Category Archives: Flight

The First Flight

This week’s prompt from Charli at the Carrot Ranch is; August 13, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a first flight. It can be anything or anyone that flies. What is significant about the first? Go where the prompt leads!

As readers of my blog will realise, I am fascinated by the early history of flight, so could hardly pass on this prompt. So here is the story of what was probably the first serious attempt to fly, certainly in Europe.

eilmer-pub-sign-1-1

He stood on the edge of the tower, checked his linen covered wings, took a deep breath and jumped.

They worked! He glided for nearly two hundred yards before the gust hit him, he struggled as he dropped, his wings broke his fall.

He awoke in the infirmary with a broken leg. The Abbot beside the bed.

“Brother Elimer, my old friend, there must be no more flying. I don’t wish to bury you next time.”

“But if I had a bigger tail I could fly”

“Not now.” The Abbot was firm, “One day perhaps.”

The year was 1005.

.

.

All true, the story is recorded by the historian William of Malmesbury, who was a monk at Malmesbury Abbey just like Elimer. He almost certainly knew people who had known Elimer in old age.

3 Comments

Filed under Flight, Historical tales

A Dream of Airliners

Men dream, these men dreamt of airliners.

The wings vibrated as the tiny steam engine spun.
“Good to go.” Called Henson.
Stringfellow released the tail and the Aerial ran along the line gathering speed, as it came free at the end the wings lifted it and the machine flew across the room, dropping into the catch net at the far end.
For a moment the engineers looked stunned, then grinned and shook each other’s hands.
The world’s first powered flying machine, the first aeroplane (albeit a model), had flown.

The first step to realising their dream had been made.

Stringfellow Monoplane 1848
The First Aeroplane

John Stringfellow and William Henson built the first working model aircraft in 1848, and flew it in a large room of the mill Stringfellow owned in Chard, Somerset.
They dreamt of building a massive steam powered airliner.

ariel-steam-carriage-pscc
The Aerial over London

This was written in response to this week’s prompt at the #carrotranch. Apparently the reference has something to do with pop music, however my knowledge of popular music is limited, particularly after the beginning of the last century, so a true historical tale instead,


June 18, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that includes good vibrations. What is unfolding? Is someone giving off or receiving the feeling? Where is the story situated? Gather some good vibes and go where the prompt leads!

6 Comments

Filed under Flight, Scientific History, Victorian

Another Tale of the Old Balloonists Part 3 – The Downfall of the Mad Duke

Miss Sophia Stocks looked over the side of the gondola and took a deep breath, it was good to breathe easily again. She knew she could breathe in the thin air at twenty thousand feet, and almost certainly higher, but it was certainly easier at this height. She thought they must have crossed the French coast in cloud, now she was looking down on the rolling French countryside from about eight thousand feet, and heading slightly east of south. If she had been on her own, or even with two frightened Post Office officials, it would have been perfect. But instead she had been lumbered with two unwanted men.

She bent and checked the Bow Street Runner, a proper colour had returned to his face and he was breathing easily.

“Sleep on Mr Policeman.” She said gently, tucking the blanket round him, then she turned to the Duke. He was sleeping too, “Still alive then, pity. Anyway as soon as we land it’s prison for you. There is French mail in these bags, as well as British, and the French as just as protective of their mail as we are.”

She stood up again, she dropped a couple of handfuls of ballast to maintain their altitude then checked her map. There was a noise from her passengers, she looked down, Henry Goddard was awake and with a struggle got to his feet. He saw the land beneath them.

“How long was I asleep? And where are we?”

She looked at her watch, “You were insensible for nearly three hours, and we are over France.” She pointed to the north east.

“If I am right, and I think I am, Amiens lies about twenty miles that way. We are heading in the direction of Paris. If all goes well, and we keep on this course, in a couple of hours’ time I will look for somewhere to land.” She handed him a flask.

“Drink this, it will make you feel better.”

“He took a mouthful of the red liquid. It was very strong and very sweet.”

He coughed, passing it back to Miss Stocks, she wiped the neck of the flask and took a sip herself.

“Cherry brandy, we aeronauts all have our favourite drink, generally spirits, this is mine.”

“Thank you miss.”

He was silent and leant over the side, watching the countryside pass beneath them, it was incredibly peaceful.

Flying over France

It was an hour later that Sophia broke into his reverie.

“Time to go down, the sun will be setting in about an hour and there are woodlands on the horizon, I don’t want to fly in the dark, and landing in trees is a nightmare.”

“What can I do Miss,” He asked.

“Just keep out of my way.” She began, “No – check he is safe.” She pointed at the Duke.
She turned her back to strap her instruments in their case, as Henry Goddard bent over the recumbent man. He rolled the man over, and was hit in the face. He fell back, the Duke sprang to his feet.

“Arrest me would you. Lie there, don’t move.”

The Runner lay stunned, Sophia turned in horror as the Duke scrambled into the rigging and grabbed the gas release cord. He pulled it hard, there was a crack from above, then a loud hissing. The balloon began to shake.

“No”, she screamed, and made a grab for the cord, the Duke laughed and pulled it again, this time she was able to grab it, and gave it a gentle tug that should have closed it, there was no response, the valve was broken, and open. Air rushed past them, they were falling, and falling fast.

The Runner scrambled to his feet, Sophia snapped at him.

“Throw everything overboard, apart from my barometer and the mail bags, if you want to, throw him over board as well.” She pointed at the Duke who was sitting on the side of the basket, laughing. She shut her eyes, “Not again!” she thought, remembering her first, terrible, flight. She knew how lucky she had been then, there was little chance for them now.

Unless – suddenly she laughed, and picked up a knife. The Runner who had been struggling with the last sandbag turned, now she was the one who looked mad. Rapidly she scrambled up into the rigging and began to slash at the neck ropes. He went to grab her.

“Don’t,” She shouted, “This is the only way to save us.” Stunned by her vehemence he stepped back as she cut through the thin ropes holding the bottom of the balloon in place, until only one was left, by the Duke. As she went to grab it he went to stop her, then saw her face, and quailed. She sliced through the rope and jumped down into the basket.

“Hold on.” She shouted, “It’s going to be rough.”

They looked up and saw the fabric of the balloon fold upwards, filling the net and seemingly spreading out above them. There was a jerk and the rate of descent slowed, then the basket started to sway from side to side.

“What did you do?” Goddard shouted.

“Turned the balloon into a parachute, this happened by accident to an American a few years ago when his balloon burst. I wondered at the time if this might have saved Mr Harris on my first flight.”

They swayed from side to side as they descended, but slower now. Sophia looked at the men.

“Sit down on the bottom of the basket, and hold on tight.” She ordered, “We will be dragged along the ground when we land, and will be safe as long as we stay in the basket. Don’t try to get out until I tell you.”

Mr Goddard did as he was told, however the Duke just laughed and climbed onto the edge of the basket. Sophia ignored him, and watched the approaching ground, just before they landed she dropped into the bottom of the basket and grabbed tight hold. Above her the Duke shouted.

“You won’t catch me!” and jumped.

The balloon gave a perceptible jerk and the descent was slowed. As the basket hit the ground it tipped on one edge, they just held on tight as it scraped along the ground. The noise and bumping seemed to go on for ages. He had been in a carriage accident once, but this was worse, the Runner just held on tight and prayed. Miss Stocks also held on tight, she was more worried than she had been at twenty thousand feet, she had no idea what was in front of them, if there were rocks or water ahead then they would be in real trouble. But she could do nothing, just hold on, then, suddenly, they stopped.

Henry Goddard just lay there, looking up at the sky, then he slowly realised, he was on the ground, he was alive, he ached all over but, he was safe. Slowly he tried to rise.

“Stay still.” A voice ordered, he turned to see Miss Stocks climbing up to look over the side of the basket. The balloon had completely collapsed, it lay in a tangled mess safe on the ground. She looked down into the basket and said.

“Come on, Mr Policeman, it’s safe to get out.”

“Mr Goddard, please. Can you stop calling me Policeman?” Now they were on the ground, he was irritated and no longer wanted to take orders from this young woman.

“Certainly, Mr Policeman. Now Mr Goddard, do you want to see what has happened to your mad friend?”

He suddenly realised he had forgotten about the Duke. She pointed, a few hundred yards away a group of people seemed to be standing around something. Others were running towards them.

“Go to him, I will deal with these people.” She paused and added smiling, “Mr Goddard.”
He turned, he realised that there was no point in arguing about it, she was still in charge.

“Monsieur, your balloon?” One of the men asked. In his broken French he replied.

“Not my balloon, it is her balloon, she is the aeronaut.”

The men looked surprised, then one said. “I see, like Madam Blanchard.” And they turned towards Sophia.

Crowds around a fallen balloon

Sophia was having problems keeping the men from touching the balloon, she was trying to make sure that they didn’t damage it any further when a man rode up.

“Mademoiselle, can I be of assistance. I am the mayor of Clermont.” He pointed to a few roofs visible over the trees in the distance.

“Thank you sir, can you please ask these men not to touch my balloon. They don’t know how to fold it up.”

“Of course.” He called to the men, “And can you tell me how to find the local postmaster?” she added.

“I am also the postmaster.” He added in surprise.

“Excellent.” She ducked into the tangled mess of the basket and came out with the mailbags. She opened a flap and handed him the letter from the French post office. As he read it his eyes widened.

“Of course Mademoiselle, we will help as much as we can.”

A young man who had just ridden up looked sourly at them.

“Why father? She is English.”

His father began to tell him, Sophia just smiled at him.

“It is a race to see who can get mail to Paris the fastest, a balloon or a steamship.”

“So?” He was unconcerned.

“A race between a balloon, a French invention, and a steamship, a British invention.”

The mayor laughed, “Pierre, will you take on the challenge, carry this mail on to Paris.”

“Of course,” he replied, “Vive la France.”

The mayor, and Sophia, laughed.

After he had been given directions, and ridden off to fetch a chaise to carry him and his companion to Paris, the mayor now asked about the men. Sophia had forgotten them, then she saw Mr Goddard heading back towards the balloon.

“Talk to Mr Goddard, I would like to get my balloon packed up before it gets dark.”

Returning with a Balloon

An hour or so later they were all sat in the parlour of the Mayor’s house. His wife was very flustered, she was sure her guests were distinguished, the man she could understand, he was a senior policeman, something like her husband, but the woman? She was a complete mystery, she was polite and had been clearly been brought up to be a lady, but when she talked of her balloon and flying, she was something else, a femme du ciel perhaps.

The Woman of the Sky, Miss Sophia Stocks sat by the French Mayor’s fire and relaxed, she had carried the mail safely across the channel, she had flown higher than she had ever done before, and Resurgam was safely packed away in a barn. Oh, and as for the duke. She turned to Henry Goddard.

“So your prisoner survived his fall then?”

“He’s not my prisoner, my warrant doesn’t run here, but he is alive with two broken legs. And he will never return to Britain, he would be thrown into prison as soon as he set foot on British soil. I am afraid he is the French government’s problem now.” He nodded to the Mayor.

“Yes,” he sounded unconcerned, “I will write to Paris tomorrow. Perhaps they will want him sent there when he has recovered, or perhaps they will leave him where he is.”

Sophia was puzzled.

“But you said he had been sent to a local monastery where the monks care for the sick.”

“Yes, they care for the sick. It is where I would send my son if he broke his leg, they will care for that well there. But they also care for the sick in the mind.”

“A madhouse.” Added Henry Goddard.

“Perfect.” Said Miss Sophia Stocks.
And now for the facts behind the story

1 – There were attempts to carry mail by balloon, none succeeded because of the problems Sophia outlined at the beginning of the story.

2 – The career of the former Duke of Brunswick was more or less as described.

He came to England hoping to get help regain his Duchy and was soundly rebuffed.

King William IV loathed him and thought him mad.

He did fly with Mrs Graham and his stupidity led to a crash as a result of which she miscarried.

He tried to bring an action against a newspaper and was counter-sued, lost and fled owing £5000

He fled to France in a balloon (this was actually hired)

He ended his days in an asylum in Geneva, completely mad.

3 Henry Goddard was the Bow Street Runner charged with keeping a watch on the Duke. From his memoirs he was a very down to earth man, whom I doubt would have enjoyed flying.

4 The early aeronauts seem to have readily acclimatised to flying high, an experienced pilot like Sophia Stocks would have no trouble working at 20,000 feet, indeed Henry Coxwell experienced few difficulties until his balloon went above 30,000.

5 Collapsing a balloon to create a parachute was first done deliberately by Henry Coxwell in 1847, later balloonists designed the rigging of their balloons so that cutting a single line could cause a deflated balloon canopy to turn into a parachute.

As for the future career of Miss Sophia Stocks, with her balloon Resurgam (Latin for ‘I shall rise again’) will she try for the altitude record, then standing at 23,900 feet, or will her experiences with the collapsed balloon forming a parachute lead her to experiment with that device. Perhaps I might have her work with other female aeronauts, the real and unlucky Elizabeth Graham or the semi-fictional Amelia Wren.

1 Comment

Filed under balloon, Flight, Georgian, Historical tales

Another Tale of the Old Balloonists Part 2 – The Woman of the Sky

He stood up and looked over the side of the balloon, and saw nothing, just thick fog.

“We are passing through cloud, we should be clear soon, will you watch the barometer please. The figures on the left hand scale.”

“A little over fourteen.” He looked up at her, “Why is there a line by eighteen?”

“Because I have never flown above eighteen thousand feet. But I think I will today.”

“You have never been this high? Are you sure you know what you are doing?”

“Don’t worry, we are well below the maximum height people have reached before. We aren’t going somewhere completely unknown, but even if we do, the Resurgam has been built to fly high.” She paused, “But I intended to have another aeronaut as a companion when I attempted a high altitude flight, not a policeman and a madman.”

He looked down, “Eighteen.” He announced, she smiled and beckoned him to his feet.

“Look.”

The cloud thinned and parted. He gasped, the sky was blue, bluer that he had ever seen it, the light hurt his eyes as he looked out on a white surface, the clouds looked almost solid as they sailed over them.

“The Cloud Sea.” She spoke in awe. “Look at that Mr Policeman, few people have seen that sight.

Over the Cloud Sea

Henry Goddard looked round him, it was amazing, there was no sign of anything he recognised, the only human object was the balloon he was in, around him was the sky and clouds, clouds seen from above, unlike any clouds he had ever seen, like a frozen ocean – no wonder she had called it the Cloud Sea. He looked across at the aeronaut, she was checking her instruments and occasionally glancing over the side at the shadow of her balloon on the clouds beneath them. She was a small woman wearing a serviceable woollen coat, hat and gloves, in fact she would have passed without notice on a winter’s day in England. But here, it was as if she was in her element, her eyes flickered with a strange light, he felt there were only two people on the balloon, the mad Duke and himself, and Miss Sophia Stocks was another type of being, a Woman of the Sky.

She felt him looking at her, turned and smiled,

“Wonderful isn’t it?”

He shook his head, trying to clear it, she saw what he was doing.

“Are you feeling strange? Unable to concentrate? Tired?”

He didn’t reply, she nodded and continued.

“It’s all right, it’s the air. I forgot you had never been here before. The air is thin, now breathe slowly and deeply, you will feel better.”

He did so, then looked at her.

“Are you all right Miss?”

“Yes, I have been nearly this high before, I am more used to it.” She paused and grinned.

“My aunt says I have air in my blood.”

Mr Goddard looked puzzled.

“Oh, you know how old sailors are sometimes said to have salt water in their blood, which is why they cannot keep away from the sea. My aunt thinks it is the same for me, I have air in my blood and can only be happy in the sky. I think she is right, I felt it on my first flight, even though that one nearly killed me, now I spend my time on land thinking of how soon I can get back up here.”

She looked out over the alien scene, a slightly mad ecstasy in her eyes.

“Sorry Miss, but I am only eager to have my feet firmly on the ground again.”

“Forgive me, I sometimes forget there aren’t many people like me.” She glanced at the barometer, then at the compass in her hand, and finally her watch. “We seem to have settled at just under twenty thousand feet, I calculate that if we keep up this speed we will be over land again in twenty minutes. I will wait half an hour then bring us down. In an hour or two you will be on terra firma again. Now you can tell me what on earth you and him.” She gestured towards the unconscious Duke with her foot, “Are doing here.”

Henry Goddard shut his eyes and began, telling the story kept his mind off where he was – and the surprisingly frightening young woman in front of him.

“He became Duke in ’15 when his uncle was killed at Waterloo. He was totally unlike his predecessor and had no interest in his people, just treating his Duchy as a source of revenue to fund his pleasures. Well the Brunswickers stuck with him for a few years then kicked him out, since then he has been trying to find someone who will help him get his Duchy back.

He came to England early this year seeking help, there was none to be had, however he decided to stay here, as he is a distant relation of the King. We at Bow Street were put to watch him as soon as he arrived, to either find a reason to arrest, or expel, him. The King loathes him, thinks he is mad and wants him out of the country as soon as possible.”

“I can understand that.” Replied Sophia coldly.

“But he had to have a reason to throw him out, and for a while he did nothing wrong.”

“But Mrs Graham!”

“Stupid yes, but nothing he could be prosecuted for. Then there was a breakthrough, in part because of Mrs Graham. A newspaper wrote a long piece on him, and how dreadful it was that such a foreigner could make England his sanctuary. The Duke took them to court, the newspaper fought back, and managed to get the case heard by a jury. The result was the best we could hope for, the Duke lost and was ordered to pay the newspaper £5000. With a warrant against him, we thought he would try and run to France, the courts could declare him an outlaw so he could never return to this country. If he had taken his coach to Dover we would have let him go, and said good riddance.

This morning he slipped past the watchers at the hotel he was staying at, I hoped he had had decided to go to the continent, and we could forget him. So I searched his room, looking for a clue as to which port he was going to use, and found this.”

He felt in his pocket and handed Sophia a newspaper, an article was ringed. Glancing at it she saw it was about her and the attempt to carry mail by balloon.

“We knew of his interest in balloons so the Chief Magistrate ordered me to head down to Kent, escaping by steamer was one thing, interfering with the Mail was quite another. I am sorry I didn’t get him in time.”

“I see, I am sorry too, but we must make the best of a bad job.”

There was a movement at his feet, the Duke seemed to be regaining consciousness.

“Talking of bad jobs, there is a cord in that bag, tie him up please.”

He bent to obey her, in this strange world he knew she was in charge. With the Duke bound he rose and looked again over the side of the balloon. The cloud was thinning and below he saw something else. It was blue and green, with long parallel lines running across it. He tried to work out what it was, he looked across at Sophia, she laughed.

“It does look strange from up here. It’s the sea, the Water Sea.”

“But the lines?”

“I don’t know, waves perhaps.” She made a note in the book she carried attached to her waist. Then continued. “We aeronauts are always discovering something new. We are not like other explorers today, they just look for a river in Africa or a new island, and find that when they get there people have been living there for years, they are just the first Englishmen to reach that spot. But we are true explorers, more like the first sailors at the beginning of history. Launching a boat and not knowing what is in the waters. We are going where nobody, and I mean nobody, has ever gone before. Now look.”

She pointed down and handed him a telescope, looking over the side of the basket he saw a tiny white speck in the water, then he realised, it was a ship!

“Perhaps it is the man from the Post Office.”

She told Mr Goddard how she had seen the rider dash off, and that she assumed the race was still on.

“Pity it’s been ruined, all that effort for nothing.”

“Not at all, I still have the mail bag.” She pointed at it. “As soon as we land I will do what was planned, get it to the local officials and ask them to send it on to Paris. I have a letter from the French Post Office explaining what needs to be done.”

“That’s good”, he said, dropping to the bottom of the basket, he felt very tired. Alarmed Sophia bent over him. His lips were going blue.

“Too high for you Mr Policeman. We had better go lower.”

He saw her climb up the side of the basket, then reach for a line. She gave it a gentle tug. He thought he could hear her whistle, but it wasn’t her, it was the balloon. She spoke to it, like a mother to a child.

“Good girl, Resurgam, time to go down. You have done very well, next time perhaps we will fly higher, would you like to do that, go higher than any balloon before you.”

He was now certain that she wasn’t like other women, listening to the Woman of the Sky talk to her balloon, he passed out.

To be continued

Leave a comment

Filed under balloon, Flight, Georgian, Historical tales

Another Tale of the Old Balloonists Part 1 -The Mad Duke

Readers of my blog may recall the adventures of my semi-fictional aeronaut, Miss Sophia Stocks, if not then the tale of how she first took to the sky, will be found here.
The following events take place several years after her pioneering flights, by which time she has become an experienced, and respected, aeronaut. As you will guess from my previous tales, this story is a blend of fact and fiction. Generally, the more bizarre and remarkable events are based on fact.

 

Miss Sophia Stocks looked around with elation, this was it. Her new balloon rose majestically over the small Kentish village, and she had only had to pay for part of it! An MP, with an interest in the Post Office wanted to see if balloons could be used to carry the mail. She had actually tried to dissuade him, pointing out the unreliability of ballooning in that you could never be sure where you were going to land, but he was insistent. He had given her the money to build the Resurgam, as long as she agreed that, on her first proper flight, she would carry mail across the Channel, and race a steamboat. And now the race was on.

The Resurgam was fully inflated, the MP had made a speech, now she was just waiting for the mail and the men from the British and French Post Offices, who would accompany her. There was a movement in the crowd and the men came forward, she climbed into the basket, she smiled as the first Post Office official handed her the bags which she stowed carefully in the bottom of the gondola. The second, a very nervous looking man, handed a second set to a young man on horseback.

“As soon as you see the balloon leave the ground, ride for Dover where the Mail Boat is waiting for you.”

Sophia nodded at the young man, this was to be a real race. She offered her hand to the first Post Office man.

“If you would care to climb aboard.”

Nervously he climbed onto the mounting block, then there was a distant scream – and the shot of a pistol!

Everyone turned to the direction of the shot, the crowd parted in panic as a chaise galloped towards the balloon. It tumbled to a halt and a dishevelled man jumped out waving a pistol in one hand, a short sword in the other. He jumped onto the block, knocking the Post Office man down, and before anybody could stop him jumped into the gondola. He pointed the pistol at Sophia.

“You are the aeronaut – fly.”

She stood still, the man now turned to the main rope tethering the balloon, and started to slash at it with the sword. At this moment another man jumped into the balloon, no one had noticed the second chaise, which had been following the first.

“Stop sir, you are under arrest.” He shouted, and tried to grab the first man, who turned and tried to slash at the second. Sophia, who was more concerned about her balloon shouted.

“Stop that, Now!”

There was a sudden jerk and the men stumbled, the line had parted and the balloon swung into the air. It spun round and Sophia saw the Post Office rider gallop away, as far as he was concerned the race was now on. She now turned back to the fighters, the second man had managed to grab the pistol from the first and throw it out of the basket. The first man stopped fighting and laughed as he saw the land dropping away beneath them.

“I have escaped.” He looked at Sophia, “You will take me to France?”

“The wind should take us there.” She replied, “Though I don’t see why I should take you there. Who are you and why have you tried to steal my balloon?”

“I am the Duke of Brunswick, and I have requisitioned it as is my right as a Royal Duke.”

“Henry Goddard of Bow Street, Miss.” The second man began, “He is no Duke now and is now on the run from the law.” Then he faltered as he saw Sophia’s expression. She was looking at the Duke in disgust.

“I know exactly who this person is.” She looked at the Duke, “I am a friend of Mrs Graham, and if I could I would throw you from my gondola.”

“An unfortunate accident, that was all.” The Duke said, Sophia turned to Mr. Goddard and said.

“He wanted to go for a balloon ride, so persuaded Mrs Graham, who is an aeronaut like me, to take him up. They were about to land, which is the most dangerous part of the voyage, when he panicked and jumped. It was only a few feet up so he came to no harm. But it unbalanced the balloon and Mrs Graham fell out. She lost the child she was carrying as a result.”

“It was an accident…” the Duke spluttered.

Sophia looked straight at him, he quailed at her gaze. “As I said I would like to throw you out, but I am too nice for that.” She tugged the sword from his grip and threw it overboard. “Now sit down and get out of my way, I have a balloon to fly.”

“I’m sorry miss …” began the Runner, Sophia stopped him.

“You sit down too, I don’t blame you for being on board, but you don’t know how to fly a balloon and you may notice I have things to do.

A Balloon heading out to Sea

The men looked over the side of the basket and gasped, they had already crossed the coast and the balloon was dropping towards the sea.

“It happens because of colder air over the water, I just need to drop a little ballast.”

She moved to one of the sacks of sand and took out a handful, she was about to drop it over the side when the Duke pushed past her and threw the whole sack over.

“Must drop ballast.” He gasped, releasing another sack. The gondola swayed from side to side, Sophia was thrown to the floor, she looked across at the Runner.

“Stop him, he will kill us all!”

The Runner scrambled to his feet and tried to grab the Duke, who was trying to untie yet another bag of ballast, he hit out at him knocking him back. Sophia looked up at the canopy of the balloon and gasped, it was swelling as they ascended faster than she had ever done before.

“Hold on Resurgam, you will be all right,” She spoke, almost comfortingly, to her craft. Ignoring the fighting men, she took a firm hold on the side of the basket and struggled to her feet, then pulled herself up into the rigging. As she took hold of the mouth of the balloon the men stopped, Henry Goddard wondered what she was doing, the Duke knew and screamed.

“She is going to let the gas out and kill me, stop her.” He pushed the Runner to the floor, and made a grab at Sophia. Just in time she pulled the quick release cord and a stream of foul smelling gas hit the Duke in the face. As he fell back Goddard hit him on the head with a bag of ballast, the Duke collapsed.

“Good.” Said Sophia, “Now I have a lot of questions for you, but they must wait. Because of that idiot.” She gestured at the Duke, “We are going up – fast, now I don’t want to start coming down until I am sure we are over land, so we will have to ride out the ascent.”

She bent and looked at the barometer strapped to one side of the basket. Then began to tidy the mess the men had made in their fight. She passed a blanket over to Mr. Goddard. He took it and was about to wrap it around the unconscious Duke.

“No, leave him, he doesn’t deserve it, put it around yourself. It is going to get cold, very cold indeed.”

He now realised that she had buttoned her coat tight, wrapped a scarf round her neck and pulled on thick fur gloves. He stood up and looked over the side of the balloon, and saw nothing, just thick fog.

“We are passing through cloud, we should be clear soon, will you watch the barometer please. The figures on the left hand scale.”

“A little over fourteen.” he looked up at her, “Why is there a line by eighteen.”

“Because I have never flown above eighteen thousand feet. But I think I will today.”

To be continued

Leave a comment

Filed under balloon, Flight, Georgian, Historical tales

A Tale of the Old Balloonists Part 4 – The Astrologer defied or Venus Ascendant

“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.

8 Comments

Filed under Flight, Georgian, Historical tales, Regency

A Tale of the Old Balloonists Part 3 – The Astrologer Resurgent or Mars Triumphant

20 June 1824

 

Daily Courant
‘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.

 

“Oh no!”

“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.”

 

To be continued

1 Comment

Filed under Flight, Georgian, Historical tales, Regency

A Tale of the Old Balloonists Part 2 – The Astrologer Triumphant or Venus Despondent

10 June 1824

 

Miss Sophia Stocks groaned slightly as she tried to find a more comfortable position to lie on the sofa, she was pleased to be allowed out of bed, but wanted to be back on her feet. She knew she had things to do. Her aunt came bustling in, a letter and magazine in her hand.

“You see he was a foolish man, he didn’t understand the science.”

“Who didn’t understand the science?”

“Mr Harris.”

“Yes he did, it was a fault in the valve, not the science of it.”

“No, not those silly things people talk of as science, but the true science.”

She waved the magazine again, Sophia saw the title The British Astrologer it had a crude woodcut on the cover – of a collapsed balloon!

The illustration from The British Astrologer

“Your aunt Jemima sent it from Bath, it tells why that foolish man was killed and you..”

“He was not foolish!” Sophia grabbed at the magazine. He aunt pulled it away, “No, you shouldn’t get excited.”

“If you won’t let me see it, at least read it to me.”

Her aunt sat down.

“Very well, now lie still.”

She sat, put on her glasses and began.

 

‘While I sympathize with his dearest friends in lamenting the untimely death of Mr. Harris, who, when he ascended into the clouds in his balloon, bade them, and the thousands whose cheers accompanied him, farewell for ever, I feel it necessary to say, for the good of other intrepid and enterprising candidates for popular applause, that no gallant adventurer should have exposed himself to a danger that admitted of delay, under the fatal prognostics that were pending. The planet Jupiter came into the point of the Dragon’s tail in the ominous sign Cancer but a few hours preceding the ascent; the planet having been, at the precise moment of his baleful transit of the node, in a partial square with the moon.

This anyone, who understands the least of the science, will say is enough: for there are records of all ages to testify, that such an aspect could not be expected to pass by without leaving behind it many fresh examples of its fatality; and a forewarning which portends death, or indeed accidental mischance, should not be tempted, on any consideration, by those who embark in aerial expeditions.’

The reason I give of the life of his fair companion having been so wonderfully preserved, is, that Venus, Georgium Sidus, and Mars, being mutually in trine with one another, was a most lucky aspect for her, as a female, and foreshowed her recovery.’

 

Sophia listened in amazement then, when her aunt lowered the magazine with almost a triumphant air, burst out,

“Dreadful man.”

“But Sophia, Mr Harris was not at all dreadful, just misguided, to try and fly when….” She peered at the magazine again.

“Jupiter was sitting on the dragons tail. I heard, Mr Harris wasn’t at all dreadful, in fact he saved my life, the dreadful man was whoever wrote that rubbish.”

“Mr Raphael isn’t dreadful at all, he is just a very wise man who is trying to show how …”

“He can make money out of somebody else’s tragedy. Oh, Mary!”

“What’s that? Who?”

“Mary, Mrs Harris. If she were to see this rubbish.” She got up, and winced.

“I must go to her at once.”

“But Sophia, should you?”

“Isn’t visiting a bereaved widow one of the things a charitable young lady should do? I am sure you told me once or twice.”

“Yes, but…”

She winced again as she left the room, but was careful not to show it. Neither did she show her discomfort an hour later as she was shown into the small parlour of Mary Harris’s house.

 

On the way there she had worried about what she was going to say, she had written to her as soon as she recovered consciousness, but had received no reply. So she was feeling very nervous as she stepped into the room.

“Oh, I am sorry!”

“Oh, I am sorry!”

They said simultaneously, then looked at each other in surprise. Stepped up to each other and hugged.

“I am so sorry, you were almost killed!”

“No, I’m all right, but you, how are you, poor Mr Harris.”

“For some years I was married to a soldier, then a balloonist, I always knew that this might happen.”

For a few minutes they sat in silence, then Sophia noticed a copy of The British Astrologer on the table.

“Oh, you have seen it. I am sorry.”

“Yes, but it is so silly, there have been much worse.”

“Worse.”

“Yes, Mr Sadler, he was once Thomas’s partner, but quarrelled with him and is now saying that not only was his valve a stupid idea but his other ideas were stupid as well. He is a balloonist as was his father and people are listening to him. Thomas had invented a lightning conductor for ships, the East India Company were interested in fitting it to their vessels, now I learn they are ‘reconsidering’.”

“Is there anything that can be done?”

“If the balloon could fly again perhaps, and show that the valve works, but who would want to take the risk? I have tried to sell it but no one wants a balloon that killed its builder.”

“I am a wealthy woman.” Said Sophia, Mary went to say something. Sophia ignored her.

“I know you won’t take any money from me as a gift, but you will sell me the balloon.”

“Sell you the balloon! What on earth will you do with it?”

“First you need the money, then…..” she suddenly had an amazing idea, she knew what she had to do, she looked at her friend. “ I will fly it of course. I will show Mr Sadler and all the East India Company that your husband was no fool!”

To be continued

1 Comment

Filed under Flight, Georgian, Historical tales, Regency

A Tale of the Old Balloonists Part 1 – The Astrologers Curse or Mars Descendant

25 May 1824

Miss Sophia Stocks considered that there were some advantages to being an orphan. Of course she would have loved to have had parents, but her father had been killed in the war when she was a baby, and her mother had died shortly afterwards, so she had no memories of them. She had been raised by two kind aunts, and been shuttled between their homes in London and Bath (attending schools in both those cities), so now, at the age of eighteen she was well practiced in all the official ‘female accomplishments’, and was also, according to her uncle in York, who looked after her property, a considerable heiress.

 

It was for this reason that she was now in London, where her aunt was supposed to be ‘introducing her into society’, so that she could make a suitable match. Sophia was finding this incredibly boring, the men she was meeting were either very bored with her, or very interested in, she suspected, her fortune. The only good thing to come out of this latest visit to London was her meeting with Mr and Mrs Harris. Mr Harris had known her father in Spain, and his young wife Mary was very friendly, and it was because of them that Sophia was about to do something that, if she had had parents, she guessed would have forbidden. She had told her aunt that she was going to make a short trip with her friends, and her aunt had said nothing, she had completely forgotten how excited her niece had been when she had learnt that Mr Harris was a balloonist!

 

The carriage swung into Vauxhall Gardens where the green and yellow balloon towered over the trees. As they approached the launching point the gates were opened for them, shutting behind them to keep out the people who hadn’t paid for a close view of the launch.

 

“Are you sure?” Mary asked as they climbed down.

 

“Of course”, replied Sophia, as she walked towards the balloon. Now was not the time to show fear, she had been amazed at her temerity a week earlier when she had heard how Mr Harris’ companion had quarrelled with him and refused to fly. Mary had explained that she had flown in the past, but would not now her baby had been born, Sophia had suddenly said that she would accompany him in the balloon, and almost immediately been accepted.

 

Mary sat to one side as Mr Harris led Sophie round the balloon, pointing out the various features of the craft, in particular he was very proud of a new valve, which she could just see at the top of the balloon, a cord led from it down to the gondola.

 

“It will enable me to release gas from the envelope. A little will make the balloon descend where I want to, then as soon as we have landed I can release a lot, indeed all, of the remaining gas and the envelope will collapse and not drag the gondola across the ground.”

 

After more explanations he climbed into the basket, a box had been placed beside it for her to use like a mounting block, she stepped up and, to cheers from some of the crowd, swung herself into the gondola. The reporters present were impressed by her complete lack of fear.

 

The main weights were released, the balloon rose a few feet, held by six strong men. Then, at Mr Harris’s order the lines where released and they were off. The basket swung from side to side for a moment then settled down, she was aware of the strange sensation of her feet pressing into the basket, then looked around and gasped.

A General View of the City of London, next the River Thames (Colour)

They were already above the rooftops of London, in the distance she could see the dome of St Pauls, they seemed to be higher than that, it was the most wonderful feeling she had ever had. For a while she admired the view, then turned to Mr Harris, he was bent by the barometer. She knelt and helped him take the reading as he explained how the barometer readings would enable them to calculate how high they had flown.

 

For the next hour she learnt how to fly a balloon, how to drop tiny quantities of ballast to rise, ‘a handful of sand it all that is required’, he said, and how to release small amounts of gas from the neck of the balloon to descend.

 

“Why haven’t you used the valve?” she asked.

 

“Because it is still experimental, if I release too much the balloon may have to land, and I want to wait until I know I can land safely.”
Sophia nodded and watched until they had passed over a small town.

 

“Croydon, I think.” He commented, “Now let’s see what the valve will do?”

 

He pulled the cord, there was a click from above then a rushing sound. The balloon lurched, he tugged again and again on the cord.

“No!” he shouted.

 

“What is it?” she shouted back, the wind was rushing by her now, upwards!

 

“The valve is stuck open, all the gas is venting, we are falling too fast.”

 

“Then let’s slow our descent at least.”

 

She unfastened one of the bags of sand and dropped it overboard. As the ballast fell away the balloon slowed its descent slightly, but they were still falling too fast. The instruments followed, then he pulled off his coat and boots, she dropped her pelisse over the side and pulled her dress over her head and that too tumbled to the ground.

 

She touched her chemise, and said with a sad smile.

 

“That could go as well, but I don’t think it would be of any use.”

 

“No,” he shouted, “there is only one thing that might help.”
He climbed onto the side of the basket.

 

“Just before we hit the ground I will try and jump into the trees. The loss of my weight should give the balloon enough lift so you can land safely.”

3597480515_506b32e092

A French Illustration of Thomas Harris’s Death

“No!” she screamed, as he jumped. A few moments later the basket hit the ground she tried to hold on but was thrown out, she heard a crashing sound, there was sudden pain, and then nothing.

T2-_d553_-_Fig._310._—_Mort_de_Harris

Another French Illustration

 

“It’s a woman.”

 

She opened her eyes to see a surprised man looking down at her.

 

“Yes, I’m a woman.” She replied and tried to get up, she managed to stand for a second, then dropped to the ground again.

 

“Where is Mr Harris?” she asked looking around. The man looked up then there was a shout from the woods nearby. Then two men stepped out carrying something between them, it was Mr Harris and he was clearly dead. For the first time in her life Miss Sophia Stocks fainted.

To be continued

The Fallen Balloon

4 Comments

Filed under Flight, Georgian, Historical tales, Regency