20 June 1824
‘We understand that a gallant aeronaut is preparing to make an ascent in the Royal George balloon, the very same balloon in which the late Mr Harris met his death. The ascent is intended to raise funds for the late balloonists widow and children. ”
Sophia handed the newspaper back to Mr Rossiter;
“Good, as long as no word appears that I am going to be the ‘gallant aeronaut’, my aunt thinks I am planning a trip with Mrs Harris to Cheltenham.”
James Rossiter smiled, he had worked for two years with Thomas Harris, now he was working for this tiny woman, who had more determination and, he suspected, more courage that any army officer he had ever met.
“Very well Miss, I have just heard from Mr Smythe, all is arranged for Camden Town.”
“And the Valve?”
“It is back from the watchmaker, the changes we discussed should have fixed it, a more powerful return spring and a closing line. There is no way it will remain open, if the spring doesn’t shut it, then you will have a second cord that will do the job.”
“Good then all we need to do is set a date and we can start moving everything to the Bedford Arms.”
“It will take about a week to get things ready.”
“Then let’s allow ten days. All being well I will ascend on the first of July.”
29 June 1824
“I must admit I envy your proposed expedition Sophia?”
Her aunt looked up from the newspaper she was reading. Sophia looked up from her book.
“Yes, I have long wanted to go to Cheltenham, your Aunt Jemima was there last year and told me about a very comfortable hotel. Where are you planning to stay?”
“Mary, Mrs Harris, is arranging it, I will find out and let you know.”
Her aunt returned to her newspaper.
“Sophia!” her aunt sprang up, “Is it true, it cannot be true.”
Sophia looked up again, her aunt was on her feet, waving the newspaper. She thrust it at her niece.
Mr Harris’s Balloon
We have just learnt, from a reputable source, that the aeronaut who will make the ascent in the late Mr Harris’s balloon, will be none other than the courageous Miss Stocks, who made the fatal flight with Mr Harris.
“Then it isn’t true, thank goodness.”
But Sophia was up and walking quickly, her aunt looked shocked at her.
“It is true – how could you? You cannot, it’s too dangerous, it killed that foolish man, you cannot.”
Sophia bent to her aunt.
“Mr Harris wasn’t foolish, anyway we know why the balloon crashed, it won’t happen again, I will be perfectly safe.”
She turned and walked out of the room.
“It’s best if I go now. I will be with Mary. I will see you again after the flight.”
Her aunt cried out after her as Sophia called for her maid. As they were driving towards Camden Town, she was running the figures through her mind.
‘My Aunt writes to my uncle, the letter cannot get to York before tomorrow at the soonest, he cannot leave until late that day. So the earliest he could be here, and he is the only one who could stop me, is the morning of the first.’
She settled back relieved, ‘All being well I shall be in the air before he could get here.”
As she was thinking this, her aunt, as she had expected, was completing her letter to her uncle. As Aunt Charlotte finished that she thought for a moment and began a second, addressed to the mysterious Mr Raphael.
Inflating an early balloon
1 July 1824
Miss Sophia Stocks looked up at the swelling envelope of her balloon, then walked around and looked up again. The valve lines hung down, she carefully hooked them into the rigging by the gondola. As she stepped back she felt the gondola move slightly, the balloon was nearly fully inflated. She nodded to Mr Rossiter who hooked on another bag of ballast.
She took a deep breath, this was nearly it. She turned to look around, there was a light fence about twenty yards from the balloon, with several burley men walking around making sure no one unauthorised got too close. Beyond that there was a crowd, getting bigger all the time, then a high fence. This was to ensure that anybody who wanted to see the launch close to had to pay, and pay handsomely. She was about to make her final inspection before she climbed into the gondola, when there was a commotion and several men pushed forward. Mr Rossiter stepped forward;
“Gentlemen please, get behind the fence, you will be able to see everything from there.”
“There will be nothing to see.” Snapped one of the men. He pointed at Sophia and said.
“She is my niece, and my ward, I forbid her from making this foolish exhibition of herself.”
“Uncle,” Sophia said calmly, “Please don’t upset yourself. This is my balloon and I know how to fly it. If I bought a horse would you forbid me from riding it?”
Her uncle went red and turned to the man beside him.
“I told you how it would be, as the local magistrate I ask you to assist me in controlling this wayward girl. The balloon will not be flying today.”