A “Drop from the Clouds”

In the nineteenth century, clay tobacco pipe manufacturers were producing pipes in a variety of shapes trying to come up with a design that would mark their product out as the latest “must have” for the discerning smoker.  Kings, Queens and other famous people of the day were immortalised in clay but occasionally memorable events also received this treatment.

The Mason Collection is a recent acquisition to the National Pipe Archive’s holdings, comprising mainly decorated nineteenth-century pieces, including one that has immortalised an event that first took place in 1888 at Alexandra Palace (Fig. 1).

Baldwin Balloon pipe LIVNP2017.02.01

The pipe in question is in the shape of a hot-air balloon which is covered with a criss-cross of rope work.  Trailing from the balloon are a number of ropes that come together at the bottom, forming a sort of a platform.  On the smokers left there is a depiction of a man hanging from a small umbrella-shaped parachute.  On the smokers right, a band around the balloon reads BALDWIN.

Sadly, we do not know which pipe maker produced this pipe, but the event he was commemorating was widely reported in the National Press.  The event revolves around a man known as Professor Baldwin, “an American daredevil”, who has been credited with being the father of the modern parachute.  However, it would appear that the “American” part of this description of him is a bit of a red herring.  There were at least two Americans with the same surname – a Thomas Scott Baldwin and a William Ivy Baldwin – both of whom had a circus background, and both of whom performed an act involving jumping from a hot-air balloon with a parachute.  However, notice of the Baldwin’s death following an unsuccessful descent in 1905, describes him as the “well known English aeronaut ‘Professor Baldwin’” (Waikato Times, Sept 4, 1905, Issue 6808).

The first reference to Professor Baldwin and his famous balloon dates from August 3, 1888, when The Times newspaper began publishing advertisements for an event to be held at Alexandra Palace which read;

Tomorrow and Bank Holiday, Professor Baldwin, at 6 p.m., will illustrate his great scientific discovery, having succeeded in making an umbrella with sufficient surface resistance to land passengers from an aerial ship at any height.

On the same day an advertisement said …

…Professor Baldwin proves the possibility of his invention by jumping out of a balloon 1,000ft from the ground and will drop 200ft, through space before opening the umbrella.

and that he will…

…make the ascent from and descend in the park in such a manner that every visitor can see him the whole time of this marvellous, stirring, but scientific experiment… to make a special drop from the clouds.

These advertisements were placed in The Times on a number of days in the run up to the event.  At the same time, other events were being promoted, including advertisements for balloon ascents at Crystal Palace and South Kensington, so balloon flights were clearly all the rage and very popular spectacles at the time.  What made Professor Baldwin’s event different, and more exciting, was that he was going to throw himself out of his balloon!

The authorities were clearly concerned about this since, on July 27, 1888, a question was raised in the House of Lords.  The Earl of Milltown wanted to know if;

the attention of the Home Office has been directed to an announcement in the newspapers that a Professor Baldwin will, at the Alexandra Palace, on Saturday next, jump out of a balloon 1,000 feet above the ground; whether it is believed that the announcement is genuine, and if so whether measures will be taken to prevent so dangerous and demoralizing an exhibition. (The Times, July 27, 1888. Issue 32449, page 8).

The response from Home Office was to ensure that there was a police presence at the event and they were to “report upon its [the performance] character and result from personal observation”.  The event itself was reported in The Times on July 30, 1888 (The Times July 30, 1888, issue 32451, page 6)., when it stated that;

On Saturday evening a daring aeronautical feat was performed in the grounds of the Alexandra Palace, at Muswell-hill, in the presence of many thousands of spectators.

Professor Baldwin apparently addressed the crowd to reassure them that all was well.  The plan was to ascend to 1, 000ft and then jump from the balloon, dropping about 100ft before opening his umbrella.  He told the crowd that …

…if he found that he was being carried where he should not be able to descend within view of the spectators assembled in the grounds, he would leave the balloon when it reached a height of five or six hundred feet. So as to insure his descent being visible to them.

All he then asked for was silence while he gave the final orders to guarantee that everything would then “go right”!

The balloon itself was described as having “no car” but only a cross-bar with a large ring or loop attached.  When the balloon ascended Baldwin held on to the ring, with his feet resting on the ropes of the balloon, with his “umbrella” hanging by his side (Fig.2).  He came down in a little over one and a half minutes, to everyone’s relief.  It was clearly a spectacle although The Times raised the question as to the scientific value of the event!

From the Illustrated London News for July 1888 showing Baldwin’s ascent and descent.

Whoever was responsible for producing the pipe as souvenirs to commemorate this event, which could then be sold to the vast crowds, was clearly on to a good thing, as this spectacle was to be repeated every Thursday and Saturday evening!

These performances clearly went on for some time since in December 1888 an article published in the Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser in Australia reported that Saturday 20 October 1888 had been the last performance of the summer season.  On this occasion the balloon was reported to have reached a height of 8,800 feet before Baldwin finally “severed his connection with the balloon and began to descend” this time taking eight minutes to safely reach the ground.  It was also announced that Mr Baldwin was about to go to Australia but planned to return to the Palace on “Whit Monday in next year”.

Baldwin had been enticed to visit Australasia by William Edward Akroyd, JP, a visiting landowner from New Zealand who had met Baldwin in England.  His first jump in New Zealand took place at Dunedin on January 21, 1889 (Anon 2012).  Baldwin was making improvements and refinements to the balloon all the time and during an event in Auckland later in 1898, he explained that the;

biscuit-coloured balloon is made of India silk, it is covered with a varnish preparation, and is enclosed in a linen netting. It has 15,000 [cubic] feet capacity, and weighs 110lb. The parachute is also made of India silk, but it is not oiled. It weighs 30lb and resembles the top of an ordinary umbrella, except that there are neither ribs nor handle. It is 20 feet in diameter, and has a fringe or sail round the edge to assist me in balancing. From the umbrella-like covering there depend [hang down] a number of ropes, 20 feet in length attached to a loop 20 feet in diameter. There is another ring attached to a cord at the end of the balloon, which I call a ‘boatswain’s chair’. I sit on this and have hold of a cord calculated to stand a strain of 100 lb, so that when I throw myself off the chair the cord is broken, and I am free from the balloon. I then descend with the parachute, which at first is closed. It opens out gradually as the air rushes inside and is fully spread by the time I have dropped 300 or 400 feet … I steer the parachute at an incline of about 30 degrees in still air . . . [coming] down at the rate of ten miles an hour or 14 feet per second. (Anon 2012).

The success of his performances took him around the world and by 1905 he was in America where he sadly met his end.  In September 1905 it was reported that;

The well-known English aeronaut, “Professor” Baldwin, has met with his death under shocking circumstances.  At a fete at Granville, in Ohio, one of the attractions was to be the ascent of Baldwin, and the explosion of dynamite in mid-air.  To the horror of the spectators, fifteen thousand of whom were gazing upwards at the balloon, the dynamite exploded before Baldwin had lowered it to its proper depth.  The unfortunate aeronaut and his balloon were blown to atoms. (Waikato Times, 4 Sept 1905, Issue 6808).

The unusual pipe in the Archive’s collection provides a fascinating reminder of Baldwin and his early experiments with parachutes.  The design was most likely made to coincide with his initial season of descents in 1888, but could then have carried on in production for a number of years as a souvenir for his dare-devil events around the World.


“Professor Baldwin’s Performance”, The Times, 6 Aug. 1888, p. 6. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/9PTLD5 [Accessed 7 Mar. 2019].

“Personal, &c”, The Times, 3 Aug. 1888, p. 1. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/9PUoV2. [Accessed 7 Mar. 2019].

“Parliamentary Notices”, The Times, 27 July 1888, p. 8. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/9PVPc3 [Accessed 7 Mar. 2019].

“Leaping From A Balloon”, The Times, 30 July 1888, p. 6. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/9PVbU7 [Accessed 7 Mar. 2019].

“Professor Baldwin’s Balloon Ascent”, Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, Tue 4 Dec 1888, p.4, National Library of Australia,  https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/18955745 [accessed 7 Mar 2019].

“Balloon disaster”, Waikato Times, Volume LVI, Issue 6808, 4 September 1905, Past Papers National Library of New Zealandhttps://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/WT19050904.2.23.3 [Accessed 7 Mar 2019]

Anon, 2012 ‘Up, Up and Away’, Otago Daily Times, Saturday 5 May 2012. https://www.odt.co.nz/lifestyle/magazine/and-away [Accessed 7 Mar 2019]