Royal Reels: Gambling


A postcard was sent on July 2nd 1910 from Sydney to the Minister of Defence and the contents were as follows: “Dear Sir, Kindly advise me if final time has closed, for entering a machine for the Commonwealth Aerial Prize. To oblige, truly yours, Captain Penfold, The Australian Aeronaut, Box 1564, G.P.O.” There is a blue double ringed DEFENCE ( )/PM-1 16 OC 10 mark applied top centre – the delay in reception cannot be explained (Figure 1).

The Commonwealth Government was so impressed by Blériot’s feat (flight across the English Channel from Calais to Dover on 25 July 1909) that they offered a prize of £5,000 to the Australian inventor of an aeroplane suitable for military purposes. The conditions were rather onerous: it had to carry two persons and be capable of ‘poising’ in the air. Twenty one aviators entered but none ever claimed the prize.

Vincent Patrick Taylor (1874-1930) was a daredevil balloonist, parachutist and stuntman who astounded crowds across Sydney with his hair-raising aeronautical exploits every weekend for close to 20 years. His stunts included scaling city buildings, jumping from bridges and riding the rapids in his inflatable rubber suit.

He was best known for his balloon displays: he would go up in a hot air balloon, hang precariously from a trapeze far above the crowds that gathered to see him and then parachute down, often landing among treetops, on railway lines or in the middle of Sydney Harbour. “Fear was not in his nature. He would continually risk life and limb, all for the exhilaration of being up in the region of the birds. Always the expert showman and master of self-promotion, he had his own personalised letterhead, business cards, leaflets, flyers and posters, advertising the man who flirts with death”. A typical ending to one of his exploits is shown in Figure 2.

“In November 1911, as part of the 50th Anniversary of Local Government in Parramatta, death defying balloonist Captain Penfold (Vincent Patrick Taylor) planned to arrive dangling from a balloon on a trapeze, wearing full dress military uniform. The flight, like most of Captain Penfold’s ballooning exploits, was doomed to an early finish: the balloon hit a tree and Penfold had to cut himself free, falling to the ground.”

“Penfold had twice been rescued from San Francisco Bay: once by the USS South Dakota and once by USS West Virginian while visiting the American Atlantic Fleet. His enthusiasm for ballooning was not diminished by the accident: he took his act overseas, and had to be rescued on a number of occasions after similar stunts, including crashing on his head while flying over London dressed as Santa Claus.”

Professor Barbara Poston-Anderson (University of Technology, Sydney) is a Captain Taylor enthusiast as demonstrated by the fact that she has written and professionally produced “Aloft”, the story of Captain Taylor Penfold. It was produced as a 2 hour musical which debuted at the Parramatta Riverside Theatre. In an email, she states: “As far as I know, the Captain was a title he gave to himself – a theatrical touch for his stage name. Even his son, in an article I read, didn’t know how or why his father chose the name Captain Penfold”.

Categories: Mining, Postcards