Albertina (Louisa Maud Evans) 1881- 1896
Fire took her from earth to air to water and then finally back to earth once more. Now Louisa Maud Evans rests in Cathays cemetery in Cardiff, beneath a white marble headstone.
Brave woman, yet in years a child
Dark death closed here thy heavenward flight.
God grant thee, pure and undefiled
To reach at last the light of light.
Louisa, 14 years old and working under the name of Albertina, was a parachutist who floated down from a trapeze suspended beneath a smoke-filled balloon.
A large crowd in Cardiff watched her die.
Louisa had run away from home. As far as we can know she was born in Barton Regis in Bristol in late 1881. When she was 16 months old she was adopted by a local photographer and painter called William Crinks and his wife Mary. Louisa became a “cloth factory girl” but she clearly craved a life with rather more thrills. So she ran away at the age of 14 to become a circus apprentice and a trapeze artiste. Soon Mademoiselle Albertina was working for “Professor” Auguste Eugene Gaudron.
He might like to call himself “Professor,” but he was a balloon manufacturer from Paris who had settled in London and who became a significant figure in the world of ballooning. He once crossed the North Sea to Sweden in a balloon called “Mammoth” and he was the first balloonist to be issued with a passport when he flew non-stop to Russia. But he was also a showman who knew how to draw in the crowds and he did so not just with his balloons, but with his parachutes.
Parachuting was already a century old and was strictly a circus stunt linked to the practise of smoke ballooning.
A fire pit was prepared, with a covered trench leading to the balloon. A blaze was built and then covered with wet straw to create hot smoke. This would then fill a balloon, which was nothing more than a large cotton bag tethered between posts.
When it was full, the aeronaut would be buckled to the parachute that was attached to the balloon. If it was a young girl, then so much the better. She might even be seated on a trapeze.
The balloon would be released and it would rise perhaps to 2000 feet. Then the aeronaut would release the parachute and float back to earth.
There would be a weight, usually a sandbag, attached to the top of the balloon. When the weight of the aeronaut had gone the balloon would naturally invert, the smoke would be released and the balloon would fall to earth.
Of course it was a show, nothing more. A pretty young girl, a sense of daring, a possibility of drama. It was dangerous. It wasn’t science; it was a circus stunt. But balloons were not always well maintained – they could rip from over-heating or burn or the lines could tangle. They required little in the way of equipment and showmen would tour the country, taking their wonder to small towns. The Grand Exhibition in Cardiff however was a special opportunity for large crowds, full of excited young men eager to watch a girl on a flying trapeze.
Cardiff Central Library needed an extension and what better way to pay for it than a “Grand Exhibition” of Industry and Fine Art in Cathays Park? There was a “Grand Water Spectacle” and open air opera with “brilliant illumination of the grounds.” There was even a model of a working dairy and a biscuit factory. When the Prince and Princess of Wales visited on 27 June 1896 it became the subject of the very first news item ever filmed in Britain.
It was popular and busy, an ideal occasion for a showman.
Louisa’s performance on Tuesday 21 July 1896 at 7.30 pm was watched by crowds in the park. And all proceeded normally and calmly. The balloon ascended and then she descended slowly and steadily. Except that the wind caught her and blew her out to sea. It was that simple. Nothing complicated or dramatic. Just a gentle descent to death by drowning.
Slowly, very slowly, did the lady descend and one could not but marvel how she managed to withstand the strain on her hands.
Once Albertina hit the water she disappeared.
She had ascended wearing, ironically, a nautical outfit – “a nautical hat, a blouse and knickers.” She appeared “cheery and confident.” However, there was a breeze blowing from the north-west which took the balloon quickly into the sky, much higher than had been planned.
Gaudron claimed that he had told her to release over the Infirmary but she didn’t and the balloon was carried swiftly over the Bristol Channel. This in itself was not enough to cause him alarm, since she was wearing a cork waistband as a lifebelt. He claimed that she was quite happy to come down in the open sea, which might suggest that she had done something like it before. It is believed that she had made 3 ascents in a balloon in Dublin before she came to Cardiff. Whether she had used a parachute before is not clear.
She released herself, the parachute opened and she floated gently down near the East Buoy.
For a while the parachute remained open and (she) was able to walk the water but after a few minutes (she) apparently disappeared.
Dockers watched her float over their heads at Roath. An engine driver put on steam and took his engine to the end of sidings to watch her come down. A fisherman called Partridge went out in a boat but couldn’t find her. A local man called James Dunn swam out towards the parachute but when he reached the spot it had vanished. Louisa’s tragedy was a very public one.
Louisa was watched by the coastguards too and it appeared to them that she had been picked up by a schooner, something which was to play a large part in the story over the next few days. A great deal of faith was placed in this mysterious vessel, for everyone wished fervently that she was safe. The press however was more realistic. The Daily Post expressed its reservations very elegantly.
Rumours of rescue are by the score but they are rumours and nothing more. The paper goes on to say It is not every day that a lady parachutist is found in so terrible a predicament.
On Wednesday we are told that Mr Tucker loaned his tug Cormorant to join the search party. Policemen were aboard with grappling irons. Crowds watched from the shoreline as they dragged the sea bed. They found nothing, apart from the balloon stuck in the mud.
The rumours said that she had been picked and put ashore at Clevedon or Clifton or Penzance. It was even suggested that it was all an elaborate publicity stunt. She would soon be revealed to general acclaim and business would boom.
Fishermen though shook their heads. If her ropes had become entangled, then the speed of the tide could have dragged her under water. She would have been taken up to Newport. That was where they should look. They resumed dragging operations on Thursday.In the absence of hard evidence there was a flurry of speculation about the state of mind of the fair aeronaut Albertina.
Another performer at the Exhibition, J. Owen, said he had spoken to her. She had been worried about something, he said. Albertina had appeared nervous. He claimed that he tried to dissuade her from the performance but she replied I’ve got something on my mind and I am going up. I don’t care if I come down alive or not.” Before the ascent she seemed better and J. Owen offered to collect her by cab following her descent. He agreed to bring her a drink of milk as she requested and said goodbye. “Tra-la-la” she replied and then the ascent began. She would never speak to anyone else again.
She was found on Friday night, without her parachute, her body washed up at the mouth of the Usk in Newport. The recovery of the body is described in an elegant piece of writing.
After being tossed in the eddying currents and races and shoals of the Severn Estuary, the bruised cork-belted Albertina cast up on wave-washed shingle, within sound of the harsh death-song of the clanging bell-buoy.
She was found by Mary Waggett, a girl of almost identical age, close to the lighthouse at Nash and in the early hours of Saturday morning “the corpse was raised from its couch of tidal mud.”
Gaudron was criticised by the coroner for his lack of judgement in allowing the ascent to proceed but the verdict was death by drowning. It was such a public death and the public who had watched her needed to recognise this terrible waste. They responded through a public subscription to pay for a funeral and for the expensive white marble headstone, whose words encapsulate the terrible sense of waste.
Of course Louisa was replaced. The show must go on, after all. Others followed. Others died too. One girl landed safely on a roof and then fell off. But they had to be girls. Gaudron understood the glamour and excitement that they brought to the performance. Not only that, they attracted young men who came to see the irresistible risk-taking beauties, doing something that seemed so daring and which they could not do themselves. His career as a showman and entertainer did not diminish. He worked with Buffalo Bill and his travelling circus for a while.
Gaudron is buried in Highgate Cemetery in London in 1913 in a tomb topped by a stone balloon. Louisa is buried in Cardiff, where she came to earth.
She would be very difficult to find if it were not for the excellent Cathays Cemetery Heritage Trail which has helpfully marked some of the more notable graves in its extensive grounds. Louisa’s is number 18.
You should enter the cemetery from Allensbank Road and park on the curve where the path widens. Walk into the cemetery and bear left and you will find her just off the main path on the left hand side. Look for grave marker 18 in section G.
And then remember that she was only 14.