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   Chapter 22 THE STORY OF THE SPENCERS.

The Dominion of the Air: The Story of Aerial Navigation By John M. Bacon Characters: 16798

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


It has been in the hands of the Spencers that the parachute, as also many other practical details of aeronautics, has been perfected, and some due sketch of the career of this family of eminent aeronauts must be no longer delayed.

Charles Green had stood godfather to the youngest son of his friend and colleague, Mr. Edward Spencer, and in later years, as though to vindicate the fact, this same son took up the science of aeronautics at the point where his father had left it. We find his name in the records of the Patent Office of 1868 as the inventor of a manumetric flying machine, and there are accounts of the flying leaps of several hundred feet which he was enabled to take by means of the machine he constructed. Again, in 1882 we find him an inventor, this time of the patent asbestos fire balloon, by means of which the principal danger to such balloons was overcome.

At this point it is needful to make mention of the third generation-the several sons who early showed their zeal and aptitude for perpetuating the family tradition. It was from his school playground that the eldest son, Percival, witnessed with intense interest what appeared like a drop floating in the sky at an immense altitude. This proved to be Simmons's balloon, which had just risen to a vast elevation over Cremorne Gardens, after having liberated the unfortunate De Groof, as mentioned in a former chapter. And one may be sure that the terrible reality of the disaster that had happened was not lost on the young schoolboy. But his wish was to become an aeronauts, and from this desire nothing deterred him, so that school days were scarcely over before he began to accompany his father aloft, and in a very few years, i.e. in 1888, he had assumed the full responsibilities of a professional balloonist.

It was in this year that Professor Baldwin appeared in England, and it is easy to understand that the parachute became an object of interest to the young Spencer, who commenced on his own account a series of trials at the Alexandra Palace, and it was now, also, that chance good fortune came his way. An Indian gentleman, who was witness of his experiments, and convinced that a favourable field for their further development existed in his own country, proposed to the young aspirant that he should accompany him to India, with equipment suited for the making of a successful campaign.

Thus it came about that in the early days of 1889, in the height of the season, Mr. Percival Spencer arrived at Bombay, and at once commenced professional business in earnest. Coal gas being here available, a maiden ascent was quickly arranged, and duly announced to take place at the Government House, Paral, the chief attraction being the parachute descent, the first ever attempted in India.

This preliminary exhibition proving in all ways a complete success, Mr. Spencer, after a few repetitions of his performance, repaired to Calcutta; but here great difficulties were experienced in the matter of gas. The coal gas available was inadequate, and when recourse was had to pure hydrogen the supply proved too sluggish. At the advertised hour of departure the balloon was not sufficiently inflated, while the spectators were growing impatient. It was at this critical moment that Mr. Spencer resolved on a surprise. Suddenly casting off the parachute, and seated on a mere sling below the half-inflated balloon, without ballast, without grapnel, and unprovided with a valve, he sailed away over the heads of the multitude.

The afternoon was already far advanced, and the short tropical twilight soon gave way to darkness, when the intrepid voyager disappeared completely from sight. Excitement was intense that night in Calcutta, and greater still the next day when, as hour after hour went by, no news save a series of wild and false reports reached the city. Trains arriving from the country brought no intelligence, and telegraphic enquiries sent in all directions proved fruitless. The Great Eastern Hotel, where the young man had been staying, was literally besieged for hours by a large crowd eager for any tidings. Then the Press gave expression to the gloomiest forebodings, and the town was in a fever of unrest. From the direction the balloon had taken it was thought that, even if the aeronaut had descended in safety, he could only have been landed in the jungle of the Sunderbunds, beset with perils, and without a chance of succour. A large reward was offered for reliable information, and orders were issued to every likely station to organise a search. But ere this was fully carried into effect messages were telegraphed to England definitely asserting that Mr. Spencer had lost his life. For all this, after three days he returned to Calcutta, none the worse for the exploit.

Then the true tale was unravelled. The balloon had changed its course from S.E. to E. after passing out of sight of Calcutta, and eventually came to earth the same evening in the neighbourhood of Hossainabad, thirty-six miles distant. During his aerial flight the voyager's main trouble had been caused by his cramped position, the galling of his sling seat, and the numbing effect of cold as he reached high altitudes; but, as twilight darkened into gloom, his real anxiety was with respect to his place of landing, for he could with difficulty see the earth underneath. He heard the distant roll of the waters, caused by the numerous creeks which intersect the delta of the Ganges, and when darkness completely shut out the view it was impossible to tell whether he was over land or sea. Fortune favoured him, however, and reaching dry ground, he sprang from his seat, relinquishing at the same moment his hold of the balloon, which instantly disappeared into the darkness.

Then his wanderings began. He was in an unknown country, without knowledge of the language, and with only a few rupees in his pocket. Presently, however, seeing a light, he proceeded towards it, but only to find himself stopped by a creek. Foiled more than once in this way, he at length arrived at the dwelling of a family of natives, who promptly fled in terror. To inspire confidence and prove that he was mortal, Mr. Spencer threw his coat over the mud wall of the compound, with the result that, after examination of the garment, he was received and cared for in true native fashion, fed with rice and goat's milk, and allowed the use of the verandah to sleep in. He succeeded in communing with the natives by dint of lead pencil sketches and dumb show, and learned, among other things, that he had descended in a little clearing surrounded by woods, and bounded by tidal creeks, which were infested with alligators. Yet, in the end, the waterways befriended him; for, as he was being ferried across, he chanced on his balloon sailing down on the tide, recovered it, and used the tidal waters for the return journey.

The greeting upon his arrival in Calcutta was enthusiastic beyond description from both Europeans and natives. The hero of the adventure was visited by rajahs and notables, who vied with each other in expressions of welcome, in making presents, even inviting him to visit the sacred precincts of their zenanas. The promised parachute descent was subsequently successfully made at Cossipore, and then followed a busy, brilliant season, after which the wanderer returned to England. By September he is in Dublin, and makes the first parachute descent ever witnessed in Ireland; but by November he is in Bombay again, whence, proceeding to Calcutta, he repeats his success of the year before. Next he visits Allahabad, where the same fortune attends him, though his balloon flies away in a temporary escape into the Jumna. By May he is ascending at Singapore, armed here, however, with a cork jacket.

Hence, flushed with success, he repairs to the Dutch Indies, and demonstrates to the Dutch officers the use of the balloon in war. As a natural consequence, he is moved up to the seat of the Achinese War in Sumatra, where, his balloon being moored to the rear of an armoured train, an immediate move is made to the front, and orders are forthwith telephoned from various centres to open fire on the enemy. Mr. Spencer, the while accompanied by an officer, makes a captive ascent, in which for some time he is actually under the enemy's fire. The result of this plucky experiment is a most flatte

ring official report. In all the above-mentioned ascents he made his own gas without a hitch.

Thence he travels on with the same trusty little 12,000 cubic feet balloon, the same programme, and the same success. This is slightly varied, however, at Kobe, Japan, where his impatient craft fairly breaks away with him, and, soaring high, flies overhead of a man-of-war, and plumps into the water a mile out at sea. But "Smartly" was the word. The ship's crew was beat to quarters, and within one minute a boat was to the rescue. An ascent at Cairo, where he made a parachute descent in sight of the Pyramids and landed in the desert, completed this oriental tour, and home duties necessitated his return to England. Among exploits far too many to enumerate may be mentioned four several occasions when Mr. Percival Spencer has crossed the English Channel.

It fell to the lot of the second son, Arthur, to carry fame into fresh fields. In the year 1897 he visited Australia, taking with him two balloons, one of these being a noble craft of 80,000 cubic feet, considerably larger than any balloon used in England, and the singular fate of this aerial monster is deserving of mention.

Its trial trip in the new country was arranged to take place on Boxing Day in the Melbourne Exhibition ground, and for the lengthy and critical work of inflation the able assistance of British bluejackets was secured. To all appearance, the main difficulties to be provided against were likely to arise simply from a somewhat inadequate supply of gas, and on this account filling commenced as early as 10 a.m. on the morning of the day previous to the exhibition, and was continued till 6 o'clock in the afternoon, by which time the balloon, being about half full, was staved down with sandbags through the night till 4 o'clock the next morning, when the inflation was again proceeded with without hindrance and apparently under favourable conditions. The morning was beautifully fine, warm, brilliant, and still, and so remained until half-past six, when, with startling rapidity, there blew up a sudden squall known in the country as a "Hot Buster," and in two or three minutes' space a terrific wind storm was sweeping the ground. A dozen men, aiding a dead weight of 220 sandbags, endeavoured to control the plunging balloon, but wholly without avail. Men and bags together were lifted clean up in the air on the windward side, and the silk envelope, not yet completely filled, at once escaped from the net and, flying upwards to a height estimated at 10,000 feet, came to earth again ninety miles away in a score of fragments. Nothing daunted, however, Mr. Spencer at once endeavoured to retrieve his fortunes, and started straightway for the gold-mining districts of Ballarat and Bendigo with a hot-air balloon, with which he successfully gave a series of popular exhibitions of parachute descents. Few aeronauts are more consistently reliable than Mr. Arthur Spencer. A few summers ago in this country he was suddenly called upon to give proof of his prowess and presence of mind in a very remarkable manner. It was at an engagement at Reading, where he had been conducting captive ascents throughout the afternoon, and was requested to conclude the evening with a "right away," in which two passengers had agreed to accompany him. The balloon had been hauled down for the last time, when, by some mistake, the engine used for the purpose proceeded to work its pump without previously disconnecting the hauling gear. The consequence of this was that the cable instantly snapped, and in a moment the large balloon, devoid of ballast, grapnel, or other appliances, and with neck still tied, was free, and started skyward.

The inevitable result of this accident must have been that the balloon in a few seconds would rise to a height where the expansion of the imprisoned gas would burst and destroy it. Mr. Spencer, however, was standing near, and, grasping the situation in a moment, caught at the car as it swung upwards, and, getting hold, succeeded in drawing himself up and so climbing into the ring. Quickly as this was done, the balloon was already distended to the point of bursting, and only the promptest release of gas averted catastrophe.

Mr. Stanley Spencer made himself early known to the world by a series of parachute descents, performed from the roof of Olympia. It was a bold and sensational exhibition, and on the expiration of his engagement the young athlete, profiting by home training, felt fully qualified to attempt any aerial feat connected with the profession of an aeronaut. And at this juncture an eminent American cyclist, visiting the father's factory, suggested to Stanley a business tour in South America.

As an extra attraction it was proposed that a young lady parachutist should be one of the company; so, after a few satisfactory trial exhibitions in England, the party made their way to Rio, Brazil. Here an ascent was arranged, and by the day and hour appointed the balloon was successfully inflated with hydrogen, an enormous concourse collected, and the lady performer already seated in the sling. Then a strange mischance happened. By some means, never satisfactorily explained, the young woman, at the moment of release, slipped from her seat, and the balloon, escaping into the air, turned over and fell among the people, who vindictively destroyed it. Then the crowd grew ungovernable, and threatened the lives of the aeronauts, who eventually were, with difficulty, rescued by the soldiery.

This was a bad start; but with a spare balloon a fresh attempt at an ascent was arranged, though, from another cause, with no better success. This time a furious storm arose, before the inflation was completed, and the balloon, carrying away, was torn to ribbons. Yet a third time, with a hot air balloon now, a performance was advertised and successfully carried out; but, immediately after, Mr. Spencer's American friend succumbed to yellow fever, and the young man, being thrown on his own resources, had to fight his own way until his fortunes had been sufficiently restored to return to England.

A few months later he set sail for Canada, where for several months he had a most profitable career, on one occasion only meeting with some difficulty. He was giving an exhibition on Prince Edward's Island, not far from the sea, but on a day so calm that he did not hesitate to ascend. On reaching 3,000 feet, however, he was suddenly caught by a strong land breeze, which, ere he could reach the water, had carried him a mile out to sea, and here he was only rescued after a long interval, during which he had become much exhausted in his attempts to save his parachute from sinking.

Early in 1892 our traveller visited South Africa with a hot air balloon, and, fortune continuing to favour him, he subsequently returned to Canada, and proceeded thence to the United States and Cuba. It was at Havannah that popular enthusiasm in his favour ran so high that he was presented with a medal by the townsfolk. It was from here also that, a little while after, tidings of his own death reached him, together with most gratifying obituary notices. It would seem that, after his departure, an adventurer, attempting to personate him, met with his death.

In November, 1897, he followed his elder brother's footsteps to the East, and exhibited in Calcutta, Singapore, Canton, and also Hong-Kong, where, for the first and only time in his experience, he met with serious accident. He was about to ascend for the ordinary parachute performance with a hot air balloon, which was being held down by about thirty men, one among them being a Chinaman possessed of much excitability and very long finger nails. By means of these latter the man contrived to gouge a considerable hole in the fabric of the balloon. Mr. Spencer, to avoid a disappointment, risked an ascent, and it was not till the balloon had reached 600 feet that the rent developed into a long slit, and so brought about a sudden fall to earth. Alighting on the side of a mountain, Mr. Spencer lay helpless with a broken leg till the arrival of some British bluejackets, who conveyed him to the nearest surgeon, when, after due attention, he was sent home. Other remarkable exploits, which Mr. Stanley Spencer shared with Dr. Berson and with the writer and his daughter, will be recorded later.

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