Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Ballooning - experiences of

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'Air-um Scare-um Travelling' 
[a satirical vision of balloon travel of the future -ed.]

George Cruikshank, Comic Almanack, 1843


On Monday evening, Mr. Green made a very beautiful ascent in his monster Nassau Balloon, from the grounds of Cremorne House, Chelsea, which were crowded with company to witness the spectacle. There was on the occasion of this ascent some novelty to attract the spectators and to amuse them. In addition to Mr. Green, to Lord George Beresford, and an officer of the 1st Regiment of Life Guards, to one or two other gentlemen, and to Mrs. Green and another lady, there was amongst the "intrepid aeronauts" the celebrated Mr. Thomas Matthews, the Clown of Drury Lane Theatre, who immediately before the ascent favoured his companions in the car, and the thousands of persons who surrounded it, with the favourite ballad of "Hot Codlins." Mr. Matthews was equipped in fall theatrical costume; the rest of the party in clothes more appropriate for an aerial trip. The ascent was a fine one; it took place shortly before 7 o'clock, the wind blowing lightly from the west. On its departure from Cremorne Gardens, the balloon was carried east by north, and passed over Chelsea Hospital, the new Bridewell, and the Middlesex end of Westminster-bridge. It subsequently went directly over the Post office, going towards Haggerstone, Dalston, and Clapton, over Stamford hill, towards the reservoir of the New River. The sudden change of temperature, which took place in a space of about four minutes (the altitude having varied from between 1000 or 2000 feet to 6500) produced a sudden shivering in the aeronauts. After being in the air about two hours and twenty minutes, the balloon was safely landed in a large marsh, at Tottenham, near the residence of Mr. H. L. Small, a director of the Northern and Eastern Counties Railway. Mr. Small and his family hospitably received the adventurous company. When at a height of about 9000 feet, Mr. T. Matthews, upon being requested, sang a new comic song, called " Pigs' Pettitoes," which was rapturously encored.

from The Illustrated London News, 1845

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Illustrated London News, Jan.-June, 1851

Scientific Balloon Ascent from Vauxhall Gardens

Illustrated London News, July-Dec, 1852

September 13, 1852
It was late in the evening (a fine autumn one) when the gun was fired that was the signal for the great gas-bag to be loosened from the ropes that held it down to the soil; and immediately the buoyant machine bounded, like a big ball, into the air. Or, rather let us say, the earth seemed to sink suddenly down as if the spot of ground to which it had been previously fastened had been constructed upon the same principle as the Adelphi stage, and admitted of being lowered at a moment’s notice. Indeed, no sooner did the report of the gun clatter in the air, than the people, who had before been grouped about the car, appeared to fall from a level with the eye; and, instantaneously, there was seen a multitude of flat, upturned faces in the gardens below, with a dense chevaux de frise of arms extended above them, and some hundreds of outstretched hands fluttering farewell to us.
    The moment after this, the balloon vaulted over the trees, and we saw the roadway outside the gardens stuck all over with mobs of little black Lilliputian people, while the hubbub of the voices below, and the cries of ‘Ah bal-loon!’ from the boys, rose to the ear like the sound of a distant school let loose to play.
    Now began that peculiar panoramic effect which is the distinguishing feature of the first portion of a view from a balloon, and which arises from the utter absence of all sense of motion in the machine itself, and the consequent transference of the movement to the ground beneath. The earth, as the aeronautic vessel glided over it, seemed positively to consist of a continuous series of scenes which were being drawn along underneath us, as if it were some diorama laid flat upon the ground, and almost gave one the notion that the world was an endless landscape stretched up on rollers, which some invisible sprites below were busy revolving for our especial amusement.
    Then, as we floated along above the fields, in a line with the Thames towards Richmond, and looked over the edge of the car in which we were standing (and which, by the bye, was like a big ‘buck basket’, reaching to one’s breast), the sight was the most exquisite visual delight ever experienced. The houses directly underneath us looked like the tiny wooden things out of a child’s box of toys, and the streets as if they were ruts in the ground; and we could hear the hum of the voices from every spot we passed over, faint as the buzzing of so many bees.
    Far beneath, in the direction we were sailing, lay the suburban fields; and here the earth, with its tiny hills and plains and streams, assumed the appearance of the little coloured plaster models of countries. The roadways striping the land were like narrow brown ribbons, and the river, which we could see winding far away, resembled a long, gray, metallic-looking snake, creeping through the fields. The bridges over the Thames were positively like planks; and the tiny black barges, as they floated along the stream, seemed no bigger than summer insects on the water. The largest meadows were about the size of green-baize table covers; and across these we could just trace the line of the South-Western Railway, with the little whiff of white steam issuing from some passing engine, and no greater in volume than the jet of vapour from an ordinary tea-kettle.
    Then, as the dusk of evening descended, and the gas-lights along the different lines of road started into light, one after another, the ground seemed to be covered with little illumination lamps, such as are hung on Christmas-trees, and reminding one of those that are occasionally placed, at intervals, along the grass at the edge of the gravel-walks in suburban tea-gardens; whilst the clusters of little lights at the spots where the hamlets were scattered over the scene, appeared like knots of fire-flies in the air; and in the midst of these the eye could, here and there, distinguish the tiny crimson speck of some railway signal.
    In the opposite direction to that in which the wind was insensibly wafting the balloon, lay the leviathan Metropolis, with a dense canopy of smoke hanging over it, and reminding one of the fog of vapour that is often seen steaming up from the fields at early morning. It was impossible to tell where the monster city began or ended, for the buildings stretched not only to the horizon on either side, but far away into the distance, where, owing to the coming shades of evening and the dense fumes from the million chimneys, the town seemed to blend into the sky, so that there was no distinguishing earth from heaven. The multitude of roofs that extended back from the foreground was positively like a dingy red sea, heaving in bricken billows, and the seeming waves rising up one after the other till the eye grew wearied with following them. Here and there we could distinguish little bare green patches of parks, and occasionally make out the tiny circular enclosures of the principal squares, though, from the height, these appeared scarcely bigger than wafers. Further, the fog of smoke that over-shadowed the giant town was pierced with a thousand steeples and pin-like factory-chimneys.
    That little building, no bigger than one of the small china houses that are used for burning pastilles in, is Buckingham Palace—with St James’s Park, dwindled to the size. of a card-table, stretched out before it. Yonder is Bethlehem Hospital, with its dome, now about the same dimensions as a bell.
    Then the little mites of men, crossing the bridges, seemed to have no more motion in them than the animalcules in cheese; while the streets appeared more like cracks in the soil than highways, and the tiny steamers on the river were only to he distinguished by the thin black thread of smoke trailing after them.
    Indeed, it was a most wonderful sight to behold that vast bricken mass of churches and hospitals, banks and prisons, palaces and workhouses, docks and refuges for the destitute, parks and squares, and courts and alleys, which make up London—all blent into one immense black spot—to look down upon the whole as the birds of the air look down upon it, and see it dwindled into a mere rubbish heapůto contemplate from afar that strange conglomeration of vice, avarice, and low cunning, of noble aspirations and humble heroism, and to grasp it in the eye, in all its incongruous integrity, at one single glance—to take, as it were, an angel’s view of that huge town where, perhaps, there is more virtue and more iniquity, more wealth and more want, brought together into one dense focus than in any other part of the earth—to hear the hubbub of the restless sea of life and emotion below, and hear it, like the ocean in a shell, whispering of the incessant strugglings and chafings of the distant tide—to swing in the air high above all the petty jealousies and heart-burnings, small ambitions and vain parade of ‘polite’ society, and feel, for once, tranquil as a babe in a cot, and that you are hardly of the earth, earthy, as, Jacob-like, you mount the aerial ladder, and half lose sight of the ‘great commercial world’ beneath, where men are regarded as mere counters to play with, and where to do your neighbour as your neighbour would do you constitutes the first principle in the religion of trade—to feel yourself floating through the endless realms of space, and drinking in the pure thin air of the skies, as you go sailing along almost among the stars, free as ‘the lark at heaven’s gate’, and enjoying, for a brief half hour, at least, a foretaste of that Elysian destiny which is the ultimate hope of all.
    Such is the scene we behold, and such the thoughts that stir the brain on contemplating London from the car of a balloon. 

Henry Mayhew, Illustrated London News on 18 Sep 1852

[gratefully copied from David Skilton's 
pages at University of Cardiff]


THE following are the more memorable Balloon Ascents made from the metropolis since the introduction of aërostation into England. In most cases the aëronauts were accompanied by friends, or persons who paid for the trip various sums.
    Nov. 25, 1783, the first Balloon (filled with hydrogen) launched in England, from the Artillery Ground, Finsbury, by Count Zambeccari. The Balloon was found 48 miles from London, near Petworth.
    Sept. 15, 1784, Lunardi ascended from the Artillery Ground, Moorfields; being the first voyage made in England; he was accompanied by a cat, a dog, and a pigeon.
    March 23, 1785, Admiral Sir Edward Vernon, accompanied by Count Zambeccari.
    June 29, 1785, ascent of Mrs. Sage, the first Englishwoman aëronaut.
    July 5, 1802, M. Garnerin made his second ascent in England, from Lord's Cricket Ground. The same year he ascended three times from Ranelagh Gardens; and descended successfully from a Balloon by a Parachute, near the Small-pox Hospital, St Pancras.
    1811, James Sadler, ascended from Hackney; his two sons, John and Windham, were also aeronauts the latter killed, Sept. 29, 1824, by falling from a Balloon.
    July 19, 1821, Mr. Charles Green first ascended in a Balloon inflated with coal gas, substituted for hydrogen, on the coronation day of George IV. Cost of inflation, from 25l. to 501.: this was Mr. Green's first aerial voyage. Up to May, 1850, he had made 142 ascents from London only. Ten persons named Green have ascended in Balloons.* [* Mr. Green has made, altogether, a larger number of ascents than any other aeronaut; they exceed 500. Of this veteran a fine portrait (private plate) has been engraved.]
    Sept. 11, 1823, Mr. Graham ascended from White Conduit House.
    May 25, 1824, Lieutenant Harris, R.N., ascended from the Eagle Tavern, City Road, with Miss Stocks; the former killed by the too rapid descent of the Balloon.
    July, 1833, Mr. Graham ascended from Hungerford Market; day of opening. One of Mr. Graham's companions, on this occasion, shortly after made a second ascent, which caused a derangement of intellect, from which he never entirely recovered.
    Sept. 17, 1835, Mr. Green ascended from Vauxhall Gardens, and remained up during the whole of the night.
    August 22, 1836, the Duke of Brunswick ascended.
    Sept. 9, 1836, Mr. Green's first ascent in his great Vauxhall Balloon.
    Nov. 7, 1836, Mr. Green, Mr. Monck Mason, and Mr. Holland ascended in the great Vauxhall Balloon, and descended, in eighteen hours, at Weilburg, in Nassau. Of this ascent, Mr. Mason published a detailed account.
    July 24, 1837, Mr. Green ascended from Vauxhall Gardens, in his great Balloon, with Mr. Cocking in a parachute, in which the latter was killed in descending.
    May 24, 1838, unsuccessful attempt to ascend with a large Montgolfier Balloon from the Surrey Zoological Gardens. The Balloon was destroyed by the spectators; it was the height of the York Column, and half the circumference of the dome of St. Paul's, and would contain, when fully inflated, 170,000 cubic feet of air.
    Sept. 10, 1838, Mr. Green and Mr. Rush ascended from Vauxhall Gardens in the Nassau Balloon, and descended at Lewes, Sussex; having reached the then greatest altitude ever attained - 27,146 feet, or 5 miles 746 feet.
    July 17, 1840, the Vauxhall, or great Nassau Balloon, sold to Mr. Green for 500l.; in 1836 it cost 2100l.
    August 19, 1844, perilous night ascent with Mr. Gypson's Balloon from Vauxhall Gardens, with fireworks. Mr. Albert Smith and Mr. Coxwell accompanied the aeronaut. At 7000 feet high the Balloon burst, but, by Mr. Coxwell cutting some lines, the Balloon assumed a parachute form, and descended safely.
    Aug. 7, 1850, Mrs. Graham's Balloon destroyed by fire, after her descent, near Edmonton.
    Sept. 7, 1854, ascent of Mr. Coxwell's War Balloon, from the Surrey Zoological Gardens, with telegraphic signals.
    June 15, 1857, night voyage from Woolwich to Tavistock, 250 miles, made by Mr. Coxwell, in five hours.
    July 17, 1862, Mr. Glaisher and Mr. Coxwell first ascended in a large Balloon made by the latter for the experiments of the British Association: ascent from Wolverhampton; elevation attained, 26,177 feet above the sea-level.
    Sept. 5, 1862, the highest and most memorable ascent on record. Mr. Glaisher and Mr. Coxwell attained an elevation of 37,000 feet, or 7 miles. Mr. Glaisher became insensible; and Mr. Coxwell, his hands being frozen, had to pull the valve-cord with his mouth, and thus escaped death.
    Jan. 12, 1864, Mr. Glaisher's seventeenth scientific ascent in Mr. Coxwell's large Balloon; the only ascent made in England during the month of January.
    Aug. 3, 1864, M. Godard ascended from Cremorne Gardens, in his huge Montgolfier Balloon, and made a perilous descent at Walthamstow.
    Mr. Glaisher, by his scientific ascents, has proved that the Balloon does afford a means of solving with advantage many delicate questions in physics; and the Committee of the British Association report that Science and the Association owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Glaisher for the ability, perseverance, and courage with which he has voluntarily undertaken the hazardous labour of recording meteorological phenomena in the several ascents. The following survey of London, Oct. 9, 1863, sixteenth ascent, as the Balloon passed over London Bridge, at the height of  7000 feet, in an unusually clear atmosphere, is picturesquely descriptive.
    "The scene around, says Mr. Glaisher, "was probably one that cannot be equalled in the world at one glance-the homes of 3,000,000 of people were seen, and so distinctly that every large building at every part was easily distinguished; while those almost under us-viz., the Bank and Newgate, the Docks and surrounding buildings, &c., in such detail that their inner courts were visible, and their ground-plans could have been drawn. Cannon-street was easily traced; but it was difficult to believe at first sight that small building to be St. Paul's. Looking onward, Oxford-street was visible; the Parks, the Houses of Parliament, and Millbank Prison, with its radiating lines from the centre, at once attracted notice. In fact, the whole of London was visible, and some parts of it very clearly. Then all around there were lines of detached villas, imbedded as it were in shrubs; and beyond, the country, like a garden, with its fields well marked, but becoming smaller and smaller as the eye wandered further away.
    "Again looking down, there was the Thames, without the slightest mist, winding throughout its whole length, with innumerable ships, apparently very long and narrow, and steamboats like moving toys. Gravesend was visible, as were the mouth of the Thames and the coast leading on to Norfolk. The southern boundary of the mouth of the Thames was not quite so clear, but the sea beyond was discernible for many miles; and when higher up I looked for the coast of France, but I could not see it. On withdrawing the eye it was arrested by the garden-like appearance of the county of Kent, till again London claimed attention. Smoke, this; and blue, was curling above it and slowly moving away in beautiful curves, from all but south of the Thames; here the smoke was less blue and became apparently more dense, till the cause was evident, it being mixed with mist rising from the ground, the southern limits of which were bounded by an even line, doubtless indicating the meeting of the subsoils of gravel and clay,
    "The whole scene was surmounted by a canopy of blue, the sky being quite clear and free from cloud everywhere except near the horizon, where a circular band of cumuli and strata clouds, extending all round, formed a fitting boundary for such a scene. The sun was seen setting, but was not itself visible, except a small part seen through a break in a dark stratus cloud - like an eye overseeing all. Sunset, as seen from the earth, is described as fine, the air being clear and shadows sharply defined. As we rose the golden hues decreased in intensity and richness both right and left of the place of the sun; but their effects extended to fully one-fourth part of the circle, where rose-coloured clouds limited the scene. The remainder of the circle was completed partly by pure white cumulus of very rounded and symmetrical forms. I have seen London from above by night, and I have seen it by day when four miles high, but nothing could exceed the view on this occasion at the height of one mile, varying to one mile and three-quarters, with a clear atmosphere. The roar of London even at the greatest height, was one unceasing rich and deep sound, and added impressive interest to the general circumstances in which we were placed.

John Timbs, Curiosities of London, 1867

October 9, 1863

    Always, however great the height of the balloon, when I have seen the horizon it has roughly appeared to be on the level of the car—though of course the dip of the horizon is a very appreciable quantity—or the same height as the eye. From this one might infer that, could the earth be seen without a cloud or anything to obscure it, and the boundary line of the plane approximately the same height as the eye, the general appearance would be that of a slight concavity; but I have never seen any part of the surface of the earth other than as a plane. Towns and cities, when viewed from the balloon are like models in motion. I shall always remember the ascent of 9th October, 1863, when we passed over London about sunset. At the time when we were 7,000 feet high, and directly over London Bridge, the scene around was one that cannot probably be equalled in the world. We were still so low as not to have lost sight of the details of the spectacle which presented itself to our eyes; and with one glance the homes of 3,000,000 people could be seen, and so distinct was the view, that every large building was easily distinguishable. In fact, the whole of London was visible, and some parts most clearly. All round, the suburbs were also very distinct, with their lines of detached villas, imbedded as it were in a mass of shrubs; beyond, the country was like a garden, its fields, well marked, becoming smaller and smaller as the eye wandered farther and farther away. Again looking down, there was the Thames, throughout its whole length, without the slightest mist, dotted over its winding course with innumerable ships and steamboats, like moving toys. Gravesend was visible, also the mouth of the Thames, and the coast around as far as Norfolk. The southern shore of the mouth of the Thames was not so clear, but the sea beyond was seen for many miles; when at a higher elevation, I looked for the coast of France, but was unable to see it. On looking round, the eye was arrested by the garden-like appearance of the county of Kent, till again London claimed yet more careful attention.
    Smoke, thin and blue, was curling from it, and slowly moving away in beautiful curves, from all except one part, south of the Thames, where it was less blue and seemed more dense, till the cause became evident; it was mixed with mist rising from the ground, the southern limit of which was bounded by an even line, doubtless indicating the meeting of the subsoils of gravel and clay. The whole scene was surmounted by a canopy of blue, everywhere free from cloud, except near the horizon, where a band of cumulus and stratus extended all round, forming a fitting boundary to such a glorious view.
    As seen from the earth, the sunset this evening was described as fine, the air being clear and the shadows well defined; but, as we rose to view it and its effects, the golden hues increased in intensity; their richness decreased as the distance from the sun increased, both right and left; but still as far as 90° from the sun, rose-coloured clouds extended. The remainder of the circle was completed, for the most part, by pure white cumulus of well-rounded and symmetrical forms.
    I have seen London by night. I have crossed it during the day at the height of four miles. I have often admired the splendour of sky scenery, but never have I seen anything which surpassed this spectacle. The roar of the town heard at this elevation was a deep, rich, continuous sound—the voice of labour. At four miles above London, all was hushed; no sound reached our ears.

James Glaisher, Travels in the Air, 1871

[gratefully copied from David Skilton's 
pages at University of Cardiff]

    Anxious to see a view of London, at a great height, he arranged with Mr. Gypson, the aeronaut, for a seat in his car. The night was uncommonly close and sultry, and scarcely a breath of wind was stirring; what there was blew slightly from the south-east, and the lightning was flashing about the skies, preluding a terrific thunderstorm. Besides Mr. Gypson and Mr. Coxwell Smith was to have another companion, and they met in Vauxhall Gardens about eleven o’clock. The fireworks—the frame of which resembled a very large skeleton drum—were to be hung thirty or forty feet below it, and fired from the car by a fusee; a most dangerous method, by the way, as the neck of the balloon was but a few feet overhead. At last, every~ thing was ready for the start. ‘‘We took in,” says Smith, “some stores for the trip, as, had it been quite dark, it was the intention of Mr. Gypson to have remained up all night, and, with six or eight bags of sand for ballast, gave the command to ‘let go.’ The balloon rose with extreme velocity, shoot­ing straight up at once, but turning round as it ascended. The match of the fireworks being lighted, they began to shoot forth cascades of coloured fires, which had a beautiful effect. It is impossible to form the feeblest idea of the appearance of London seen by night from the elevation we had now obtained—as nearly as could be judged from the apparent breadth of the river at the bridges, about 4,000 feet. In the obscurity, all traces of houses and enclosures were lost sight of. I can compare it to nothing else than floating over a dark blue and boundless sea, spangled with hundreds of thousands of stars. The stars were the lamps. We could sea them stretching over the river at the bridges, edging its banks, forming squares and long parallel lines of light in the streets, and solitary sparks—farther and farther apart, until they were altogether lost in the suburbs. The effect was too bewildering—too novel and extraordinary to allow any of us even to speak; we could only gaze on them in rapt and deep attention. The fireworks had commenced at Vauxhall, and we saw the blaze of light above the gardens very distinctly, as well as the exploding rockets; and a flash of lightning now and then illumined the entire panorama, but too transitorily to catch any of its features. Above us the sky was deeply blue, studded with innumerable stars; in fact, above, below, and around, appeared of sailing through a galaxy of twinkling points light, incalculable and interminable. The impression made on my mind in these few minutes will never be effaced; neither will the scene by which at was speedily followed.
    “We were all going up, higher and higher, till we had attained the height of 7,000 feet—namely, a mile and a quarter perpendicular—when Mr. Coxwell, who had charge of the valve-line, and was sitting in the hoop of the netting above us, informed Mr. Gypson that the balloon was getting very tense from the extreme rarefaction of the external air at the elevation we had attained. It may be necessary to explain that the top of a balloon is furnished with a ‘butterfly valve,’ a circular double-flap trap opening downwards by a cord which passes through the interior of the balloon, and closing again with a spring when sufficient gas has escaped, which it really does by reason of its buoyancy. Mr. Coxwell pulled this line, and immediately afterwards we heard a noise, similar to, but not so loud as, the escape of spare steam in a locomotive; and the lower part of the balloon collapsed rapidly, and appeared to fly up into the upper portion. To a cry of alarm from Mr. Gypson, Mr. Coxwell answered, ‘The valve is gone! we are. all dead men!’ or words to that effect; and that same instant the balloon began to fall with appalling velocity, the immense mash of loose silk surging and rustling frightfully over our heads, as it flapped to and fro, like the sail of a ship when tacking, between the network and cords by which our car was slung, retreating up away from us more and more into the head of the balloon.
    “It was then suggested to throw over everything that might ease the balloon. I had two bags of sand in my lap, which were cast away directly, and Mr. Coxwell lowered himself from the hoop into the car, when we all began to hunt about amongst our feet for whatever we could find. Bags of ballast, and bottles, of brandy and wine, were instantaneously thrown away; but no effect was perceptible. The wind still appeared to be rushing up past us at a fearful rate; and to add to the horror of these few moments, the expiring fireworks floated on the air; and hung about the cordage of the balloon. The lightning was playing about us. We must have been. then upwards of a mile from the earth. The balloon began to oscillate frightfully, and our descent scarcely occupied two minutes. Our velocity was frightful. The parallelograms of light, too, formed by the squares, got visibly larger and larger, like an image in a phantasmagoria; and the oscillation of the balloon began to subside, although the car was still swinging. I attribute our preservation alone to the fact of the upper netting of the balloon having kept firm, preserving the empty silk in an umbrella shape, which acted as a parachute. We now saw the houses, the roofs of which appeared advancing to meet us; and the next instant, as we dashed on their summits, the words ‘Hold heard’ burst simultaneously from all the party. We were all directly thrown out of the car, along the ground, amidst the cordage and silk of the balloon, which appeared entirely emptied of gas. Nobody was seriously hurt. Torn clothes, crushed hats, and a few grazes and bruises, were all the evils that resulted from a descent of a mile without gas /—not above a mile from the gardens.” Thither the aeronauts hastened, and were there greeted with cheering far more hearty than on their ascent. Mr. Coxwell -~ attributed the accident to the balloon bursting before the valve-lnie was touched, the valve being found — unmoved upon subsequently examining the balloon; and Mr. Coxwell remained on the hoop until the concussion. The first impression of the party was that the valve itself had gone.

The Leisure Hour, 30th March 1872

Balloon Ascents.—Balloon ascents frequently take place from the grounds of the Crystal and Alexandra Palaces. Any one who desires to try the effect of a flight into upper air should seek out the advertisement of the ascent in a daily paper and apply to the aeronaut in charge. The solution of the great problem of aerial navigation still occupies the attention of enthusiasts, who have formed themselves into a society for the exhibition of models, &c, and who are understood to be prepared liberally to reward any successful inventor. —(See AERONAUTICAL SOCIETY

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879