17 November 2012

Fire Balloons: The First Small Step

~Japanned tray depicting Mr Sadler’s ascension from Birmingham's Crescent on 13th October 1823. From the BMAG collection on display at the Birmingham History Galleries. ~

Ballooning was one of the most novel entertainments of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as it marked the beginning of man taking off from the planet; a new and exciting prospect. The first aviators were adventurers and daredevils, made all the more exciting by the flying balloons that they ascended in being called fire balloons. They were simply hot air balloons, but the idea of going to see a fire balloon take off definitely had a more dramatic sound to it. The first Englishman to take off was James Saddler (1753-1828) who took flight in London in October 1784 (the first Englishwoman, Mrs. Sage, ascended in June 1785). The spectacle spurred others to take balloons and travel around the country to put on balloon ascensions for paying spectators. A Mr. Harper was the first to arrive in Birmingham, in January 1785, taking off twice, the second time from a tennis court in Coleshill Street.* Ballooning could be a dangerous feat, accidents did occur, but although often not fatal, Mr. Sadler's own son, Windham Sadler, was killed in an accident in 1824.*

It was not till October 7th, 1811, that Mr. Sadler arrived to a great crowd in Birmingham's Vauxhall Gardens; it was his 21st ascent and a commemorative coin, left, was struck for the notable event.

By the time of the balloon ascension in 1823 commemorated on the tray, above, James Saddler was 70 years old, and it was one of his sons (either Windham or his other aeronaut son, John) who took flight from the Cresent.** The ropes were held by local school boys; the crowd paying 3s 6d each, all apart from a Mr. James Busby who paid 20 guineas to take his place inside the balloon's basket. The massive crowd filled the Cresent with 'shouts of an almost countless multitude';* a Mr. G. R. Bird, who ran a wharf on the canal near the Cresent, and who may have invested some money in the day's events, recorded in his diary that at 'a quarter before 3 o'clock Mr Sadler Junior went up in a fire balloon from the Cresent accompanied by James Busby, [and it] was seen for 20 minutes, took direction of Hagley and descended safe in a field near Kinver or Enville. The balloon was up 25 minutes and went 17 mile'. The balloon must have been quite a sight, not just for the paying spectators, but also anyone in the near vicinity. It was a rare sight as well, and must have captured the imagination of the country, as from at least 1787 stage coaches began being called 'balloon coaches'. We think of a balloon ride today as slow and relaxing travel, but in the late eighteenth century this was the fastest mode of inland transport (if not the most accurate) and perhaps coach proprietors used the name to assert their coaches as being speedy vehicles.  They were fire balloons after all!

What to wear for a balloon ascent, 1785.
* References on request
** The Cresent was a development of smart town houses, planned to be like the Cresent in Bath, but never completed.

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