“Do your duty as a magistrate, stop this balloon flight at once.”
The magistrate looked uncomfortable, then Mr Rossiter spoke.
“Sir, I would consider the crowd. If you were to prevent the launch there could easily be a riot.”
“Do your duty man, help me with my niece.” Snapped her uncle.
Sophia looked at him, “Uncle, as a lawyer, will you answer me this question. If this gentleman carries out an action, like preventing me flying, which he has been told might provoke a riot, and my balloon is damaged, will he be liable for the cost of this valuable machine?”
He looked at her in a fury, he was about to answer where there was another flurry by the fence and a woman pushed forward, screaming, dragging a tall, thin, man behind her. It was her aunt.
“Sophia, you must not get in that dreadful machine.” She suddenly saw her cousin and shouted.
“Richard, stop her, you must stop her.”
“Charlotte, calm yourself, that is my intention.”
Her aunt didn’t seem to hear.
“She cannot fly, the signs are all against it, Venus and Mars won’t protect her this time. Tell her Mr Raphael, tell her.”
Sophia suddenly turned, now she was angry, she ignored everybody else and just walked up to the thin man.
“You wrote it, you wrote that dreadful thing about Mr Harris!”
“I just told the truth, the science of astrology showed why it was foolish for him to attempt to fly.”
“Science! That isn’t science. That is science” She indicated the barometer and other instruments in the gondola.
“That is science!” She gestured towards the foul smelling barrels which were generating the hydrogen gas.
And above all that is science!” She pointed at the balloon over her head.
“And Mr Harris died because of a faulty valve, not because Jupiter was sitting on a dragons tail, and I survived because of the actions of the bravest man I can ever hope to meet, not because Mars and Venus were singing a tune with King George.”
“Venus and Mars were mutually in trine with Georgium Sidus, but that is not the case now, Venus is no longer in the ascendant, and the prognostications are far from hopeful.”
“Poppycock!” She turned back to the men, “If the heavens want to tell me anything they can do it when I’m up there.”
“Well, Mr Magistrate, can I fly?” She asked, there came an unexpected reply.
“Yes, I rather think you can.”
She looked in amazement at her uncle, he was smiling, he had seen the way she had dressed down the astrologer.
“Sophia, I may not approve of your choice, but I will not stop you. Indeed I suspect that you are the most remarkable young woman I will ever know.”
“No, she mustn’t go up in that thing, what man would ever want to marry her after that.” Her aunt was almost hysterical.
“A very remarkable man. Charlotte. She will be safe from any fortune hunter. It will be a very brave man who will seek her hand now.” Her uncle replied.
The magistrate now looked at Sophia.
“It seems that you are to fly, and I would like to invite you for dinner afterwards.”
“I may be remarkable sir, but I fully aware of the proprieties. You must address your invitation to my uncle and aunt.”
He smiled and turned to her uncle, but before he could reply Sophia added.
“I may fly some distance, it might not be possible to get back by dinner time.”
“Nonsense, I doubt you will fly more than ten miles.”
“Ten miles, she will fly fifty.” He uncle was coming to her defence now, he looked at the magistrate with a grin. “Ten guineas she goes more than ten miles, a hundred she does more than fifty.”
“Done,” the men shook hands.
“Now, gentlemen can you clear the area please.”
Sophia relaxed, her uncle was leading her aunt away. Mr Raphael was trying to say something to the magistrate, he turned to him in anger.
“Sir, I think you are deranged. Silence or I will order that you are examined by a commission for lunacy.” The astrologer fell silent.
Sophia now stepped up onto the mounting block, then into the gondola. She made a final check of the equipment, then called out.
“All clear. Mr Rossiter.”
Mr Rossiter had made a circle of the men, checking that they were holding the ropes properly. He ordered them to pull hard, the balloon dropped slightly. He released the ropes on the gondola, shook Sophia’s hand, then stepped back, outside the ring of men holding down the balloon. There was a shouted order, they released their hold and the balloon was free.
A Lady Balloonist in flight
Sophia held firmly onto the edge of the gondola, she felt the strange pressure on her feet again as she was lifted rapidly into the air, the balloon rocked slightly and swung round. It passed over the crowd, shouting and cheering, for a moment it swung towards the Bedford Arms, and she was worried it might hit one of the chimneys, but it just cleared them and as she passed through the smoke she smelt the roasting meat in the kitchen.
The balloon was climbing rapidly now, when she was a few hundred feet high she took a firm hold on the valve cord. She gave it a tug, and heard the gas hiss as it escaped, she felt the rate of ascent slow, then she released the line, this time there was a satisfying click above her head as the valve closed, and the balloon began to climb again. She bent and dropped a weighted flag over the side of the gondola, this was the sign that she had tested the valve and it had worked. There was another cheer from the crowd, but she ignored it.
As she bent and checked her instruments, she suddenly realised something amazing. She stood and looked out over the countryside that was rapidly passing beneath her, and now she knew.
She was no longer Sophia Stocks – heiress.
She was Sophia Stocks – Aeronaut.
She was Venus Ascendant!
One year later.
Miss Sophia Stocks stepped into her parlour, in one corner her aunt was reading a story to Tom Harris. At a table by the window his mother was sorting through a pile of letters.
“Anything interesting?” she asked her friend.
“Three more marriage proposals for you.” Mary replied, Sophia dropped them straight into a bin, they laughed.
“I am glad you came to live with us, my aunt loves Tom and I don’t know what I would do without you to act a secretary, I didn’t know so many people would have an opinion on a young woman being an aeronaut.”
“I was only too happy to come, Tom loves you all and I didn’t know where I could go, Thomas left me very badly off.” Mary picked up a letter from the table.
“Though that may be about to change.”
“What is it?” Sophia was curious.
“A letter for me from your uncle.”
“Not a marriage proposal I hope.”
“No, silly, just about my husband’s invention, the East India Company are going to use the lightning conductor on some of their vessels and the captain of an exploring ship wants to use it as well. As he is considered to be an expert on storms that could be very helpful.”
“I am glad he is able to help, soon you will be a very wealthy woman. Then perhaps you will leave us”
“Never, as long as you want me.” She smiled at her friend, then rapidly changed the subject, “There is this as well.” She handed Sophia a letter. As she read it she grinned, then turned to her aunt.
“Aunt, we have an invitation to go to Cheltenham, would you like to come?”
“Of course, I have longed to visit the town. Who is the invitation from? Is it Aunt Jemima’s cousins?”
“No, it’s from a Mr Pitt, he has just created a new garden connected to the spa and he wants me to fly my balloon from there.”
Unconcerned now about her aeronaut niece, her aunt bent and picked up the little boy.
“We are going to watch Aunt Sophia fly her balloon, won’t it be fun. Oh, I must write and ask Jemima where stayed, she said it was very comfortable.”
As you will guess this story is very much a mixture of fact and fiction. I know nothing about Miss Sophia Stocks, apart from the fact that she flew with Thomas Harris who died exactly as I described.
The quotes from the British Astrologer are also real.
The later career of Miss Stocks is entirely my own invention, though the second flight of the balloon took place as I described, but was made by Thomas Harris’s colleague James Rossiter.
If a balloon didn’t perform as anticipated then a riot was a very real possibility.
Captain Fitzroy ordered that Thomas Harris’s lightning conductor be fitted to H.M.S. Beagle, he was certainly an expert in storms and later founded the Meteorological Office, and coined the term ‘Weather Forecast’.
Pittville Park in Cheltenham was created in 1825, I don’t know if a balloon was launched then, but it was just the sort of thing that might have been done at the time.
There were a number of notable female aeronauts in the early nineteenth century, so I had no qualms about adding to their number.