14. Queens of the Air

MARKETING MATERIALS FOR Saturday, February 8, 1890, announced that one of the Van Tassell Sisters (billed as “Miss Val. Van Tassell”) would make the balloon launch and descend by parachute at the Newcastle Racecourse. It remains unclear how Valerie was chosen for the task, or if she volunteered, but what was clear is that no woman had ever performed anything like this before in Australia. A newspaper noted, “As she is a first class athlete, no particular danger is apprehended.”1 Newspapers continued to suggest that the Van Tassell Sisters were in fact sisters of both Park and James, or daughters of one of them.2 The balloon was scheduled to launch at 4:00 p.m. However, as with previous trials at Newcastle, there was great difficulty during inflation due to a strong breeze. While waiting for the wind to ebb, the band of the Fourth Regiment played a selection of songs while the Van Tassell Sisters performed their trapeze act. Inflation did not finish until 7:00 p.m., and at one time during inflation, the balloon was scorched by the fire used to generate the hot air. A few repairs were made and shortly after 7:00 p.m. everything was ready. Two thousand spectators watched as Val affixed herself to the trapeze under the great balloon, gave a kiss to her sister, and was launched skyward. In her “fancy costume,” she waved one disengaged hand to the onlookers below. The balloon was released at the sound of a pistol fired by Park on the ground. Hovering briefly at apogee, the courageous Valerie jumped and began her rapid descent. The parachute opened, and she made a safe landing in a paddock near a brick kiln at Merewether (near Hamilton Pit, where a well-known disaster in June 1889 led to the death of eleven miners). Throngs of onlookers rushed in her direction to verify that she had survived. Meanwhile, the balloon landed in a paddock near Burwood. After the success, Valerie appeared with Frank Frost in front of the crowd, who regaled her and the rest of the Van Tassell Troupe as heroes. At the Centennial Hotel, where they were staying, owner Walter Sidney spent considerable time managing the many people who wanted to see the adventurous Valerie. The effort was a success and made national news as the first female parachute jump in Australia’s history.3 The citizens of Newcastle came together to provide Val with a gold medal in recognition of her daring parachute jump.4

After this tremendous success, the Van Tassell Sisters offered to make a paired balloon ascension and jump at 6:00 p.m. on Thursday, February 13, 1890, at the Newcastle Cricket Ground. However, no drop was made on that day. Instead, Gladys made a solo parachute jump on Saturday, February 15 from the Newcastle Racecourse. Following her launch at 6:05 p.m., she performed several acrobatic stunts on a trapeze bar before throwing both legs over the bar, coming to rest in a seated position for the rest of the ascension. The crowd loved the antics. At an altitude of about 3,000 feet, Park Van Tassel fired a starter pistol, indicating that it was time for Gladys to jump. She quickly did so and descended very rapidly for the first 300 feet, at which point the parachute opened nicely. With about 400 feet of altitude remaining before touching down, she proceeded to make another set of acrobatic feats on the trapeze bar, such as hanging on by one leg. The crowd of onlookers was amazed by these feats, and when Gladys landed in the very center of the racecourse, there was much elation.

Gladys noted to newspaper reporters that “the sight [from up above] was something lovely.”5 The local citizens were so taken with her efforts that they presented her with an additional £11. The Australian Star recognized the ascension as “the most daring ever witnessed in the colonies.”6 Meanwhile, the balloon landed behind Cameron’s Hotel at Hamilton, and a large crowd gathered there to assist with its collection. When Gladys made an appearance that evening at the Centennial Hotel, a large crowd cheered her for a considerable time.7 Local reporters felt the name Gladys Van Tassell was a “sweetly romantic and aristocratic name.”8 The Van Tassell Troupe headed off for Sydney to provide another ascension at Bondi on February 22.9

News of Gladys’s fantastic acrobatic feats spread quickly. More than three thousand spectators showed up at the Bondi Aquarium on February 22. A roughly equal number gathered in and around the area, unwilling to pay a shilling to see the activity up close. Despite a strong northwest wind, James Price, Park Van Tassel, and Frank Frost began inflating the Australia at 5:30 p.m. Twenty minutes later, everything was ready for launch. Valerie Freitas (Val Van Tassell) arrived on scene, shaking hands on the way to the balloon. She was launched at 6:30 p.m. to a tremendous cheer: “The crowd cheered her till its collective throat seemed too hoarse for it to even speak.”10 She pulled herself up and onto the trapeze and then turned over and hung upside down, blowing kisses to the crowd below. Righting herself on the trapeze, she continued to rise above 2,000 feet, at which point Park Van Tassel went to fire the starter pistol to signal her release. However, this time the pistol wouldn’t fire. Valerie continued to drift toward Coogee Bay at an increasing pace, wondering when she should leap. Just as she was disappearing from the crowd’s view, it was clear that she had jumped, as the parachute became visible on its way back to Earth. The lighter balloon continued to rise higher and flew away toward Botany Bay. Meanwhile, Valerie descended to a perfect landing next to a beautiful garden owned by a Mrs. Dennett on Arden Street in Little Coogee. Valerie had to steer the parachute as best she could in order to narrowly miss the house and a set of people playing cricket nearby.11 After securing her parachute, she borrowed a cloak from Dennett, hailed a horse-drawn cab, and made her way back to Bondi Aquarium. Upon arrival, roughly thirty-five minutes after her launch, she was met with a tremendous ovation. The spectators continued clapping until Valerie appeared on stage to take bows for their applause. News of this amazing feat traveled quickly across Australia.12 A reporter from the Australian Star later interviewed Valerie and noted,


Studio portrait of Gladys Freitas (labeled “Gladys Mantasso” instead of “Gladys Van Tassell”) from the Elite Studio in Sydney, circa 1890. Photographer Bradley & Rulofson. State Library of Victoria (H24476).

She was afraid she would be blown out to sea, and felt very qualmish when she saw the raging sea beneath her. She did not know whether to cut loose and chance getting safely down on the rocks or take the more perilous alternative of being drowned, for that she would be as she couldn’t swim a stroke, though she intended to learn some day . . . when she did not hear the expected pistol shot telling her to cut away she thought she would use her own judgment, as at this time she had passed over the Waverley Cemetery, and the wind had changed, she knew she was safe, and that fact, though she had never been afraid, restored a certain amount of nerve.13

Park Van Tassel was quoted as saying,

We are going to show a sensation the world has never yet seen. We are going to build a balloon—a coal-gas one—that will carry the whole family, and we are all going up together and coming down in separate parachutes; but, you know, we can’t do this at once, owing to the stinginess of those people who won’t give us any encouragement, but for the sake of a shilling will remain outside and have a cheap show, and, therefore it takes a long time to rake up enough to enter into a big enterprise such as I contemplate.14

The reporter for the Australian Star wrote, “Everyone was loud in praise of the daring young lady who risked her life to prove that the apparently improbable theories of air-flyers were not such impossible achievements as our grandfathers thought.”15 Given that Valerie and Gladys had agreed to take turns with parachute jumps, Gladys noted to reporters, “We leave for Melbourne by steamer and I suppose we shall be giving the people down there a trial. They’ve not seen a woman come down in a parachute yet. Well it will be my work to introduce them to the novelty.”16

News of their success in New South Wales preceded the Van Tassell Troupe to Melbourne, Victoria. On March 5, 1890, a crowd of roughly ten thousand spectators packed the Friendly Societies’ Grounds.17 In addition to those who paid their shillings to be on the grounds themselves, others waited on footbridges over railway lines, on balconies of the Government House, and at homes in the surrounding area, waiting to catch a glimpse for free. The Princes Bridge was jammed with spectators, and by 4:30 p.m. it was difficult to find any view of the dry Yarra River bed, where the Australia was being prepared. Pamphlets spread to the crowd discouraged “dodgers”—those who dodged their duty to pay a shilling to see the young lady who would soon risk her life in the sky.18

As was the case at Sydney, a strong breeze made it impossible to inflate and launch the balloon at the scheduled time of 4:30 p.m. This provided additional time for people to pay their shillings but also additional time to inspect the hot-air furnace and piping required for balloon inflation. By 6:00 p.m. the wind subsided (a fortunate occurrence, as it was not clear how it would be possible to repay everyone should the launch not take place). Frank Frost fired up the furnace and the inflation was under way. Gladys made her appearance to the crowd. A reporter noted, “Most people found it difficult to imagine that a young lady could possess the courage to essay a feat from which 99 percent of the so-called sterner and more courageous sex would turn away in dread.”19 Gladys prepared for launch, and upon her word of “I am right,” a cry was heard to “Let go all.” The twenty or so people who had been holding the balloon steady released their control. As the balloon rose to the south, Gladys performed her acrobatics on the trapeze bar and then returned to a seated position. Park Van Tassel fired the starter pistol when the balloon reached approximately 4,000 feet, and Gladys pulled the catch rope to the parachute and leaped into space. Free-falling for about 50 or 60 feet, the parachute opened gracefully, but the descent was reported to be faster than previous parachute jumps. Gladys steered the parachute to a landing near the barracks on St. Kilda Road.

Melbournite and event organizer James MacMahon rode on horseback in the direction of the balloon, arriving on the scene just shortly after Gladys’s landing. A prearranged cab carried Gladys back to the launch grounds; she arrived about twenty minutes after launch. She mentioned to reporters that she “found the aerial currents of the most tantalizing nature, for although they had the same general direction, she found that they had different and greatly varying forces in the different strata of air.”20 Meanwhile, the balloon had been blown away to the south, landing in the bay near the anchored HMS Nelson. The crew of the Nelson took good care of the balloon before its return to Van Tassel. Later that evening, Gladys attended a performance of Nemesis at the Melbourne Opera House, sitting in a private box arranged by the management. Upon recognizing that she was in attendance, the audience regaled her with an ovation.21 Calling her Australia’s new “Queen of the Air,” the Melbourne Herald noted, “Yesterday afternoon, the most daring action which has been attempted in Victoria was achieved by a woman.”22 An ascension for Valerie was arranged for Sunday, March 9, 1890.

It is of interest to note that although news of these jumps spread throughout the rest of Australia, the delay was in fact rather pronounced. For instance, when the Van Tassell Troupe was entertaining crowds at Melbourne, readers in Queensland were just learning of their activities in Newcastle and Sydney. News of the ascents and descents by the Van Tassell Sisters continued into late April.23 Adelaide learned about the activities in Melbourne after March 14.24 Out in Western Australia, Perth only began hearing of the events in Sydney in late March.25

On March 8, the Herald in Sydney carried a fascinating and detailed story of the mysterious and brave Van Tassell Sisters, noting that Valerie was the younger of the two by two years and making reference to their “mother,” Clara Van Tassel, who had “made the first parachute jump by a woman in the world.”26 Meanwhile, Gladys (age twenty-one) was supposedly born in Boston in 1869 and had “made previous descents from giddy altitudes, but she was always accompanied by her father.”27 Note that there are no records of Park Van Tassel being Gladys’s father or providing any balloon flights to Gladys or Valerie before their time together in Australia. Valerie was younger than Gladys by two years, so it is believed she was nineteen at the time of these jumps. And given that the name Freitas has a Portuguese anthroponymy, and the city of Boston, Massachusetts, had a large Portuguese population, the relation of the sisters to Boston is certainly possible. However, no records of their migration to Australia can be found. Be that as it may, the “family” was now the talk of Victoria. That same evening, the Van Tassell Sisters completed trapeze work for the audience from the stage of Victoria Hall. They were slightly out of practice, as Gladys fell during the trapeze act. She was “partially stunned” and largely unhurt but unable to continue the performance.28


A detailed illustration in the Melbourne Punch of March 13, 1890, showing all phases of a balloon ascension and parachute jump by the Van Tassell Sisters. National Library of Australia.

On Saturday, March 9, it was Valerie’s turn to descend by parachute over Melbourne. Advertisements told the public that the balloon would be launched at 4:00 p.m. However, once again, high winds were not in their favor. An attempt to inflate the balloon caused a large tear. Fixing the rent required a patch measuring 6 square feet, which took time to apply. At roughly 6:30 p.m., word spread through the massive crowd that Valerie would be launching soon. Ten thousand people were reported to have paid their admission to witness the event.29 Later reports put the number of paying spectators at twenty thousand.30 As the sun set and the winds ebbed, the sky was left in the “pearly light” of twilight for the launch. Valerie made her way to the balloon at the Friendly Societies’ Grounds and was greeted with applause, partially because the event was about to unfold, partially out of growing impatience. She was released to the sky quickly, and it was a more spectacular sight than Gladys’s previous launch simply because of the clearness and beauty of the dusk sky above. As the balloon arrived to a height of about 5,000 feet, Van Tassel fired his starter pistol and Valerie jumped, falling rapidly for about 100 feet before the parachute unfurled. She landed safely behind a boat shed on the south bank of the Yarra River near the barracks on St. Kilda Road.31 The balloon either came to rest near the city’s gasworks32 or flew over Albert Park and landed in the sea; reports were unclear.33 It was collected later by the Van Tassell Troupe.


On March 8, 1890, the front page of the Herald in Melbourne described the Van Tassell Sisters as the talk of the nation. National Library of Australia.

The press noted that Park Van Tassel would soon construct a new balloon to help avoid the delays associated with previous inflations.34 It was also noted that several members of Australia’s government were on hand to witness Valerie’s jump. They included “Dr. Dobson [member of the legislative council] and Messrs Zox, Hall, W.T. Carter, and Shackell [members of the legislative assembly]. The Secretary of Defence was there; so was Dr. St. John Clarke. Of the dramatic profession, Mr. G. Musgrove, Messrs Vincent and Grattan Riggs arrived. Many leading gentlemen of the Civil Service were sure to make an appearance.”35

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