Category Archives: Georgian

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

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Safe from Unsuitable Men or Miss Fluart’s Romance

The weeping girl was handed into the carriage, her father looked at the black veiled woman.
“I am counting on you to keep her safe from unsuitable men.”
Miss Fluart nodded, “My house in Devon is very secluded, she will be safe from men there.”
As they drove off Charlotte smiled at her friend,
“I think that went very well, but you said nothing about unsuitable woman?”
“I don’t know what you mean, my dear.” Replied Miss Fluart squeezing Charlotte’s hand.
Charlotte settled back,
“But Maria, what am I to do in wildest Devon?”
“Have adventures, my dear, adventures.”

 

 

This is in response to Charlie Mills flash fiction challenge, November 21, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a romance. Focus on the relationship between two people. Build tension and end on a happy(ish) note. Go where the prompt leads!

In considering this prompt I naturally thought of the remarkable Miss Fluart, the eighteenth century character who has inspired several tales of mine.

 

 

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The Return of London’s Dragons

I was recently in London, and took the opportunity to visit Kew. The one thing I particularly wanted to see there was the Great Pagoda. As you approach you can see the changes, where once there was a shabby building of brick and slate – now there are dragons.

When it was originally built in 1762, Sir William Chambers, who had visited China and knew exactly what a Chinese pagoda was like, decorated the roofs with carved dragons.

Unfortunately the dragons were made of carved pine, which rotted and few survived the terrible winter of 1783, those that did were removed and the pagoda was left bare for over two hundred and thirty years.

In 2018 a major renovation project led to the return of the Dragons. Carefully reconstructed from surviving drawings, the lower ones are carved wood, the upper, in a modern touch, of 3D printed plastic. So now we can glimpse something of the colourful splendour of Georgian popular architecture.

But there may be another explanation, this is the one preferred by my granddaughter.

When the Pagoda was first built, it was occupied by a small flock of Chinese Dragons, they didn’t do very well in the increasingly smoky air of London, and disappeared during the terrible winter of 1783.

Now, with the warming climate and cleaner air the dragons have returned. They sleep during the day, and at night they fly across the gardens. Then this year something strange has been seen in the gardens, giant glassy spheres in the gravel near the base of the pagoda.

Dragon’s Eggs?

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No Ice for Cassandra

Jane Austen smiled at her sister’s letter, she enjoyed hearing from Cassandra, but sometimes her letters just contained a litany of complaints. Some, such as missing seeing the King and Queen were reasonable enough, but a lack of Ice! In September! After a hot summer! Really.

She picked up her pen, tucked her tongue firmly into her cheek, and wrote;

“Your account of Weymouth contains nothing which strikes me so forcibly as there being no Ice in the Town. Weymouth is altogether a shocking place I perceive, without recommendation of any kind, only suitable for the inhabitants of Gloucester!”

A Georgian Ice House

Jane Austen’s letter was written on Friday 14 September 1804.
At the time Ice was collected during the winter and stored in Ice Houses, specially insulated buildings, for use during the summer. Slightly later it was even imported from the Arctic in specially built ships. To have no ice available in late summer was hardly unusual.

No one knows what she had against the inhabitants of Gloucester.

 

This is in response to Charlie Mills flash fiction challenge, May 23, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story without ice. It can be a world without ice or a summer camp that runs out of cubes for lemonade. What does the lack mean to the story? Go where the prompt leads!

As usual I have been led on an unlikely byway into the past Hope you enjoy it.

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A Charity Case – the work of an ‘Accomplished Lady” ?

It has been some time since I described a discovery I had made in a charity shop, and the journey of discovery on which it could lead. My previous discoveries have included Playing Cards, a Kitchen Ladle and a collection of Regency Music.

 

It was in a glass case, it looked very tatty but old, the initial glimpse suggested a couple of hundred years or so old.

It was a small tray, the base of which was a picture, clearly of eighteenth century date. On initial examination it could be seen that the picture looked as if it was a print of a young couple. The rest of the tray was faded and discoloured, but immediately suggested something interesting, that it was not a professionally made object but something made by an amateur. I naturally bought it immediately and took it home for examination.

 

Cleaning it confirmed what I had expected, the base had been decorated with a section cut from a larger print and then coloured, probably in watercolour. It was in excellent condition, having been protected by a sheet of glass, now heavily scratched from long use. The same could not be said for the sides of the tray. Made from thin wood they had been covered with ribbon and the top protected by a length of metal braid.

Whilst I was now pretty certain, that the box was of eighteenth century date, there were some things I could do to help confirm this. The first was to identify the print. Here the British Museum website proved invaluable. It allows you to enter a series of criteria to search their huge collections. It was a print, it was probably eighteenth century, the style looked to me to be French, and the young woman seemed to be feeding the young man cherries. I therefore entered these terms and in the few moments discovered this;

Les Sabots

The print dates from 1784 and shows a scene from a French comic opera ‘Les Sabots’, with the hero and heroine Colin and Babet. The opera was written by Jacques Cazotte, an unusual author who was claimed to be able to predict the future, and is supposed to have given detailed descriptions of what was to happen to his acquaintances during the revolution. This skill didn’t help him though, as he was guillotined in 1792.

 

The sides of the tray were decorated with what appears to be a ribbon with a woven pattern, probably a floral sprig and the top is covered with a metallic braid folded over the wood. This suggests that the tray was made at home of material readily available, and is typical of some of the craftwork done by the ‘accomplished ladies’ of the eighteenth century. Prints were used to decorate just about everything on which they could be stuck, from small items like this tray, to furniture and even entire rooms.

 

The tray was probably used on a dressing table, to hold small objects.

Dressing Tables

So I will add the tray to my collection, and keep exploring our local charity shops.

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Filed under Georgian, Reconstructing the Regency, Regency

Signs – A Remarkable Conversation

He knew how it would be, it wasn’t that people were unkind but for someone profoundly deaf there was little he could enjoy in a party like this.
The guests were introduced, he smiled, was about to sit down and read, when the last woman smiled back and flicked her fingers.
“Good afternoon?” She signed, “what is the book?”
For the first time in years he sat and enjoyed a conversation. She certainly knew her books, and suggested many things he could read. As she rose to leave he asked.
“Have you ever written anything?”
“Perhaps.” Signed Jane Austen.

 

This tale is absolutely true, the meeting took place in Southampton on December 27th 1808. I have blogged about it before in ‘Jane’s Other Language.’

 

This is in response to Charlie Mills flash fiction challenge: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a sign. It can be a posted sign, a universal sign, a wonder. Go where the prompt leads. I have bent the meaning slightly.

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Filed under Georgian, Historical tales, Jane Austen, Regency

A Christmas Tail

All animals celebrate Christmas. Bees sing the ‘Old Hundredth’ on Christmas Eve as the animals in the stables and cattle sheds kneel, remembering, in their own way, how they knelt at Bethlehem so long ago. Only occasionally, however, do the human and animal Christmases interact, but when they do the results can be amazing.

December 22nd 1818

“Run!”
The older mice forced a way through the wet vegetation, the young mice and mothers and children followed as the floodwaters rose.
Up and up they climbed, across short cropped grass that gave no cover, they were thankful that the rain kept the hawks away. Then they saw it, a tall building, unlike the barns the humans built for them, but it felt safe.
They crept in, under the door and discovered a perfect mouse home, a perfect mouse sanctuary.

It was a miracle, just before Christmas they had their home. There were plenty of places to nest, mothers settled their babies, children played, running up and down the ropes that had been placed there specially for them to climb, whilst the older mice looked around for food.

And they found it, wonderful food, thick tasty tallow on top of chewy leather.
“Something you can really get your teeth into.” Said one old mouse, as they feasted well into the night.

December 23rd 1818

What are you planning for tomorrow?” The priest asked.

“I have it here.” The young organist patted the folder of music under his arm. 
“I want to run through a couple of pieces before the choir come in, can you pump?”
“Of course.” Replied the priest. He stepped behind the organ and raised the handle, as he brought it down there was a terrible whistling noise. He stopped and the two men bent and examined the organ’s bellows.
“Mice!”

All around the church noses poked out of holes, black eyes watched from behind curtains.

“Can it be repaired?”
“Yes, but not by me, or anyone in the village, and not in time for Christmas Eve.” The organist paused.
“The choir can sing some hymns unaccompanied, but there will be no music. For the first time in more than two hundred years there will be no music in the church at Christmas!”

The mice looked at each other in horror, they had heard what the humans said, had they really ruined the humans Christmas?

The men looked at each other in silence, in silence they stood, then the priest said.
“Perhaps there is a way, you play the guitar.”
“But it can’t accompany any of these.”
“No, but there is that poem I wrote, the Christmas one, you said you could set it to music.”
“In less than a day!”
“You had better start straight away then.”

The mice were subdued, and watched as the humans left the church in a hurry.

Christmas Eve 1818

There was a sense of anticipation in the air, something was happening, the mice could feel it. From the oldest mice, who could remember three or even four Christmases, to the youngsters. That afternoon the old tale was told, of the first mouse Christmas, and never had mice listened in greater reverence and wonder. They told of the mice, who played on the rafters in the stable, and brought the gift of laughter to the child in the manger.

Later the humans came, few at first to light the candles, then more and more, filling the pews. There was expectation amongst them too, as if the humans also knew that something very special was about to happen.

And then, the choir gathered at the front of the church, the organist sat and took his guitar. The mice and humans watched as he plucked a few notes. Then all, animal and human, listened for the first time to;

Stille Nacht

 

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Filed under Alternative History, Christmas Musings, 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.

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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

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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

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