Category Archives: Historical tales

The Vicar and the Sleeping Butterfly

Winterborne Tomson, St Andrew

The Rev. Octavius Pickard-Cambridge walked briskly through the stooked wheat sheaves on his way to his tiny church of Winterborne Tomson. As the service commenced he saw a Small Tortoiseshell butterfly fluttering at the window, during his sermon it settled on one of the beams over his head, folded its wings and seemed to fall asleep. He smiled to himself at the idea that his sermons could even make butterflies sleep.

Winterborne Tomson, St Andrew, pulpit

The following week the corn had been carted away, and his path ran through stubble. As he climbed into his pulpit he glanced up, and noticed in surprise that the butterfly was still there. It had settled by a small knot in the wood, so he could tell it hadn’t moved since the previous week.

Winterborne Tomson, St Andrew, chancel roof

The following Sunday it was still there, and the next. Outside the church the seasons changed, leaves browned and fell. The first frost covered the ground, and made patterns on the church windows.

Winterborne Tomson, St Andrew, South wall

But the butterfly slept on.

Christmas came, the singers packed into the West Gallery roared out the ancient Christmas Carols.

Winterborne Tomson, St Andrew, west gallery

But the butterfly slept on.

Snow came, and it was hard to trudge to the church on a Sunday, the water froze in the font so a baby had to be christened with water brought in a kettle from the Manor House.

Winterborne Tomson, St Andrew, font & cover

But the butterfly slept on.

The snow melted and February lived up to its country name of ‘fill-dyke’, water puddled on the church floor.

Winterborne Tomson, St Andrew, interior

But the butterfly slept on.

Until finally the seasons turned, flowers poked their heads through the brown leaves, blossom began to turn the hedges white. As the church door was opened the butterfly finally awoke, and during his sermon the vicar saw it find its way out of the door.

That evening the Rev. Octavius Pickard-Cambridge settled down and wrote an account of what he had seen, the first time anybody had watched a hibernating insect continuously throughout the winter.

Sleeping butterfly1

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Filed under Historical tales, Scientific History, Victorian

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.

DSC01193

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 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.

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The Amazing Jar that changed the world

He looked in amazement at the little fern, growing in the sealed jar. According to Dr Ward it had been growing there for three years.

“But what nourishes it?”

“Sunlight.” He replied, “Water evaporates, and condenses in the jar. Minerals feed the leaves, and return to the soil, all it needs is light.”
“Is it of any use?”
“Use! Glass boxes filled with plants, on a ships deck, will carry them safely around the world. We will move useful plants wherever we want. This could end famines, create industries and beautify gardens, it could change the world.”
It did.

Unpacking a Wardian Case at Kew in the 1920’s photo from Kew Gardens

All true.
In 1829 Dr Nathanial Ward tried to hatch out a moth chrysalis, it died, but a tiny fern seedling growing in the jar continued to grow although Dr Ward did nothing. Realising what this might mean he experimented and a decade later had a successful box for transporting pants around the world. Properly named the Wardian Case, after its inventor, it was used to transport medicinal, food and commercial crops around the globe. It really did change the world.

 

Written in response to this week’s carrotranch prompt
May 7, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story to nourish. The characters can nourish or be nourished. What else can be nourished? A tree? A setting? Does the sunset nourish the soul? Go where the prompt leads!

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Filed under Historical tales, Scientific History

Welcome at Last

A brick smashed through the window, glass fell on the praying sisters.
“Why do we stay, Mother?” Asked one of the newly founded Anglican Order of Sisters. “No one seems to want us.”
Then – Cholera.
No one knew how it spread, people fled and the rest died alone, no one helped – until the sisters took charge.
They cared for the dying, comforted the living, and became beloved by the people of Plymouth.
A little later a small women came and asked.
“Can you help me? I desperately need nurses.”
The Mother Superior smiled “Of course we can – Miss Nightingale.”

 

A terrible, wonderful and true tale.

In the 1840’s a High Anglican order of nuns faced massive abuse, encouraged by Evangelical Anglicans, when they established a house in Plymouth. Until there was an outbreak of cholera, in which hundreds died. There was little help for the poor, apart from the nursing care of the sisters. After this they were understandably regarded as heroines.

A few years after this Florence Nightingale asked the nursing sisters to join her in the Crimea, where they formed the core of the nurses in her hospital at Scutari.

 

This in response to this weeks Flash Fiction Challenge from the Carrot Ranch

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Filed under Historical tales, plague, Victorian

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

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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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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Filed under Georgian, Historical tales