While recently a man diving from the edge of space down to earth captivated millions worldwide, in more simple times it didn’t take quite as much. Back in April 1848, Dublin was enthralled by the sight of balloonist John Hampton, who carried out an ascension and parachute jump from the Rotunda Gardens.
A fascinating character, Englishmen John Hampton holds the honour of being the first man to make a parachute descent, having done so in October 1838 at Cheltenham in England. In the promotional material for his Dublin jump in 1848 it was noted that “this daring experiment was accomplished by himself, no one being with him in the car of the balloon, and the separation took place at the altitude of 10,000 feet.”
Hampton had ascended over Ireland in a balloon before, but there was huge public interest in this event which would see him also carry out a parachute descent. The balloon he would leap from was the ‘Erin Go Bragh’, which promoters noted was the first such balloon ever made in Ireland.
In the archives of the Freeman’s Journal, I could find reference to a balloon in October 1844, when a subscription was launched to present Hampton with a balloon from the “Citizens of Dublin”. Maurice O’Connell had chaired the meeting which launched this subscription, a son of ‘The Liberator’ Daniel O’Connell. The reasoning for this incredible act of charity towards Hampton was that a previous ascent over Dublin had ended in his balloon igniting and exploding over Dublin owing to a fire in a northside chimney! He had escaped fine and unharmed, as detailed in F.E Dillon’s 1955 article ‘Ballooning in Dublin’ for the Old Dublin Society journal Dublin Historical Record.
In the centre of the balloons belt was emblazoned the national emblem, under the well known motto of ‘gentle when stroked, fierce when provoked’. The figure of Hibernia was shown on the balloon, as was the Dublin coat of arms, an Irish round tour and other Irish imagery. Incredibly, promotional advertising for the event would note that:”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 the Rotundo.” Newspaper reports at the time noted this to be the first parachute descent in Dublin. Hampton would ultimately land at the gasworks in Ringsend, and Hampton was joined by his wife and another lady. Hampton had feared a wet landing, and had offered a financial reward to the first boat to arrive to his aid in such a scenario. When he landed at the gasworks, he was quickly surrounded by Dubliners seeking money, despite still being on land!
Today, a plaque in Cheltenham marks the incredible historic moment when Hampton became the first man to successfully parachute to the ground. His descent on that occasion lasted twelve minutes and forty seconds.