Professor Baldwin, the Victorian Daredevil

In the summer of 1888 Londoners flocked in their thousands to marvel at the feats of a dashing American daredevil calling himself Professor Baldwin.

The adverts placed in the Times promised it would be ‘the greatest scientific sensation of the age’ but only hinted at what was planned:

Professor Baldwin has succeeded in making an umbrella with sufficient surface resistance to land passengers from an aerial ship at any height.

Baldwin’s act was in fact the Victorian equivalent of Felix Baumgartner’s skydive earlier this week, albeit only from a few thousand feet rather than 120,000ft.

Like Baumgartner, he ascended in a balloon before jumping off and parachuting down to safety. This being 1888, the modern parachute was still in its infancy, and illustrations from the Illustrated London News reveal how ‘amateur’ the stunt was compared to Baumgartner’s.

Professor Baldwin

First the balloon is filled with hydrogen gas, while kept weighted to the ground

Professor Baldwin

The parachute is fixed to the side of the balloon

Professor Baldwin

Professor Baldwin kisses his wife goodbye. I bet that moustache tickles.

Professor Baldwin

The moment before Professor Baldwin is lifted up into the air by the balloon. Note how he is sitting on a trapeze, holding the balloon with one hand and the cords of the parachute in the other.

Professor Baldwin leaps

Baldwin (inset) leaps from the balloon holding on to the parachute. The force of his fall snaps the tie holding the parachute to the balloon.

Professor Baldwin floats down to earth

The parachute fills with air and Professor Baldwin floats down to the ground

Baldwin, who had perfected his act in America before travelling to England, made his first jump at Alexandra Palace on Saturday, July 28, 1888. As The Times reported:

The aeronaut, who went up alone, and was dressed in tights, held on by the ring, with his feet resting on the ropes of the balloon and the umbrella hanging by his side. The balloon speedily attained a great height and then the aeronaut leaped or dropped away from it. A moment afterwards he was seen at some distance from the balloon high up in the air beyond the racecourse of the Palace, gracefully, steadily, and quickly descending with his umbrella opened out above him like a monster mushroom.

After landing Baldwin returned to the Palace to be ‘enthusiastically cheered by the thousands of spectators in the Palace grounds and the adjoining fields.’ Although the Times reporter doubted whether Baldwin reached the height of 1,000ft being claimed, he noted that ‘it was certainly one of the most extraordinary and successful sensational feats of modern times.’

Thomas Scott Baldwin is now remembered as ‘The Father of the Modern Parachute’ (previous versions having ribs like umbrellas) and its worth was proved 23 years later when Grant Morton made the first successful jump from an aeroplane in California in 1911.

One-hundred-and-one years later Felix Baumgartner did this:


Half Way Round the World in 30 Days

In 2012 it takes just under a day to travel from Australia to the UK thanks to long haul flights, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the journey was much more of an adventure in itself. Passengers must have felt a little like the fictional character Phileas Fogg as they boarded the steam-powered ships that would carry them half way round the world, often in conditions that would reacquaint even the hardiest seaman with his breakfast.

One of these vessels was the Ormuz, forged in the Glasgow shipyards in 1886 and capable of reaching London from Sydney in just 30 days (although it usually took six weeks with passengers). Its owners, the Orient Line, were so proud of it that they mounted an inscription above the entrance to the first class saloon: ‘Were the world a ring of gold, Ormuz would be its diamond.’

Photo of the RMS Ormuz

On November 21, 1887, it was described by The Melbourne Daily Telegraph as ‘The Fastest Ship in the World’ on the basis that it had ‘placed the metropolis of the world within twenty-seven days six hours of its antipodes.’

Nearly everybody who reads what is written here will remember the days – not a long time ago at all – when merchants, everybody, stopped on another in the street  – “Fine passage, sixty days from London. Wonderful ship the Thermopylae.” But then they had been used to seventy, eighty, and ninety days, a whole three months of waiting for their English letters.’

So what was it like to travel 10,000 miles on this smoke-belching monster of the seas? One passenger, a Mrs Eliza Cripps, kept a diary of her voyage on board the Ormuz from Sydney to Plymouth in 1888. It was surprisingly eventful, involving injury and death, shipping accidents, seasickness, and extreme weather conditions.

The Ormuz left Sydney on April 10th, stopping off at Melbourne on the 13th, Adelaide on the 15th and Albany on the 19th before heading across the Indian Ocean towards Aden and the Red Sea.

Friday 20th April. Another fine day, ship going along splendid. Making 304 miles this afternoon, she commenced to roll very much, one lady passenger was hurt with the vessel giving a lurch.

Four days later, as they headed north towards the equator, Mrs Cripps noted that it was so hot and stuffy in her cabin ‘that I feel as bad as if I was in a bath, and come out wet through.’

One solution to the hot weather was to sleep on the promenade deck, which was usually ‘nice and cool’, particularly at night.

The Promenade deck of the Ormuz

But even the hot weather doesn’t appear to have put people off enjoying themselves.

Wednesday 25th April. We passed a terribly hot night, passengers lying about in all directions. Ship made 344 miles today. Singing and music every day.

Two days later the mood on board changed dramatically.

This morning there is quite a gloom laid over the ship. A gentleman by the name of Mr Lisbet broke a blood vessel and died in about half an hour after, poor fellow. Only the other night he was playing the violin while his sister played the piano. He was buried at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. A very solemn projection there has been 3 or 4 accidents on board.

One feature of the journey were religious services every Sunday given by the Captain in the first class saloon. There were also services in the afternoon and evening on the deck – although on 29th April the Rev Mr Reblard was interrupted by ‘a sudden squall which sent everything flying.’

The following day the weather decided to interrupt a more secular activity.

We have 2 violins and harps playing on the second saloon deck 3 times a day. Tonight while dancing was going on, it rained so suddenly it was just like a sheet of water, it send the people in all directions down below, it’s a regular piece of fun to see them.

Other activities included fancy dress balls and lectures on astronomy. Some, like Mrs Cripps, found pleasure in simply getting up early to watch the sun rise.

It is one of the beautifulest sights I ever saw… the sun reflects on the water which makes it look like land, the clouds rise up and seem to stand like castles and trees – all looks like a green valley.

The ship arrived at Aden on 5th May, to be greeted by naked Arab boys shouting at the passengers ‘throw down a shilling, you got big ship, you got plenty money.’ Some of the passengers obliged, just to see the boys dive into the water ‘like so many rats after a bait.’

At this point the ship took on passengers rescued from another steamer which had sunk after a collision with a P&O ship called the ‘Garonne.’ Two people drowned in the accident.

Then it was off towards Suez and the canal (opened in 1869) which would take them to the Mediterranean. There was plenty of opportunity for sightseeing from the deck, with ducks, camels, donkeys, well-dressed Egyptians and dozens of other steamers making the same journey in the opposite direction.

After leaving Suez and passing Crete the Ormuz stopped off at Naples on May 14th and Gibraltar three days later before beginning the final leg to Plymouth.

Friday 18th May. This morning is what most of the passengers called rough. A great number are absent from the tables which shows they are sick. Now we will be getting into the Atlantic Ocean which makes the ship roll a little.

Mrs Cripps spent her last evening on the ship at a religious service in the second class saloon, where there was ‘a subscription on behalf of three motherless children in the third class.’

The Second Class Saloon

The Second Class Saloon

The contrast between second class (tickets £30 to £40) and first class (£70) is made clear by the opulent appearance of the first class saloon and drawing room. Third class cost between £15 and £18 (according to the National Archives currency calculator, that roughly equates to £1,000.)

Dining in First Class on the Ormuz

The Drawing Room and Library

The Drawing Room and Library

The cheapest way of travelling on the Ormuz was as a stowaway, who once discovered were usually put to work as a member of the crew. One such stowaway was James McKill, a 22 year-old chemist’s son making his way back home to Hamilton in Scotland in August 1888.

For the appropriately named McKill, the drama really began when he disembarked at Tilbury Docks and travelled to St Pancras station to catch a train to Glasgow with a group of fellow passengers, including a 39 year-old engineer called John King.

Mr King was found dead by the side of the track in Haverstock Hill (Belsize) Tunnel the following morning and it was at first thought he had fallen from the carriage by accident. But a few days later two passengers told police that McKill had confessed to pushing him out the door during a fight. He was charged with murder and went on trial at the Old Bailey the following month. McKill was acquitted by the jury after explaining he was drunk when he made the supposed confession and that Mr King probably fell from the train trying to retrieve a bottle of whisky from another carriage.

Excepts from the diary of Eliza Cripps, and photo of the RMS Ormuz, courtesy of David Cripps. The other pictures are courtesy of Chris Tyrer, who has a fine collection of ship postcards on his website.

The story of John King is told in the recently-published book 1888 London Murders in the Year of the Ripper.

Predicting the Ripper: Howard J. Goldsmid goes undercover in the East End

The Nemesis of Neglect, from Punch magazine at the time of the Ripper Murders in 1888.

Two years before Jack the Ripper made his name in the notorious East End of London, a 19 year-old journalist travelled to the capital from Birmingham. Disguised as a tramp, Howard Joseph Goldsmid visited the same kind of ‘common lodging houses’ that the murder victims called home in the days before their deaths.

What he found there shocked him so much that he issued a startling warning:

Should we elect to go on in the old rut, strong in the consciousness and confidence of our own wealth and power… what might once, not long since, have been Reform, has grown and swelled and gathered force and volume until the torrent can no longer be stemmed, and we are confronted by REVOLUTION.

This seems melodramatic now, but when he wrote those lines in 1886 there was some justification for the fear that the country was slipping into anarchy. In February of that year rioters rampaged through the West End following a meeting of the unemployed in Trafalgar Square, and as a result the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police was forced to resign.

Goldsmid believed most of the rioters had come from ‘the low lodging houses’ which were found throughout London, but particularly in the East End. He had already read about the Whitechapel and Spitalfields in sensational books like ‘How the Poor Live’ and ‘The Bitter Cry of Outcast London’, but, like any true journalist, wanted to see them for himself.

He decided the best way to do this was to go undercover, in the tradition begun by James Greenwood twenty years earlier. He smeared mud over his face, put on a dirty shirt, broken boots and a deerstalker hat, slipped a short clay pipe between his teeth and took on the mannerisms of ‘a returned convict who has allowed his hair to grow.’ He then wilfully endured the terror of spending the night at a series of ‘doss houses’, beginning with ‘The Beehive’ in Brick Lane and ending in Whitechapel Chambers in Old Montague Street.

Goldsmid’s experiences were set down in the book Dottings of a Dosser, published in October 1886. His warnings of a possible revolution were accompanied by a prediction that in hindsight seems particularly chilling. For he wrote that should public sympathy return to sleep,

its slumbers will probably last until the curtain which shrouds the only partially depicted scenes of London wretchedness be lifted with a ruder hand, and the “bitter cry” sound more bitter and perhaps more menacing.

Two years later the ‘ruder hand’ of Jack the Ripper shocked the whole country.

As for Howard Goldsmid, his journalistic career sadly came to an end in 1892 when his father committed suicide and he was forced to take over the family jewellery business. Then on August 7, 1895, Howard followed his father’s footsteps by poisoning himself with potassium cyanide. He was only 28 years old.


Dottings of a Dosser can be read online (for free) on Lee Jackson’s excellent Victorian London website.

A selection of Howard Goldsmid’s journalism from 1887 can be found in the Kindle e-book ‘A Midnight Prowl Through Victorian London‘ (it also contains a short biography).

Anyone interested in the Ripper victims will no doubt already know about the Casebook website.