The only lady aeronauts in the world

The sisters Essie Viola and Nellie Viola were the shooting stars of their age. This year marks the 125th anniversary of their last appearance in Australia where they achieved their fame. I told the story on West Bremer Radio this weekend.

Essie was sixteen-years-old and was known as “the youngest aeronaut in the world” and “the only living lady aerialist”. Together, the sisters were billed as “the only lady aeronauts in the world”.

An aeronaut is a traveller in the air – just like an astronaut who travels to the stars, but we’re talking about the 1890s when hot air balloons were cutting edge technology.

The book “Around the World in Eighty Days” by Jules Verne was still the stuff of science fiction, gliders by pioneers like Lawrence Hargrave were only experimental, and powered flight by the Wright Brothers was still a decade away.

The Viola sisters were said to be from an American ranch in Texas. In the five years leading up to 1895, they had travelled the breadth of Australia and thrilled crowds with death-defying balloon flights.

Essie would go up in a hot air balloon to an altitude of over a mile, and then parachute back to earth. Wherever they went, this was something that no one had ever seen before. Parachutes had barely been invented.

Innumerable people around the world had died trying exactly the same thing, and it definitely wasn’t something that a young lady back then should be doing.

In April 1895 in the Queensland town of Gympie, Essie had ascended about a mile when her balloon burst into flames. She survived only by jumping clear just before it crashed, but of course both the balloon and her parachute were destroyed.

The girls arrived in Ipswich twelve weeks later. They stayed at the old North Star Hotel which was in the centre of town on the corner of Ellenborough and Brisbane Streets. Back then the North Star was the biggest and finest hotel in town, which befitted stars of the status of the Viola sisters.

North Star Hotel in the 1890s when it hosted the Viola sisters

On the afternoon of Saturday the 13th of July 1895, crowds filled the Sandy Gallop showgrounds, with about 600 people paying a shilling for the best view. There were also big crowds at vantage points like Denmark Hill where they got to look for free.

Sandy Gallop showgrounds and Denmark Hill not long after the famous event

The process of filling the balloon started at about four o’clock in the afternoon. Essie appeared at about five o’clock but went back inside the caretaker’s cottage. They kept filling the balloon but Essie never reappeared, and by six o’clock the crowd began leaving in disgust. The balloon just never got filled.

The tickets however were valid for another ascent. But there’s no record of another ascent by the Viola sisters in Ipswich or anywhere else. In fact, this was the last appearance by the lady aeronauts in Australia before they left the country.

Millie and Essie turned up in San Francisco a couple of months later where Millie was promoting a new stunt of swimming across Niagara above the Falls – after being dropped in a barrel from a balloon.

Australia can claim being the country where flight was first commercialised, years before the invention of the aeroplane. The city of Ipswich holds the distinction of hosting “the only lady aeronauts in the world” in their last appearance in Australia, even though they never got off the ground.


Photo credits:
Essie and Nellie Viola Balloonists – Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 27 April 1895, p853
North Star Hotel 1890s – Whitehead Studios via Picture Ipswich
Queensland Pastoral and Agricultural Society showgrounds Sandy Gallop looking towards Denmark Hill c1906 – Ipswich Historical Society

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s