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LOUISA'S FALL FROM GRACE; Brave teenager's leap of faith ended in tragedy.

Byline: Dan O'Neill

JUST a few words on a weathered tombstone in Cathays Cemetery. . .

``In Memory of LOUISA MAUD EVANS, aged 14 years. Who met with her death on July 21st, 1896. On that day she ascended in a balloon from Cardiff and descended by a parachute into the Bristol Channel. Her body was found washed ashore near Nash (Mon) on the 24th of July, and was buried here, on the 29th.''

And thereby hangs a tale. Not just of poor little Louisa, but of a wonderfully wacky slice of South Wales history when the ``aeronauts'' came to town, daredevil skydivers who climbed into the clouds before sailing back to earth (or sea) on their primitive parachutes.

One of them ``Professor'' Alec MacKay, ``the Original and Only Gymnast Parachutist,'' actually performed his circus tricks on the way down, swinging round the bar below his parachute.

And C G Stevens, ``the Daredevil Barber of Ferndale,'' not only leaped from balloons but boxed another ``Professor'' in a lion's cage at Gracecraft's Menagerie in Pontypridd. The lion was called Wallace _ the same Wallace, perhaps, who ate Stanley Holloway's young Albert (`im with the stick with the `orse's `ead `andle) years later in Blackpool.

They were all inspired by Thomas Scott Walker, an American acrobat and tightrope walker who brought the sport to Britain in 1888, performing before the Prince of Wales, thus ensuring the popularity of parachuting. Inevitably, then, the aeronauts came to Wales and on Whit Monday, 1890, the balloon went up at the Annual Foresters' Fete at Pontypridd's Ynysangharad Fields. How they cheered Miss Ida MacDonald, radiant in a shining white lambs wool suit, perched in a small whicker basket beneath the parachute. She expected a leisurely ascent. Instead the balloon rocketed up with Ida hanging on to the rigging. She slipped on to her half-opened parachute and the thousands below - yes, thousands - watched, horror-stricken, as Ida, spinning dizzyingly beneath the parachute, finally plopped into a field on the banks of the Taff. She topped the Foresters' bill again the following year. This time as... a high-wire artiste. Captain Stanley Spencer's huge balloon Excellent was the star of the Cardiff Horticultural Society's show in Sophia Gardens in 1894 and the Show Committee, Cardiff's crachach, decided to take a trip in the big basket. They reached 1,000 feet _ then the winch reeling them back down stuck. Wind swirled them crazily around, straight into a tree and though one of the terrified committeemen managed to leap out, the others were swept back up, yelling for help before the balloon hit another big tree.

Mr W C Peace, committee chairman, hopped out to hang from a branch, according to Our Reporter, ``appealing for a limb of the law to fetch him off the limb of the tree.''

What a laugh from the crowd. But there was tragedy in 1896 _ which is when we meet little Louisa Maude Evans.

That year the Cardiff Fine Arts and Maritime Exhibition in Cathays Park attracted 900,000 visitors in six months. And among the attractions, inevitably, were parachute jumps. ``Professor'' Auguste Eugene Gaudron was the star but his exploits seemed routinely to end in disaster. First he landed on an outhouse in Splott, then ended up in the East Dock while his balloon carried on without him.

Undeterred, he announced that future ascents would be made by the celebrated parachutist Mademoiselle Albertina. A vast crowd turned up to witness her debut.

Described as ``looking young and diminutive with refined features and girlish blue eyes,'' she took her seat and then, with a wave to the crowd, she was up, up and away.

Across Roath and Tremorfa, up to an unprecedented 6,000 feet, then the drop. But the cheers were silenced as her parachute drifted away, the balloon coming down off the mouth of the Rhymney River. But no Mademoiselle Albertina. Her body was found three days later on the riverbank near Newport. And it turned out that far from being Mademoiselle Albertina, renowned parachutist, she was Louisa Maude Evans, only 14 years old, making her first parachute drop after persuading Professor Gaudron she was experienced. She was buried in Cardiff on July 29, her memorial stone purchased by public subscription. It stands in Cathays Cemetery today. A monument not only to Louisa Maude Evans, but to all those first intrepid aeronauts as well. # Their story, and the history of flight over our patch from the start of the century to World War Two, is told in a fascinating new book - Glamorgan Aviation by Robert C Thursby, Tempus Publishing, pounds 16.99.

CAPTION(S):

GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN The Cathays Cemetery memorial in honour of teenager Loiusa Maud Evans.
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Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Feb 20, 2003
Words:782
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