The first hot air balloon flight in Limerick was carried out by Richard Crosbie in 1786. The next major flight would not take place for over sixty years. John Hampton, and two passengers set off skyward from Upper Cecil Street on Wednesday, September 3, 1849 at 4.58 p.m. As they looked back to the earth they were greeted by a sea of faces gazed skyward in wonderment at John Hampton’s celebrated balloon ‘Erin go Bragh’.
The flight took off from what was then James Marshall’s Repository, Upper Cecil Street, now the Department of Social Protection office carpark. For several days before the flight, the spacious yard bustled with activity as teams of labourers worked long hours preparing accommodation for the great number of visitors who were expected to witness “a spectacle most sublime and beautiful in nature.”
They constructed three large platforms with seats, 150 of which were reserved, surrounding the circle where the balloon stood. While the Mayor, and heads of departments, had their own box for the viewing. The band of the 3rd Buffs entertained the crowd as they waited for the ascent.
A few days earlier, on August 29, 1849, this advertisement announcing the ascent appeared in the Chronicle:
“Hampton’s Balloon Ascent on Monday, September 3. From Mr Marshall’s Repository, Upper Cecil Street, under the immediate patronage of the Right Worshipful the Mayor of Limerick, and Officers of the Garrison. By kind permission of Col. Sir James Dennis, K.C.B., the splendid band of the 3rd Buffs will be in attendance.
Mr. Hampton had the honour of making his first two ascents with this splendid balloon on the 5th September, 1846, by special command of the late Earl of Besbourough who was then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. And also during the summer of 1847, Mr H. had the honour of ascending by special command of the Earl of Clarendon, the present Lord Lieutenant, and the Countess of Clarendon.
Mr H. has two cars, one for inland, the other for sea-ports in case the wind should be for sea. A lady on this occasion will accompany Mr. H. The Balloon is capable of ascending with six persons; any lady or gentleman desirous of ascending with Mr. Hampton may ascertain the terms on applying to him at 12 Cecil Street, or at Mr G. M. Goggin’s 34 George Street.
The doors will be open at 2 o’c. and the ascent at half past four precisely. Reserved seats, 2/-: second places, 1/-; children 6d. Mr H has arranged with Mr Fogerty to fit up a spacious gallery with reserved seating for ladies and gentlemen, so that everything on this occasion may afford satisfaction.”
Although there was space for six people on board, with two of the seats taken by Hampton and his wife, only two other seats were bought for the journey. These were by Limerick banker Hampden Russell and Civil Engineer Townsend. Although two others, Mr Henry Vereker and an Excise officer, turned up on the day of the launch disappointed that they could not get a seat even though they had not booked it in advance. Just before take-off Mrs Hampton had to give up her seat to several sandbags.
There were rumours of nausea and extreme physical discomfort experienced by previous aerial travellers, which may have put others off taking the journey. Hampton found it necessary to alley public misgiving on the matter by writing to the Chronicle.
“Knowing as I do the great circulation of your valuable journal, may I trouble you to insert the following remarks, prior to my ascent on Monday next. It was stated on the last occasion that some of the gentlemen that accompanied me got sick, which caused me to descend sooner than I otherwise should have done. I beg to state that any rumour of this kind was untrue, for nothing could have exceeded the delight which those gentlemen felt during the time they were up, and in proof of this they were anxious I should prolong the trip; but this I could not do for want of power.”
Despite Hampton’s best efforts to accommodate a large paying crowd, the numbers did not appear as more people observed the flight from outside the yard than inside it. This was a disappointment not only to Hampton’s ego but also to his wallet, as the few hundred in attendance did not cover the cost of the flight.
In the days following, the flight both Hampden W. Russell and John Hampton wrote a description of the flight for the flight for the Chronicle, these descriptions appeared on the September 5, 1849 issue. The following is Russell’s description of this incredible journey.
“I had much pleasure in availing myself of an ascent in Mr Hampton’s balloon on Monday, accompanied by that gentleman and Mr Townsend. At two minute to five, all the necessary arrangements being made, the bridling was cast off, we ascended.
The course taken by the balloon being at first almost due north, we glided beautifully across the Shannon and found ourselves, at twelve minutes after five, at the north side of the river. The balloon in this position rested for some minutes, giving us an opportunity of gazing on the grand and magnificent panorama beneath us.
The prospect of Limerick was very extraordinary, every street, lane and building being at the same moment distinctly visible, but so apparently diminished in size that it assumed more the appearance of a beautiful miniature model than the actual city. The expanse of the view was vastly greater than I anticipated. The various windings of the Shannon, with little interruptions, were visible to Killaloe, above which the grand and noble expanse of water on Lough Derg was prominent feature, flanked on either side with a lofty range of mountains. The view of the lower Shannon was also very attractive, extending far below the Beeves Tower.
We now bent our course towards Cratloe Wood, and at twenty-two minutes after five found ourselves standing right over its centre, the appearance of which was very extraordinary, the trees appearing more like a beautiful mantling of richly coloured health, or of short bushwood. Here, I took an indication of a barometer brought up at the request of Mr Wallace, the proprietor of the Observatory, for the purpose of getting for him its indication at the greatest altitude, and by which I found we were still ascending, soon getting us into another current, floating the balloon gradually towards the Shannon. At thirty minutes after five we gradually found ourselves on the north bank of the river, opposite the Maigue. There, by indication of the barometer, it appeared we attained our greatest altitude, being then 4,261 feet above the level of the river. The country beneath, from this great height, much resembled one of the ordnance survey maps.
At this altitude, the atmosphere was so rarefied that Mr Townsend felt his respiration considerably affected, which, under such circumstances, is very unusual, though I did not experience it. I was particularly attracted in this place, as would be supposed, of perfect tranquillity, removed from the busy world, to find the buzz or murmuring sound of those beneath us (though I need hardly say invisible) ascend and fall on the ear distinct, yet faintly being different from any sound I ever before experienced.
I found we had now got into another current diametrically opposite to what had been our last travelling, having taken a rapid course in the direction of Ennis.
The barometer indicated a gradual descent at 45 minutes after 5. Mr Hampton deemed it advisible to prepare for his descent, the country wearing a favourable aspect for doing so. Here, he first worked the valves for that purpose, so that our descent and progressive movement now became very rapid. At 2 minutes to 6 we once more came in contact with terra firma. The car first struck obliquely two walls, about 5 feet high, of dry masonry, through which it made a clean breach to the very foundation. The car, after passing through the breach, again oscillated and found its resting place in a pasture field at the foot of the Ralahine demesne, about three miles from Newmarket-on-Fergus.
Here we were quickly surrounded by a large group of people, shewing forth their true national characteristic generosity, for they not alone gave their most anxious aid in the saving of the balloon and its various appendages, but many of them offered their horses to bring us to Limerick. Mr [Pierce] Creagh, I should add, was most polite, having invited us to Ralahine to partake of his hospitality.
Mr Hampton is a perfect master of the management of a balloon, and is owned a debt of gratitude by the citizens of Limerick for the very great treat which he has afforded them.”
The following is Hampton’s description of the flight and aftermath as published in the Chronicle.
“The gas for inflation was supplied by the Limerick Gas Consumers Company [the balloon contained 30,000 cubic feet of gas], the same that I had on the former occasion. Indeed, the manner in which I was supplied on both occasions Mr Morris, the active manager, and Mr Aitkin, the engineer, reflect the greatest credit on them for their exertions in completing the inflation.
I am sorry to say the early part of the say was anything but favourable for the ascent, owning to rain and wind, the latter very boisterous. I was under much apprehension that the balloon would have been injured in consequence of the limited space of the yard from which I had to ascend; but I am happy to say, about the time of ascending the weather became fine.
At about half-past 4 o’clock I commenced attaching the car and a few minutes after 5 o’clock I had my arrangements complete. Mr Hampden W. Russell, of the Bank of Ireland, and Mr Townsend, Civil Engineer, who had made arrangement with me, took their seats in the car.
All being ready, I gave the signal to let go – the splendid band of the 3rd Buffs striking up the National Anthem, which gave a beautiful effect to the scene. The balloon rose majestically and taking a N.W. direction, went down over Cecil Street, crossed the Shannon, keeping it to our left, crossed over Cratloe Wood and the ancient Castle of Bunratty, where altitude became the highest, which Mr H Russell will give in his account, as he was provided with an anadroit – a very beautiful instrument, sent from Mr Wallace’s establishment for the purpose.
Here the view became magnificent – the Shannon stretching forth its glittering stream seaward, the vessels making up for the city, amongst which I recognised the steamer from Kilrush and on board which were many persons from that beautiful watering place, Kilkee. Had they been in time enough their donations would have been very acceptable, to have swelled my receipts, which, I regret to say, will not be near sufficient to cover my expenses.
My companions, who courage and coolness nothing could exceed, seemed to enjoy their aerial flight, often expressing their delight at the beautiful scenery under them and around as far as the eye could discover, and which could not have been less than a circuit of 200 miles.
The evening being beautiful and clear, there were but few clouds that interfered with our view – these were to the west and we were a considerable altitude above them, which added much to the splendour of the ascent. Here I thought it right to propose a health in a bumper to ‘Erin-Go-Bragh,’ the magnificent balloon under which we were seated in safety and comfort, and enjoying a trip the splendour of which no words can describe.
We made a safe decent in a meadow at Ralahine, the residence of Mr Creagh, who came up immediately and rendered me every assistance — offering me his horse and car to convey my balloon to Limerick. He insisted on my going to his house, where I received the greatest hospitality and kindness.
Nor can I forget the willing assistance and good nature of the local people, who helped in packing up the balloon. I also return thanks to Messrs Joseph and John Fogerty for the kind attention and assistance I received from them, and to Mt James Marshall for the use of his yard. The following gentlemen gave their assistance in protecting and packing up the balloon – Mr Creagh, Mr Matt Kenny, solicitor; Mr David John Wilson, Mr Holmes, Mr McMahon.”
Hampton delivered an illustrated lecture on the “science and progress of Aerostation” in the Theatre Royal, Henry Street, on September 26, 1849. Once again the 3rd Buffs played. Unfortunately, for Hampton this was also very poorly attended.
John Hampton was born about 1799 and was also famous for being the first person to successfully parachute jump, having done so in October 1838 at Cheltenham in England. He passed away in 1871.
[This article by Sharon Slater was first published in the Limerick Leader on the 9 June 2018]