Category Archives: Georgian

The Curious Tale of the Wormesley Pippin

Our village orchard was planted some fifteen years ago, by children from the local school. At the base of each tree there is a little label giving the variety and who planted it. At this time of year there is a regular stream of villagers collecting apples to eat or cook.

A few days ago I went to pick a basket of the lovely Beauty of Bath, a classic eating apple. The adjacent tree had large pale green fruit, and looked like a cooker, curious I picked some and read the label ‘Wormesley Pippin’. The name fascinated me and I looked it up in a very old apple book, and so discovered the tale of the apple and the remarkable Thomas Andrew Knight.

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Thomas Knight was worried, the revolting French might have spread revolution and war across half a continent, but this was much more serious, his new orchard had canker. He knew the disease usually affected older trees, but all of these had been planted in the past three years. He enquired of neighbouring farmers, all told the same story, new trees often got canker.

He had been sent to University with the vague idea of his becoming a clergyman, but he hadn’t enjoyed it, apart from the Botanic Garden, here he learnt of the new discoveries of men such as Stephen Hale and Carl Linnaeus, who had shown how plants actually worked. Now Thomas Knight was to use their methods to solve the problem of apple canker.

He knew that apples never bred true, a pip would grow into an apple unlike its parent tree, and to spread a variety trees had to be grafted. He had learnt to graft when he was a child, attaching a small piece of the desired tree onto a rootstock so it would grow into a prefect replica of the original. Then it struck him, a branch of the original tree! He remembered a sermon he had heard in Oxford, ‘a child carries the seeds of its own death’, the sermon had been a splendidly cheery one, on how as soon as a child is born it should prepare for death. But Thomas Knight wondered, perhaps it could be true in another way. Everything had a natural lifespan, trees certainly lived longer than people, but what about an apple tree? The new trees were essentially parts of the original tree, his orchard might be only a few years old but some of the varieties were centuries old, the new trees weren’t in fact new, they were very old and dying of old age. (He was fortunately very wrong)

He thought he knew the problem, but what was the answer. All the farmers talked of ‘chance-come’ apples or pippins, apples that grew from pips that had good characteristics, but he knew that for a thousand pips sown perhaps one might make a good apple. But he knew something that the local farmers didn’t, Linnaeus had discovered exactly how plants reproduced (he described it in such detail that some people regarded his works as pornographic). He was going to use this new knowledge to selectively breed apples!

Spring came and he begun, developing ways to hand fertilise apples, carefully collecting the fruit and planting the seeds. There were many failures, but enough success to make it worthwhile. As the long French war waged on, as enemy troops landed not too far away, only to surrender to formidable red cloaked Welsh Women, Thomas Knight began to see his new varieties spread.

His fame spread too, Sir Joseph Banks heard of his work, persuaded him to come to London where he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society and became the President of the Royal Horticultural Society. But he never enjoyed London, and as soon as he could he returned to Herefordshire, he still corresponded with the society, his work on selective breeding in plants was used by Charles Darwin, his notes on peas inspired Gregor Mendel and his experiments on the effects of gravity on seedlings directly influenced experiments carried out on the International Space Station.

But that was in the future, now as Napoleon was advancing into Russia, Thomas Knight cut an apple from a new grown tree and tried it for the first time. It was an eater as well as a cooker, he was delighted and later declared it ‘My favourite apple, the best I ever produced.”


And that was the Wormesley Pippin that began this story. (Incidentally it makes excellent Dorset Apple cake)

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The Curious Scissors Net, another Entomological reconstruction

During lockdown people have been encouraged to try handicrafts, also to get out and enjoy nature. Now as a reenactor who enjoys experimental history, there was an obvious thing to do – make an eighteenth century butterfly net.

Some time ago I described how I made a reconstruction of a Clap, or Batfowler net to see how this improbable looking butterfly net functioned. Rereading Moses Harris’s The Aurelian a little while ago I was inspired to make another improbable looking insect net, the Scissors or Forceps Net.

He begins by describing;

Racket Nets. Which are form’d of Wire about the Size of a Raven’s Quill, turned round to a Circle, bending the Ends outwards by way Shanks, which are made fast in a Brass Socket;  this Circle or Ring of Wire is covered with Gause, and bound round with Ferret [A stout tape most commonly made of cotton OED]; a round Stick of about two Feet in Length is fitted to this Socket, by Way of Handle. These Sort Of Nets are what an AURELIAN should at all Times carry about him; a Pair of these of about six Inches Diameter are the most convenient for that Purpose. The chief Use of these Sort of Netts are for catching Moths, sitting against a Tree, Wall, or Pales; or a Moth or Fly sitting on a Leaf, may be conveniently caught between a Pair of these.

The Fly Catching Macaroni

Then he tells us that;

The Scithers Net are no more than a small Pair of these Racket Nets; fixed on two Pieces of Iron which are rivetted across each other, with two of the Ends turn’d round in the Form of Rings, for the Admittance of the Thumb and Finger; in short, a Pair of Toupee Irons, or Curling Tongs, such as is used by a Hair-Dresser, are very well adapted for this Purpose, with a round Net fixed to the End of each Tong with binding Wire, or small Twine well waxed; these Nets are principally adapted to take small Moths, &c.

Scissors Net cartoon

So to make a Scissors Net, I first needed a pair of tongs. Whilst I have (as one does) a pair of Georgian Curling Tongs, I didn’t want to use these so I needed a pair of tongs of similar proportions. After a while I found some old barbeque tongs which could be adapted.

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I then needed to make the wire loops, I unfortunately don’t have a Ravens Quill, but online enquiries (thank you 18th Century Sewing facebook group) suggested just under 1/8 inch diameter. Fortunately wire coat hangers are about the right size.

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Unfortunately I cannot find anybody who produces ferret these days, but it was easy enough to create a stiff cotton tape, and finally create the net.

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Then I had to work out how they were to be used, the delightfully named Letitia Jermyn, in 1824, she tells us that;

The forceps are about ten or twelve inches in length, provided with fans of a circular or other form, and are covered with gauze; they are held and moved like a pair of scissors, and are used to catch the insects when at rest.

In later editions of her book (1836) she adds further advice

The leaves should be expanded as wide as possible, and the prey approached very cautiously, and when within reach, close them upon it suddenly, including the leaf or flower on which it rests.

Whilst William Curtis, in 1771, advised using them to catch wasps and bees as;

These insects being armed many of them with poisonous stings, it will be necessary to use the forcep nets to catch them with.

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I soon discovered that they were very easy to use, especially when taking insects sitting on flowers, and on a plant like bramble I was able to capture insects without risking the net being caught. As to why the net fell out of use, I suspect it was simply the problem of carrying a number of nets. Difficult when was no longer accompanied by a servant.

On day I might well make a pair of Racket Nets, as described by Moses Harris, or the oddest of all nets, and also the simplest.

The Casting Net, described by Letitia Jermyn in 1824 (she dropped it from later editions of her book);

If they {insects} are beyond your reach, you must use a casting net, which may be made thus:- tie a weight (a halfpenny for instance), in one of the corners of a piece of gauze, about the size of a common handkerchief, a lighter weight in the second corner, and a bit of very light wood in the third : the inequality in the weight and bulk of these substances, will occasion the gauze to open, when thrown from the hand : a thin piece of twine, a yard to two long, may be tied to the remaining corner, by which the net may be drawn in at pleasure. The art of spreading it to its full extent may be acquired with very little practice.

The vision of a Regency Lady throwing a weighted handkerchief over a butterfly of moth is a delightful one, which it would be lovely to recreate.

Sources

Curtis, William. 1771 Instructions for Collecting and Preserving Insects

Harris, Moses. 1776 The Aurelian or Natural History of English Insects

Jermyn, Letitia. 1824 The butterfly collector’s vade mecum; with a synoptical table of British butterflies.

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Filed under Butterfly Net, Georgian, Historical Reconstructions, Reconstructing the Regency, Scientific History

Blunders in two Emmas or Anachronistic Tree Blossoms

Jane Austen planned her stories very carefully. She seems to have worked out the action of her tales with a calendar or diary beside her. This has meant that later scholars could work out exactly when they were written but, apart from Persuasion, the actual year the tale is set doesn’t seem to have mattered to Jane Austen. Rather she wanted to avoid the mistakes of other novelists, who can suggest June lasts eight weeks, or summer has eight or nine months.

 

Another aspect of her work is the absence of description, we hardly know what any character or place looked like, so when she does describe a scene it is noteworthy. This comes from Emma, in the novel we are told that it is in June, a party is going to Donwell Abbey to pick strawberries, when they stopped to look at Abbey Mill Farm.

 

The considerable slope, at nearly the foot of which the Abbey stood, gradually acquired a steeper form beyond its grounds; and at half a mile distant was a bank of considerable abruptness and grandeur, well clothed with wood; and at the bottom of this bank, favourably placed and sheltered, rose the Abbey Mill Farm, with meadows in front, and the river making a close and handsome curve around it.

It was a sweet view—sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive.

….. There had been a time also when Emma would have been sorry to see Harriet in a spot so favourable for the Abbey Mill Farm; but now she feared it not. It might be safely viewed with all its appendages of prosperity and beauty, its rich pastures, spreading flocks, orchard in blossom, and light column of smoke ascending.

And this is one of Jane Austen’s most famous mistakes. Can you spot it? well here’s a clue. These pictures were taken in our village orchard yesterday, 7th May.

The apple trees are in full bloom, indeed some are already beginning to go over. As Edward, Jane’s brother, who was a very practical gentleman farmer said.
“Jane, where did you get those apple trees that blossom in June?”

 

Fast forward two hundred years, to the latest film version of Emma, a very entertaining version, with absolutely brilliant costumes. When it comes to the proposal scene, in the film given as mid-summer, in the book it can be dated to 9th July. Emma is seen standing by a Horse Chestnut tree in full bloom,

and guess what is also flowering in our village at this very moment.

Did the film maker deliberately reference Jane’s blunder, or did she just think that the candles of a Horse Chestnut make a beautiful backdrop to a pretty young woman, as indeed they do.

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Georgian Lockdown – Or regulating my Beaureau

A few days ago, in her column in the Daily Telegraph, Victoria Coren Mitchell, commenting on our present times, wrote;

 

Most of us have veered sharply in one of two directions: into the future or into the past. Some have relaxed into a rather 18th-century life of sketching, singing and snoozing, with an hour’s constitutional each day to take the air. Others have grabbed the 21st century by the throat, downloading Zoom and Skype, taking mass online Zumba classes and launching podcasts.

 

Now as somebody who never quite got on with the twentieth century it is obvious which way I would go. So today I found myself regulating my Beaureau. My wife had pointed out that several generations of spiders had created interesting artworks between my larger Galilean thermometer and Rush Light holder, so I spent several hours turning this.

Into this

Discovering the desiccated remains of arachnids, and other invertebrates, small tools of various dates and part of a Mammoth tooth (in other words the usual things one has on a desk).

 

But how, you might ask if you have managed to get this far, is this Georgian?

 

Well, I remembered a passage in the diary of Edmund Rack of Bath, which not only mentioned tidying a desk but also covered the problem of toilet paper shortage!

 

January 14 1780
In the morning regulated my Beaureau and put the useless papers on a string for necessary purposes.

 

As Mr Rack was a scientist who was friends with William Herschel and corresponded with the likes of Sir Joseph Banks, one wonders what was in the ‘useless papers’ he recycled as toilet paper!

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Our Ancestors got it right – As usual

As the pestilence sweeps the land, there are several things we have been advised to do to keep ourselves safe.

But, of course, our ancestors got there first.

 

Greetings

‘We shouldn’t touch each other when greeting.’

 

This was usually taught at an early age

But you were never too old to learn

Social distancing.

 

Men were taught to do this.

Whilst women’s clothes were designed to encourage this.

 

They could also help if a man didn’t abide by the rules.

Whilst leaving plenty of space for fresh air and exercise.

 

Protective clothing

 

But above all spend your time productively. Shakespeare once self-isolated to protect himself from the plague. He took the opportunity to write King Lear!

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The Sweet Price of Freedom

“Those damn women.” He slapped the paper down.
His colleague looked up, surprised.
“This report, sales of West India sugar have slumped. The campaign not to use our sugar, just because of slavery – ‘Am I not a woman and a sister’ indeed.”
“What can we do? We’ve tried everything, it’s not working.”

 

She sipped her tea, the sugar bowl labelled ‘Not made by slaves’. The report was wonderful news, the campaign was working.
In the newly reformed parliament, the MP’s had been told how to vote, across the tea tables of Britain the battle for freedom was fought – and won.

 

All true, one of the most remarkable events in the long fight against slavery in the British Empire was the sugar boycott. Mostly organised by women it spread the anti-slavery message widely among middle class families. After the great Reform Act of 1832, these were the people with political power, and they used it.

 

 

Written in response to Charli Mills February 13, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that includes a sugar report. Use its original {US} meaning of a letter from a sweetheart to a soldier, or invent a new use for it. Go where the prompt leads!

I have, of course, been led down a completely different historical byway.

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The Attack on the Exeter Mail

Night had fallen as the mail coach pulled up in front of the Inn, the ostlers ran out to change the horses, postbags were exchanged, and mugs of ale were passed to the driver and guard.

Then

The lead horse screamed, in the gloom the driver saw that something had leapt onto the horses neck. He could see blood flowing, but what was it? The terrified ostler swung his lantern round, and they could see. Now it was for the men to scream, it was impossible!

In Wiltshire, in 1816, the Exeter Mail had been attacked by a Lion!

This completely true tale, it happened on the 20th October 1816, is written in response to Charlie Mills flash fiction challenge, January 30, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a postal carrier in an extreme situation. I think a lion attack is pretty extreme.

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Filed under Georgian, Historical tales, Regency

Presents of Christmas Past

Today is Epiphany, the day on which we remember the visit of the Magi, and the traditional date for present giving. People have been giving and receiving presents at Christmas for centuries, but it was during the revival of the celebrations at the beginning of the nineteenth century that people came up with a novel idea – make something just intended to be a Christmas present.

The ones that are easily identifiable are books, such as this;

clearly labelled as ‘A Christmas and New Year’s Present for 1826’. It contains stories and poems,


Including, of course, ghost stories.


My next, from six year later, is a collection of comic stories and poems.

Illustrated with punning illustrations and some rather good jokes about the Great Reform Act.


Before my final Christmas Book, here is a Victorian Christmas card from the collection I mentioned in my previous blog.

Showing someone delivering Christmas presents. Also from the collection are examples of another minor Victorian Christmas invention, gift tags!


Now for the last book, a beautifully illustrated volume ‘Christmas with the Poets’ which was given as a present as it has the inscription ‘From Miss Millicent Brady to Miss Ada Stephens Christmas 1849′.

And now for the sting in the tale.

The book had been on my shelves for some time when I noticed how bright the cover was compared with other books of the same period. I knew what the Victorians had used to make high quality green dye, so I had the book tested. The cover contains enough arsenic to kill a man!

 

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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.

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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

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Filed under balloon, Flight, Georgian, Historical tales