The quake-damaged Lancaster Park holds many memories for Cantabrians. Captain Lorraine's tragic last flight was too long ago to be one of them, but it deserves to be remembered. RIC STEVENS reports.
It was described as a "thrilling ascent and a terrible descent" which cast a gloom over the whole of Christchurch and horrified those who saw it.
In the closing weeks of the 19th century, the daredevil aeronaut Captain Charles Lorraine walked for the last time on solid ground - the turf of Lancaster Park. An hour or so later, he was dead, presumed drowned, in the sea off Port Levy on the far side of the Port Hills.
Captain Lorraine's real name was David Mahoney, an Aucklander aged about 30, a former actor and one-time dentistry student whose overseas experience led him to the Crystal Palace in London, where he witnessed a balloon ascent. The athletic and adventurous young man was smitten by the idea of this extreme sport and he took it up himself.
His rank of captain may have been claimed after some experimental reconnaissance flights for the Northamptonshire Regiment, and he at least once performed for royalty, in front of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII.
He returned to New Zealand in 1898 and over the next year thrilled crowds in North Island towns with a series of aerial exploits which involved him ascending on a trapeze hanging below a balloon filled from the local gasworks, and parachuting back down to the earth, from as high as 15,000 feet.
His showmanship had a mercenary purpose, of course. Launching himself aloft from a domain or sports ground, he would charge a shilling for entry. Usually, and unsurprisingly, the paying spectators were outnumbered by the number of non-payers who would ring the venue's boundary fence or find a free vantage point somewhere else nearby.
Lorraine came to Christchurch in late 1899 possibly because it was the home town of his new bride, Fanny Juriss, and made two successful ascents. He announced a further flight of his spherical balloon, named The Empress, for November 2. Lift-off was to be from Lancaster Park at 4pm.
On a warm afternoon, Lorraine declared that he would attempt a new altitude record for the benefit of the paying public and, once again, for the freeloaders who were watching from surrounding streets. The balloon was filled with gas. Lorraine fixed the top of his parachute to the side of the balloon, sat on the trapeze handed to him by his wife, and - with what were to prove his famous last words - directed the men holding down his rig, "Now gentlemen, then, let her go." It lurched into the sky.
According to the next day's Press: "Immediately, and no one really knows how, the string which attached the parachute to its loop half-way up the side of the balloon broke, and as the great globe rose, a shocked and silent crowd beheld the aeronaut vainly endeavouring to retain possession of his parachute, which had opened below him with the onrush of the wind."
The strain of hanging on to the wayward parachute was too much, and Lorraine was forced to let go, depriving himself of his usual way of getting down.
As Lorraine soared away from the park, blown by a nor'wester towards Sumner, his only hope was to somehow deflate the balloon and ride it back to earth. He had decided against fitting a valve into the balloon envelope which would have allowed him to do just that, because of the cost. Nor was he carrying a knife to open a vent.
The horrified crowd last saw Captain Lorraine as he floated off over the hills, trying to clamber up the netting which covered the balloon in an apparent attempt to capsize the structure and let out the gas. A watcher with a powerful telescope on top of The Press office in the city saw the balloon "oscillate" and Lorraine apparently swinging, in an attempt to get the rig onto its side.
It took more than half an hour for Lorraine to pass out of sight. "By a quarter to 5 the speck of black against the sky was no longer visible and the fate of the aeronaut became a matter for conjecture," said a Press Association report printed in Wellington's Evening Post the following day.
That was not quite the lingering end of Captain Lorraine. The signalmen at Godley Head saw him pass by, then fall with The Empress into the sea near Port Levy.
The signalmen set out towards him in a dinghy, the Lyttelton harbourmaster sent a tug, and arrangements were made to launch the Sumner lifeboat.
The balloon sank and the captain was last seen swimming towards the Lyttelton Heads and the rescue boats. Although known to be a strong swimmer, he disappeared before the rescuers could reach him.
Perhaps Lorraine's death by ballooning was only a matter of time. After the tragedy, newspaper reports recounted several near- misses which could have ended the young man's life a lot sooner. He, however, claimed to feel no fear, or even admit to a raised pulse.
"Heart? I have never known it to beat faster than usual," he told The Press. "In fact, I don't know I have a heart, except by hearsay."
The loss of Lorraine seems to have deeply affected some of those who witnessed his last flight. As late as 1935, The Auckland Star, in an article looking back on the day, said that many of the Christchurch people who saw the balloon floating off towards the hills still counted it as "their most horrible experience".
A benefit concert a few days after the disaster raised more than [PndStlg]115 for Lorraine's widow and more than [PndStlg]300 in total was collected around Christchurch in the following weeks.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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