spot; to take, as it were, an angel’s view of that huge city where, perhaps, there is more virtue and more iniquity, more wealth and more want huddled together in one vast heap than in any other part of the earth; to look down upon the strange, incongruous clump of palaces and workhouses, of factory chimneys and church steeples, of banks and prisons, of docks and hospitals, of parks and squares, of courts and alleys – to look down upon these as the birds of the air look down upon them, and see the whole dwindle into a heap of rubbish on the green sward, a human ant-hill, as it were; to hear the hubbub of the restless sea of life below, and hear it like the ocean in a shell, whispering to you of the incessant strugglings and chafings of the distant tide – to swing in the air far above all the petty jealousies and heart-burnings, and small ambitions and vain parades, and feel for once tranquil as a babe in a cot – that you were hardly of the earth earthy; and to find, as you drank in the pure thin air above you, the blood dancing and tingling joyously through your veins, and your whole spirit becoming etherealised as Jacob-like, you mounted the aerial ladder, and beheld the world beneath you fade and fade from your sight like a mirage in the desert; to feel yourself really, as you had ideally in your dreams, floating through the endless realms of space, sailing among the stars free as “the lark at heaven’s gate,” and to enjoy for a brief half-hour at least a foretaste of that elysian destiny which is the hope of all. To see, to think, and to feel thus was surely worth some little risk, and this it was that led me to peril my bones in the car of a balloon.

It is true that the aerial bulls and ponies of late had taken nearly all poetry from the skies, reducing the ancient myths to the mere stage trickeries of an ethereal Astley’s; true that the depraved rage for excitement  -- that species of mental dram-drinking which ever demands some brutal stimulant – had given a most vulgar, prosaic character to a voyage which, when stripped of its peril, is perhaps one of the purest and most dignified delights that the mind is capable of enjoying; still, quickened with a love of my own art, and heedless of any silly imputations of rivalry with quadrupeds and mountebanks, I gladly availed myself of a seat in the car which Mr. Green had set aside for me.

At about a quarter to seven o’clock, six of us and the “veteran aeronaut” took our places in the large deep wicker buck-basket of a car attached to the Royal Nassau Balloon, while two gentlemen were seated immediately above our heads, with their backs resting against the netting and their legs stretched across the hoop to which the cords of the net-work are fastened, and from which depends the car. There were altogether nine of us – a complete set of human pins for the air to play at skittles with – and the majority, myself above the number, no sylphs in weight. Above us reeled the great gas-bag like a monster peg-top, and all around the car were groups of men holding to the sides of the basket, while the huge iron weights were handed out and replaced by large squabby bags of sand.

In the course of about ten minutes all the arrangements for starting were complete; the grapnel, looking like a bundle of large iron fish-hooks, welded together, was hanging over the side of the car. The guide-rope, longer than St. Paul’s is high, and done up in a canvas bag, with only the end hanging out, was dangling beside the grapnel, and we were raised some fifty feet in the air to try the ascensive power of the machine that was to bear us through the clouds. Then, having been duly dragged down, the signal was at length given to fire the cannons, and Mr. Green loosening the only rope that bound us to the Gardens, we shot into the air—or rather the earth seemed to sink suddenly down, as if the spot of ground, with all the spectators on it, and on which we ourselves had been lately standing, had been constructed on the same principle as the Adelphi stage, and admitted of being lowered at a moment’s notice. The last thing that I remember to have seen distinctly was the flash of the guns, and instantaneously there appeared a multitude of upturned faces in the Gardens below, the greater part with their mouths wide open, and a cheveux de fries of hands extended above them, all signaling farewell to us. Then, as we swept rapidly above the trees, I could see the roadway immediately outside the Gardens, stuck all over with rows of tiny people, looking like so many black pins on a cushion, and the hubbub of the voices below was like the sound of a distant school let loose.

And here began that peculiar panoramic effect which is the distinguishing feature of a view from a balloon, and which arises from the utter absence of all sense of motion in the machine itself. The earth appeared literally to consist of a long series of scenes, which were being continually drawn along under you, as if it were a diorama beheld flat upon the ground, and gave one almost the notion that the world was an endless landscape stretched upon rollers, which some invisible sprites were revolving for your especial enjoyment.

Then, as we struck towards the fields of Surrey, and I looked over the edge of the car in which I was standing, holding on tight to the thick rope descending from the hoop above, and with the rim of the wicker work reaching up to my breast, the sight was the most exquisite delight I ever experienced. The houses below looked like the tiny wooden things out of a child’s box of toys, and the streets like ruts. To peer straight down gave you an awful sense of the height to which the balloon had already risen, and yet there was no idea of danger, for the mind was too much occupied with the grandeur and novelty of the scene all around to feel the least alarm. As the balloon kept on ascending, the lines of buildings few smaller and smaller, till in a few minutes the projections seemed very much like the prominences on the little coloured plaster models of countries. Then we could see the gas lights along the different lines of road start into light one after another all over the earth, and presently the ground seemed to be covered with little miniature illumination lamps, such as may be seen resting on the grass at the sides of the gravel walks in suburban gardens of amusement. The river we could see winding far away, undulating, as it streamed along, like a man-of-war’s pennant, and glittering here and there in the dusk like grey steel. All round the horizon were thick slate-coloured clouds, edged with the orange-red of the departed sun; and with the tops of these we seemed to be on a level. So deep was the dusk in the distance, that it was difficult to tell where the earth ended and the sky began; and in trying to make out the objects afar off, it seemed to be as if you were looking through so much crape. The roads below were now like narrow light-brown ribbons, and the bridges across the Thames almost like planks; while the tiny black barges, as they floated up the river, appeared no bigger than insects. The large green fields had dwindled down to about the size of kettle-holders, and the hedges were like strips of chenille.

When we were about a mile above the ground some of us threw pieces of paper into the grey air, and these, as we rose and left them below, fluttered about like butterflies as they fell. Then some of the more noisy of the crew struck a song; while I heard a dyspeptic gentleman immediately behind me, as I was kneeling down (for there was but one seat), and stretching my head over the side of the car, contemplating the world of wonder below, confess to feeling a little nervous, saying that he was a man of natural moral courage, but his body overcame it as he was subject to fits of indigestion and as a preventive to extreme nervousness had taken nothing but vegetables for dinner that day. And I must confess myself that, poised up high in the air, as we were, with but a few slender cords to support us, I could not help thinking of the awful havoc there would be if the twigs of the wicker car were to break and the bottom to give way.

On what sharp church steeple thought I should I be spitted, and as I looked down the beauty of the scene once more took all sense of fear from my mind, for the earth now appeared concave with the height, and seemed like a huge black bowl—as if it were the sky of the nether regions. The lights of the villages scattered over the scene, were like clusters of glow-worms, from the midst of which you could here and there distinguish the crimson speck of some railway lamp.

“There, I’ve thrown over a letter, directed to my house,” said one of the passengers, “telling ‘em we’re all safe up here”—and as I stretched over the car I saw the little white fluttering thing go zigzagging down the air, while we still mounted the sky.

Then some of the passengers, who had supplied themselves with an extraordinary stock of courage previous to starting, by means of sundry bottles of “sparkling champagne,” which had the effect of making them more noisy than agreeable in such a situation, must needs begin quarrelling with a rose-water Captain in the hoop, as to whether they belonged to the “Snobocracy” or the “Nobocracy,” and at one time their words were literally so high that could the pair have got to close quarters the dispute would certainly have assumed a more serious character, for jammed tight together as we were in the car, the least attempt at violence would certainly have ended in discharging the whole human cargo into the railway station below. But as it was, it certainly did appear most ludicrous that two rational beings must choose that place of all others for engaging in some paltry squabble as to the vulgar division of the human family into “Nobs” and “Snobs.”

Silence, however, was soon restored by Mr. Green reminding the disputants that we were descending at a rapid rate, and it was time they began to look out for their safety.

The dyspeptic passenger, who during the dispute had evidently been suffering from another attack of nervousness, was at length terrified beyond human endurance by the gentleman who was rather the worse for champagne indulging in even warmer language than he had yet given vent to.

“For mercy sake don’t swear up here, my good man,” shivered out the poor invalid. “Wait till you get down below, if you must swear. We are always in the hands of Providence; but up here, it strikes me, that our lives are literally hanging by a thread.”

The collapsing of the bottom part of the balloon to which Mr. Green here drew our attention as evidence of the rate at which we were descending, soon restored order, and made every one anxious to attend to the directions of the aeronaut. We could now hear the sounds of “Ah bal-loon” again rising from the ground and following in our wake, telling us that at the small villages on our way the people were anxiously looking for our descent. A bag of ballast was entrusted to one of the passengers to let fall at a given signal, while Green himself stood with the grapnel ready to loose immediately he came to a fitting spot. Presently the signal for the descent of the ballast was given, and as it dropped it was curious to watch it fall; the earth had seemed almost at our feet as the car swept over the fields, but so long was the heavy bag in getting to the ground that, as the eye watched it fall and fall, the mind was filled with amazement at the height the balloon still was in the air. Suddenly the sound as of a gun announced that the bag had struck the soil, and then we were told all to sit low down in the car and hold fast; scarcely had we obeyed the orders given than the car was suddenly and fiercely jerked half round, and all within it thrown one on top of another; immediately after this, bump went the bottom of the car on the ground giving us so violent a shake that it seemed as if every limb in the body had been simultaneously dislocated. Now the balloon pitched on to its side, and lay on the ground struggling with the wind, and rolling about, heaving like a huge whale in the agonies of death.

“For heaven’s sake! Hold fast,” shouted Mr. Green, as we were dashed up and down in the car, all rolling one on the other, with each fresh lurch of the giant machine stretched on the ground before us, and from which we could hear the gas roaring from the valve, like the blast to a furnace.

“Sit still, all of you, I say!” roared our pilot, as he saw someone endeavouring to leave the car.

Again we were pitched right on end, and the bottom of the car shifted into a ditch, the water of which bubbled up through the wicker work of the car, and I, unlucky wight, who was seated in that part to which the concussions were mostly confined, soon began to feel that I was quietly sitting in a pool of water.

To move, however, was evidently to peril not only one’s own life, but that of all the other passengers, but still no one came to us, for we had fallen into a swamp, which we afterwards found out was Pirbright-common, situate some half-dozen miles from Guildford.

Presently, however, to our great delight, some hundred drab-smocked countrymen appeared, almost as if by magic, around the edges of the car; for some little time they were afraid to touch, but at last they got a firm hold of it, and we were one after another extricated from our seats.

To tell the remainder of the adventure would be tame and dull: suffice it after some two hours’ labour, the aerial machine, car, grapnels, and all, was rolled and packed up in a cart, and thus transported, an hour after midnight, to Guildford; the voyagers journeying to the same town in a tilted cart, delighted with their trip, and listening to the many curious adventures of the veteran aeronaut who had successfully piloted them and some hundred others through the air; and who, now that the responsibility of their lives rested no longer in his hands, seemed a thoroughly different man: before he was taciturn, and almost irritable when spoken to; and now he was garrulous, and delighting all with his intelligence, his enterprise, his enthusiasm, and his courtesy. Indeed, long shall we all remember the pleasant night we passed with the old ethereal pilot on his 500th ascent with the Royal Nassau Balloon.


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