The Demon Of The Air

On 24 December 1892 … [George Albert] Smith announced in the Brighton and Hove Herald that he had taken a lease of the St Ann’s Well pleasure gardens … By April 1893 Smith had been able to “supplement the many natural attractions” of St Ann’s Well by the addition, among other things, of a monkey house, a gypsy fortune teller, swings and see-saws for the children, and by popular lectures and demonstrations by himself.

In May 1894 Smith announced that St Ann’s Well had become one of the most popular amusement resorts in Britain. He claimed that “close to 3,000 visitors” had paid 3d. for admission on Whit Monday. The attractions now included captive baboons, an exhibition of dissolving views “by means of long-range limelight apparatus”, and juggling and trapeze artists.

Smith’s advertisements in the Brighton and Hove Herald and the Brighton Gazette on 7 and 9 June 1894 announced a “BALLOON ASCENT AND THRILLING PARACHUTE DESCENT by Neil Campbell, Australia’s ‘Demon of the Air’”, on the following Saturday, augmented by trapeze, juggling, and balancing acts. “The Demon of the Sky”, it was said, “will perform his wonderful leap from the sky from a height of one mile by means of a parachute.” We may perhaps think that a mile was an exaggeration. However, in the event, Smith created more of a sensation with his “Demon of the Air” than he could have anticipated. “Half of Brighton”, apparently, “was wild with excitement”, because during the ascent of the hot-air balloon the Demon had been unable to free himself to make his spectacular parachute descent. After drifting over the town the balloon, with the Demon still attached, crashed into Brighton cemetery. The Demon, it was stated, broke a tombstone by the force of his descent, but was miraculously uninjured.

[Let us leap forward sixty years…]

When the National Film Theatre was opened on London’s South Bank in 1957, the [British Film] Academy invited the now ninety-three-year-old Smith as a guest. He was presented to Princess Margaret, met Gina Lollobrigida and other stars of the film world, and was given a picture of the theatre by Lord Hailsham.

Trevor H. Hall, The Strange Case of Edmund Gurney (Duckworth 1964)

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