Category Archives: Historical tales

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“If you would care to climb aboard.”

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

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

“You are the aeronaut – fly.”

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

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

“Stop that, Now!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was an accident…” the Duke spluttered.

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

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

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

A Balloon heading out to Sea

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

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

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

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

“Stop him, he will kill us all!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued

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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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A Star in the Rock

“Professor, this rock has a star on it.”
“Wonderful, another of these marvellous stones.”
“But don’t you think it looks as if it has been carved by hand?”
“Indeed it does, the hand of God. My theories about the nature of fossils are proved, I must write the book immediately.”

Illustration from Lithographiae Wirceburgensis

The conspirators were delighted.
“If he publishes he will be laughed at across Europe. We will be revenged.”
“But what if we are discovered? Already the stonecutter wants more money.”
“Don’t worry, he will lose his place in the University and we will be safe.”
They were very wrong.

In the 1720’s Professor Johann Beringer, professor of Natural History at the University of Würzburg, collected numerous fossils. At the time it was debated whether they were the remains of long dead animals and plants or had been created by God during the process of creation.

 

J. Ignatz Roderick and Georg von Eckhart, colleagues and rivals at the university, arranged for hundreds of mock fossils to be carved and placed where Beringer could find them. Beringer published his book, Lithographiae Wirceburgensis, which was universally mocked.

 

Then the stonemason came forward, as he hadn’t been paid, Beringer sued Roderick and Eckhart and won, they were dismissed from the university. Beringer remained at the university and wrote many more books, but none as controversial, Roderick and Eckhart died in poverty, not helped by the fact that the stonemason also won his case for unpaid wages!

 

This piece was written in response to the latest Carrot Ranch prompt; In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a rock star. You can feature a central character or write about the feeling like a rock star. Go where the prompt leads!

I, naturally, have been led up a curious byway of scientific history, I hope you enjoy it.

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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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The Golden Tree

The tree was new to him, a massive silver needled pine. He climbed off his horse and walked slowly round the fallen giant, in the root plate he noticed a yellow glint, carelessly he dropped the golden nugget in his pocket, then found what he was looking for. In what had been the topmost branches were mature cones. Carefully he collected the seed.

His letter to Kew began; “Wonderful discoveries, you must think I have been manufacturing pines, I have found so many.”

He never mentioned the gold, to the plant hunter David Douglas, trees were much more important.

A true story, David Douglas, one of the great early plant hunters, discovered hundreds of species during his expeditions in North West America, the Douglas Fir is named after him. When told that gold had been discovered in California, he replied that he had often found small nuggets when digging up plant specimens, but he had never mentioned it as he didn’t think it was of any interest.

This is in response to Charlie Mills flash fiction challenge, In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that that goes in search of trees.

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A Ghost in the Garden

I was trying to find out about early nineteenth century plant labels (I will tell you why another time), when I came across an interesting name, a name associated with ghosts in the garden.

Now I don’t mean ghosts like the young lady, wearing a long white dress,  who I saw one late summer evening, long years ago, walking across an old garden in Bristol. She stepped behind a clump of shrubs and vanished. I hope she walks there still. I can think of worse ways to spend your afterlife than walking though English gardens in the summer twilight.

 

No this ghost is very real.

 

At the beginning of the last century lived Ellen Willmott, she was a great gardener. One person dubbed her “the greatest of all living women gardeners”, though none would agree with that now, simply because the remark was made by Gertrude Jekyll, who was the greatest of all women gardeners.

 

Be that as it may, there is no doubt that Ellen Willmott was a great gardener. She was also a notable garden writer, writing for magazines like ‘Country Life’. In the course of her journalism she visited many gardens, up and down the land, nervously welcomed as everyone wanted a good review from Miss Willmott, and all dreaded a bad one.

 

And then – after a few years gardeners everywhere began to notice a new flower appearing in their herbaceous borders, a straggly blue flower with spiky leaves. Then it was realised that the flowers began to make an appearance a year or so after a visit from Miss Willmott. She never admitted it, but people though that she had a secret pocket full of the seeds, which she discretely scattered in the flowerbeds as she bent to admire a particular flower.

 

It is for this reason that Eryngium giganteum is now known as;

Miss Willmott’s ghost

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A Light in Dark Places

He struck the chisel with the wooden mallet, carefully. There was hardly any light as there was firedamp in the mine. Any flame or spark and the explosion would be devastating.

Then he saw it – a flame. It was approaching, he had nowhere to run, he shouted.

“Stop! there’s firedamp, stop!”

The flame approached, he continued to scream, the man was trying to shout something but the miner didn’t hear, as he fainted in terror.
He came too to see his vicar looking down, by the light of an impossible flame burning in – the world’s first safety lamp.

Firedamp, which mostly consisted of methane, was a terrible danger in early coal mines. It was highly inflammable, and as candles were the only way of lighting mines, the cause of many disasters.
After a terrible explosion which killed over ninety miners in 1812 the Rev. John Hodgson, vicar of Jarrow, campaigned for a safe way of lighting mines. The challenge was taken up by Sir Humphrey Davy and George Stephenson, in 1815 the two men had come up with similar solutions. It was whilst demonstrating Stephenson’s light that my tale took place.

 

This is in response to Charlie Mills flash fiction challenge, In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a chisel. Use chisel as a noun or a verb. Hope you enjoy it.

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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

Out of the Mist – A Tale of Humanity in War

The privateer came out of the mist, the sailors had no chance, their ship was moored by the waveswept rock where the engineers were working.
The French captain laughed at their ridiculous tale, no one could build a lighthouse on a rock in the middle of sea, it must be a trick of the damnable English.
King Louis heard the tale, but he believed it, they could do such a wonderful thing . He released and rewarded the men saying;
“I am at war with the English, not humanity”
A year later the light shone from the Eddystone rock.

Another true historical tale. In 1697 work was underway on the Eddystone light, the first lighthouse in the world built on an isolated sea rock. The workers were attacked by a French privateer exactly as described. The light first shone in 1698, this first lighthouse was destroyed by a storm, the next by fire, the third was removed as the rock below it was crumbling and the fourth shines today.

 

 

This is in response to Charlie Mills flash fiction challenge, in 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about sea mist. Hope you enjoy it.

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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