Hot air balloons were not Pierre Maigré's jam
The news reports covering Australia's first ballooning attempt read like a fever dream. French aeronaut Pierre Maigré gained approval from the Governor-General, William Denison, to launch the nation's first flight in the Domain in December 1856. He promoted the event in the weeks prior with a vigour that was later his downfall, pasting vainglorious promotional posters to trees in the area.
Although the tickets were expensive, the event was well supported. By the time the balloon was full of gas, 12,000 people had thronged the Domain to witness the spectacle. Denison cast doubt on the craft's buoyancy but Maigré's self-confidence was undiminished.
As Maigré climbed into the basket and raised his top hat to the strains of La Marseillaise, the balloon pulled on its ropes and tore. The crowd were roused having just sung God Save the Queen, and the minor setback triggered the swelling of their ranks into the front row from the cheap seats. After some quick sewing, he again attempted to ascend, but the surging crowds interfered with the ropes, and the balloon failed to leave the ground.
Reports of what happened next vary, but miscreant children are said to have knocked Maigré's hat off and trampled it. Fearing for his safety, he fled to the South Lodge of the Domain with 'upwards of four thousand boys and youths with yells and hootings' in hot pursuit. All of the building's windows were later smashed when the rampaging mob threw rocks in a failed attempt to lure him out.
It's not cricket
As if that wasn't enough excitement for one day, what remained of the hordes swarmed the balloon, kicking the brazier used to heat the gas over, throwing a shower of sparks in the air and igniting the flags that had been tied to the basket. The balloon was next to go, accompanied by the crowd's chants of 'burn, burn, burn the balloon', the wooden seating was torn apart and tossed on the blaze and the tent where Maigré had kept the fuel was torched. Nothing was sacred and nothing was spared; even the fencing erected for the upcoming intercolonial cricket match between Victoria and New South Wales went on the bonfire.
When anything that wasn't tied down had been destroyed, the mob turned its attention to the two wooden masts that held the balloon in place while it was inflated. Two young boys were trapped when one of the masts toppled, one received minor injuries, and the other, 11-year-old Thomas Downes, suffered a fatal head injury and died in hospital the next day. The rioters threw the offending pole on the fire.
Sailors from the HMS Juno and a civilian who had sworn at the police were later variously charged with disturbing the peace and inciting a riot. The jury found that the disappointment of the failed ascent was the reason for the rioting; there was no apparent perpetrator to charge for the death of Thomas Downes; and if anything was to blame for Thomas' death, it was Maigré's false advertising and 'sham' balloon ascent. It's difficult to know how to reconcile the series of events and this outcome today, but rum was mentioned in one report and we cannot discount the part it played in the early years of the colony.
What happened to Maigré and the money earned from ticket sales is unknown, understandably, he appears to have faded into obscurity. However, a notice related to the death of a man with the same name appeared in a Government Gazette in 1932, listing his profession as 'preserve maker'. If it was indeed the same Pierre, it gives pause to wonder whether the aeronautical mishap led to him walking away from the riot relatively unscathed with 'money for jam'.