AERONAUTS is the title of a new a film about hot air balloons that is currently taking off in cinemas.
It stars Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne and tells of the successful attempt on September 5, 1862, by James Glaisher to break the world altitude record – he soared to nearly 40,000ft in his coal-gas fired balloon.
But Emma Crawley in Darlington reckoned there were far earlier balloon ascents in our area, and she was right.
The story lifts off on October 15, 1783, when the Montgolfier brothers arranged the first balloon flight in Paris. They believed it was smoke and not hot air that made their paper balloon fly, and so they burned rubbish, including off-meat, beneath it until it rose on its rope to 84ft – and created a nauseous stink.
On September 15, 1784, Italian aeronaut Vincenzo Lunardi made the first balloon flight in this country. About 200,000 people witnessed him take off in north London with a dog, cat and caged pigeon in his basket for company, and he flew 24 miles into Hertfordshire (he stopped halfway for a bit to let the cat out because it was looking airsick).
Then Lunardi, who tried to steer his balloon through the air using giant oars, began touring the country, amazing people with his aeronautical exploits…
1784, 15 September: Newcastle
THE NORTH-EAST’s first balloon flight ended in tragedy. Lunardi, billed as “the daredevil aeronaut”, planned to take-off from Spital Tongues, just outside the centre of Newcastle. His balloon was held down by men with ropes, but either his spurt of flame or his spillage of sulphuric acid (as every schoolchild scientist knows, sulphuric acid plus iron fillings equals hydrogen which makes a balloon fly) caused some of the ropemen to run away in fear.
The semi-tethered balloon tried to break free, causing a large tear and a loud noise as the gas shot out. Despite Mr Lunardi’s pleadings, the remaining ropemen ran away, too.
But Ralph Heron, the young son of the Under Sheriff of Northumberland, had his rope twisted round his hand. He couldn’t break free, and as the balloon whooshed up into the sky, he was carried with it.
When the balloon reached about 500ft, the rope slipped free, and poor Ralph “fell into a garden adjoining, and expired soon after”.
The public outrage meant Lunardi never flew in Britain again – he fled to the continent instead.
1819, September 28: Norton
THE first flight across the Tees Valley was an accident. William Windham Sadler – whose father had been the first Englishman to fly by balloon in 1784 – took off from Kirkby Fair in Liverpool, watched by 120,000 amazed spectators. With his regular flying companion Mr Armstrong, he intended to fly 20 miles to Manchester in his red, white and blue balloon which was called The Loyalist.
However, they drifted into a thunderstorm. Lightning licked around the hydrogen-filled craft and the winds blew him over the Pennines.
He must have sailed north-eastwards, over Swaledale towards Teesside, and he feared he was going to blown out to the North Sea.
When he saw the River Tees, Mr Sadler pulled on his ripcord to let out some gas and the balloon dropped towards Norton church.
The common method of landing was to throw out a rope with a grappling iron at the end so that it snagged on the ground and brought the balloon to a juddering halt. Unfortunately, on this occasion, the rope snapped, and the unfortunate Mr Livingstone was dragged some distance along the ground, suffering bad bruising.
Eventually, Mr Sadler brought the balloon to a halt. He had travelled 120 miles in just under three hours – perhaps the fastest ever journey from Merseyside to Teesside.
A relay of horsemen took two days to ride the happy news of the two aeronauts’ survival to Liverpool – a coach journey would have taken more than three days – and Mr Sadler dashed to Newcastle to make some ascents.
Five years after this brush, Sadler was thrown from his basket when his balloon collided with a chimney at Bolton, and, aged 27, he was killed.
1825: Stockton and Durham
THE top aeronaut of the era was Charles Green, who was assisted by his son, George. In May 1825, they were contracted to wow the crowds by flying from Nun’s Field, Newcastle, in their Coronation Balloon, named in honour of George IV’s ascent to the throne in 1821.
Posters described it as a “stupendous aerostatic machine” which was made of 1,000 yards of crimson and gold silk. “Its dimensions and appearance when fully inflated cannot fail to excite and astonish every beholder.”
But on May 23, a faulty valve stopped them from getting very far.
So they tried again on May 30. The balloon went straight up to great applause, but then the wind caught it and blew it 50 miles south to the Cleveland Tontine Inn, beside the A19, near Northallerton.
They packed away their canvas and headed back to Tyneside.
But, six months before the railway opened, they were heroes. They were stopped at Stockton and persuaded by the townspeople to perform at their festival.
And so at 3.15pm on June 16, they took off from Stockton. The wind blew them westwards towards Darlington, and a large crowd of people, on foot and horseback, chased after them.
However, at Elton, the wind changed direction, and blew them back towards Stockton, causing their pursuers on the ground to turn round and race whence they had come.
The wind carried the balloon over Stockton and, with the North Sea, beckoning, the Greens hurriedly vented gas and came back down to earth in the grounds of Acklam Hall.
Then they re-commenced the journey back to Newcastle, but they were pressed into my aeronautical action at Durham City. On July 5, George Green ascended from Palace Green, in front of the cathedral – a great spectacle. George reached 2,200ft and stayed afloat for 13 minutes.
Finally, they got back to Nun’s Field in Newcastle for a scheduled flight on July 14.
1834, July 29: Darlington
ONE of the Greens inflated his balloon in a field next to Edward Pease’s house in Northgate – Mr Pease, the father of the railways, lived in what is now Domino’s pizza parlour.
The balloon was inflated by 5.45pm with its basket beneath it, but the basket was tied to a cart. Mr Green and two women were seated in the cart, and the whole lot drove up Northgate – presumably pulled by a couple of horses – onto High Row, preceded by a band playing the top tunes of the day.
“On reaching the market place, Mr Green made a splendid ascent, to the admiration of an immense multitude,” says a Victorian historian. “He landed at Pilmoor House, near Croft, about four miles from Darlington.”
As we told last week, Pilmoor House is now Rockliffe Hall Hotel at Hurworth.