Thomas Rea was a native of Roxburghshire in Scotland. He is thought to have been baptised at Jedburgh, Roxburghshire on 26 June 1811, the son of John Rea and Isabella Armstrong who had been married at Kelso on 14 November 1806. Thomas was married on 7 October 1833 at St. George's Church of England, Birmingham, Warwickshire, England. His bride was Maria Little, daughter of William Little of Yorkshire. They had at least three sons - John, Thomas and Adam.
Thomas spent seven years as a journeyman learning his trade as a gun and pistol maker. White's 1840 Directory shows he had set himself up as a master tradesman at 10 Long Room Street, Scarborough, Yorkshire. However the 1841 census shows the family living in Middlesbrough, Yorkshire, though one of his sons, Adam Rea, is thought to have been born and died in 1842 in the Scarborough Registration District.
Thomas arrived at Melbourne on 16 December 1845 on the 149 ton brig "Swan" from Launceston, Van Diemen's Land. He was accompanied by his wife Maria and son John (born c1835 at Birmingham). The Shipping Intelligence column of "The Port Phillip Patriot and Morning Advertiser" described him as "Professor" Rea, a title of unknown origin by which he was later widely known. By April 1848 he was settled at Geelong and advertising his services in "The Corio Chronicle and Western District Advertiser" in competition with another gunsmith named John Dupe. This led to the following news item:
"ANOTHER ARTIST. - It will be seen by Mr. Dupe's advertisement that not to be behind hand with Mr. Rea, he has in justice to himself and the public, assumed a standing in the profession, which we heartily wish his customers may approve by their continued and enlarged support. We cannot, however suppose, that any genuine proficient in the formidable art of gunnery would descend to measures intimating that his discharges end in smoke, or his assertations in a Puff."
Thomas Rea's advertisement read:
On Christmas Day 1848 the Royal Victoria Theatre in Geelong advertised that the Boxing Night performance of "The Fiend of the Hartz Mountains" would be followed at half past nine o'clock with the ascent of a monster balloon from the Theatre. Parties visiting the Theatre would be admitted gratuitously to view the ascent. On the same day Thomas Rea advertised:
A year later he was again advertising a balloon ascent for Boxing Day. This time more details were published. His balloon was 74 feet high by 136 feet in circumference (or 60 feet in diameter). The "Geelong Advertiser" inspected the balloon and said it was constructed of very stout calico, well oiled, with the seams being united by the same description of cement as that used by the veteran aeronaut Green. The superficial area of the balloon containing upwards of one thousand yards of calico. Permission was sought and obtained from the police bench for the ascent with Capt. Foster Fyans even offering ten shillings towards the expense of constructing the balloon. In fact Rea sold tickets to view the ascent, requesting a minimum of 25 pounds in takings to cover his costs. When the ascent did not take place Rea blamed it on the lack of financial support by the public while the "Geelong Advertiser" claimed the balloon was incapable of flying. An earlier editorial note in "The Melbourne Daily News" on 25 December 1849 had stated:
"Mr. Rea has announced his intention of going up the day after Christmas day, but he has not stated in what year, and with some recollections of a clothes basket said to be intended for the car of the intrepid aeronaut, when he stated he contemplated an ascent from Launceston, combined with the reiterated demands for the glue pot to stop sundry holes, when the operation of inflating the balloon was being proceeded with, we apprehend if the experimentalist never ascends till in a balloon of his own construction, he will incur no risk of breaking his neck by his aerial enterprise."
On 28 November 1850 "The Argus" in Melbourne stated:
"GEELONG A Mr. Ray (sic), who seems to possess a mania for balloon making, proposes, of course for a "consideration," to send up one of the largest balloons ever made in the country. The stuff of which he will construct it will be fire-proof, thus completely obviating any danger of fire. Mr. Ray intends adding to the interest of the ascent, by rivalling the late aeronatic experiments in Paris and London, a goat to be substituted for a horse."
There appears to be little if anything else published about his ballooning attempts after this. By 1861 Thomas and his son John were in business as storekeepers at Duneed and facing insolvency.
On 16 August 1853 Thomas's brother, Adam Rea, arrived at Melbourne per "Falcon" from Liverpool, England with his family and a third brother, John Rea. Adam had married Christina Stewart on 9 December 1849 at Ancrum, Roxburghshire, Scotland. Soon after arriving in Victoria Adam commenced in business at Colac as a general merchant and remained there for about 25 years. During this time he was instrumental in stocking the lake there with fish. He also owned a store at Mortlake and later at Echuca. About 1877 he moved to Sandhurst where he died on 7 September 1881.
Thomas also eventually moved to Sandhurst where his son John was in business with Adam Rea as gunmakers. After his wife Maria died in 1875 he remarried in 1880 at Sandhurst to Annie Maria Donahoo McBride and had a further son named Thomas in 1883. Thomas Rea senior, the "Professor", died on 10 January 1889 at McCrae Street, Sandhurst and was buried the following day at the Sandhurst Cemetery.
Even though there is no evidence that Thomas Rea succeeded with either a manned or unmanned flight with his balloon he surely still deserves a place in history as a pioneer of flight. The balloon ascent at the Royal Victoria Theatre on 26 December 1848 was apparently successful though almost certainly unmanned. According to Garryowen the first manned ascent in a balloon in Australia took place on 1 February 1858 from the Cremorne Gardens in Richmond, Victoria.
Contributed by Alexander Romanov-Hughes (PPPG Member No. 52)
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