Clive Aslet takes flight with Britain’s first aerial traveller and finds it nerve-wracking, but great fun

Order the King of Balloons

Before Christmas, intense interest was generated by a British astronaut joining the International Space Station, but what of our earlier aeronautical pioneers? Mark Davies has done the nation—Oxford University in particular—a service by reconstructing the life and achievements of the first English balloonist.

Visitors to the stone at Standon Green End in Hertfordshire may think that palm goes to Vincenzo Lunardi: ‘Let Posterity know And knowing be astonished,’ declares the inscription, that he became ‘The first aerial traveller in Britain’. But Lunardi came from Lucca; our first homegrown balloonatic was James Sadler, not an Oxford academic, but the university’s pastry cook.

After the bells of Magdalen College had rung for two hours, Sadler ascended from the Botanical Garden on November 12, 1784, ‘in the Presence of a surprising Concourse of People of all Ranks’. It may have been something of a disappointment for those watching, as the balloon rose ‘with such wonderful Velocity’ that it was quickly lost in the clouds.

Early balloonists were showmen. Boastful and competitive, they relied on attracting large crowds of spectators to recoup some of the cost of constructing their balloons. At Oxford, Sadler’s record-breaking ascent was witnessed by Samuel Johnson’s black servant Francis Barber—Johnson himself, although in the city, had too little eyesight to make his presence worthwhile.

Beware failing to meet expectations: the rougher element, having probably waited for several hours in the hope of an ascent, could tear a balloon to pieces if the desired entertainment wasn’t provided. Even greater dangers attended those who did ‘sweep the cobwebs from the skies’.

Sadler was beaten in the attempt to make the first Channel crossing by the diminutive Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard, who left from Dover Castle—a defensive position from which it was possible not only to exclude angry mobs, but also the American Dr Jeffries, who had financed the venture: the duplicitous Blanchard didn’t want to share the glory that he knew would accompany success.

In the end, Jeffries did take a place in the basket, although both men made a sorry sight when they limped onto French soil, having stripped to their underwear and even emptied their bladders in an effort to reduce excess weight. Sadler might have won the race if his backer, William Windham MP, had joined him, but, alas, without his patron’s intervention, his balloon took a fortnight to make the journey from London and, when the crate was opened, newly varnished silk—packed in too much of a hurry—was found to have stuck to the wood.

However, before long, Windham had conquered his nerves and, in 1785, he joined Sadler in an ascent from a country house in Surrey, his friend Edmund Burke commenting, in a reference to the mania that ballooning inspired: ‘I think you are the first rational being that has taken flight.’

Windam found the flight less frightening than he had expected, despite the balloon, with Windam’s hat in the ‘car’, being washed out to sea when they touched down near Rochester. (Balloon and hat were rescued by the skipper of the Peggy and landed at Sunderland.) Sadler, a sharp-nosed, intelligent- eyed man, according to portraits, became famous, but England was always more sceptical about ballooning than France and, there, the economic effects of the revolution called a halt to the expensive hobby.

Sadler switched his interest to steam engines, became Barrack Master at Portsmouth, then Chemist to the Board of Naval Works and spent 25 years with his feet on terra firma. In 1810, however, the ‘Ærial Voyager’ was back exciting the crowds, this time in Dublin; two years later, a flight met a watery end in the Irish Sea. Sadler survived to die peacefully in 1828, having been a pensioner at the Charterhouse. ‘How scheming beggars a man,’ John Fisher wrote to his friend, the artist John Constable. But, goodness, it must have been fun.

King Of All Balloons
Mark Davies (Amberley, £20 *£17 Country Life bookshop price)

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