Category Archives: Regency

The Two Dolls – Or an anti-racism story from Georgian England

As a contribution to Black History Month I give you this story which was written in 1830, I will tell you more at the end.

A lucky day it was for little Fanny Elvington when her good aunt Delmont consented to receive her into her family, and sent for her from a fine old place, six miles from hence, Burdon Park, where she had been living with her maternal grandfather, to her own comfortable house in Brunswick Square. Poor Fanny had no natural home, her father, General Elvington, being in India with his lady; and a worse residence than the Park could hardly be devised for a little girl, since Lady Burdon was dead, Sir Richard too sickly to be troubled with children, and the care of his grand-daughter left entirely to a vulgar old nurse and a superfine housekeeper. A lucky day for Fanny was that in which she exchanged their misrule for the wise and gentle government of her good aunt Delmont.

Fanny Elvington was a nice little girl, who had a great many good qualities, and, like other little girls, a few faults; which had grown up like weeds under the neglect and mismanagement of the people at the Park, and threatened to require both time and pains to eradicate. For instance, she had a great many foolish antipathies and troublesome fears, some caught from the affectation of the housekeeper, some from the ignorance of the nurse: she shrieked at the sight of a mouse, squalled at a frog, was well-nigh ready to faint at an earwig, and quite as much afraid of a spider as if she had been a fly; she ran away from a quiet ox, as if he had been a mad bull, and had such a horror of chimney sweepers that she shrank her head under the bedclothes whenever she heard the deep cry of “sweep! sweep!” forerunning the old clothesman and the milkman on a frosty morning, and could hardly be persuaded to look at them, poor creatures, dressed in their tawdry tinsel and dancing round Jack of the Green on Mayday. But her favourite fear, her pet aversion, was a black man; especially a little black footboy who lived next door, and whom she never saw without shrinking, and shuddering, and turning pale.

It was a most unlucky aversion for Fanny, and gave her and her aunt more trouble than all her other mislikings put together, inasmuch as Pompey came oftener in view than mouse or frog, spider or earwig, ox or chimney-sweep. How it happened nobody could tell, but Pompey was always in Fanny Elvington’s way. She saw him twice as often as anyone else in the house. If she went to the window, he was sure to be standing on the steps: if she walked in the Square garden, she met him crossing the pavement: she could not water her geraniums in the little court behind the house, but she heard his merry voice singing in broken English as he cleaned the knives and shoes on the other side of the wall; nay, she could not even hang out her Canary-bird’s cage at the back door, but he was sure to be feeding his parrot at theirs. Go where she would, Pompey’s shining black face and broad white teeth followed her: he haunted her very dreams; and the oftener she saw him, whether sleeping or waking, the more her unreasonable antipathy grew upon her. Her cousins laughed at her without effect, and her aunt’s serious remonstrances were equally useless.

The person who, next to Fanny herself, suffered the most from this foolish and wicked prejudice, was poor Pompey, whose intelligence, activity, and good-humour had made him a constant favourite in his master’s house, and who had sufficient sensibility to feel deeply the horror and disgust which he had inspired in his young neighbour. At first he tried to propitiate her by bringing groundsel and chickweed for her Canary-bird, running to meet her with an umbrella when she happened to be caught in the rain, and other small attentions, which were repelled with absolute loathing.

“Me same flesh and blood with you, missy, though skin be black,” cried poor Pompey one day when pushed to extremity by Fanny’s disdain, “same flesh and blood, missy!” a fact which the young lady denied with more than usual indignation; she looked at her own white skin, and she thought of his black one; and all the reasoning of her aunt failed to convince her, that where the outside was so different, the inside could by possibility be alike. At last Mrs. Delmont was fain to leave the matter to the great curer of all prejudices, called Time, who in this case seemed even slower in his operations than usual.

In the meanwhile, Fanny’s birthday approached, and as it was within a few days of that of her cousin, Emma Delmont, it was agreed to celebrate the two festivals together. Double feasting! double holiday! double presents! never was a gayer anniversary. Mrs. Delmont’s own gifts had been reserved to the conclusion of the jollity, and after the fruit was put on the table, two huge dolls, almost as big as real babies, were introduced to the little company. They excited and deserved universal admiration. The first was a young lady of the most delicate construction and the most elaborate ornament; a doll of the highest fashion, with sleeves like a bishop, a waist like a wasp, a magnificent bustle, and petticoats so full and so puffed out round the bottom, that the question of hoop or no hoop was stoutly debated between two of the elder girls. Her cheeks were very red, and her neck very white, and her ringlets in the newest possible taste. In short, she was so completely a la mode that a Parisian milliner might have sent her as a pattern to her fellow tradeswoman in London, or the London milliner might have returned the compliment to her sister artist over the water. Her glories, however, were fated to be eclipsed. The moment that the second doll made its appearance, the lady of fashion was looked at no longer.

The second doll was a young gentleman, habited in the striped and braided costume which is the ordinary transition dress of boys between leaving off petticoats and assuming the doublet and hose. It was so exactly like Willy Delmont’s own attire, that the astonished boy looked at himself, to be sure that the doll had not stolen his clothes off his back. The apparel, however, was not the charm that fixed the attention of the young people; the attraction was the complexion, which was of as deep and shining a black, as perfect an imitation of a black boy, in tint and feature, as female ingenuity could accomplish. The face, neck, arms, and legs were all covered with black silk; and much skill was shown in shaping and sewing on the broad flat nose, large ears, and pouting lips, whilst the white teeth and bright round eyes relieved the monotony of the colour. The wig was of black worsted, knitted, and then unravelled, as natural as if it had actually grown on the head. Perhaps the novelty (for none of the party had seen a black doll before) might increase the effect, but they all declared that they had never seen so accurate an imitation, so perfect an illusion. Even Fanny, who at first sight had almost taken the doll for her old enemy Pompey in little, and had shrunk back accordingly, began at last to catch some of the curiosity (for curiosity is a catching passion) that characterised her companions. She drew near – she gazed – at last she even touched the doll, and listened with some interest to Mrs. Belmont’s detail of the trouble she found in constructing the young lady and gentleman.

“What are they made of, aunt?”

“Rags, my dear!” was the reply: “nothing but rags,” continued Mrs. Delmont, unripping a little of the black gentleman’s foot and the white lady’s arm, and showing the linen of which they were composed-; – “both alike, Fanny,” pursued her good aunt, “both the same colour underneath the skin, and both the work of the same hand – like Pompey and you,” added she more solemnly; “and now choose which doll you will.”

And Fanny, blushing and hesitating, chose the black one; and the next day her aunt had the pleasure to see her show it to Pompey over the wall, to his infinite delight; and, in a very few days, Mrs. Delmont had the still greater pleasure to find that Fanny Elvington had not only overcome and acknowledged her prejudice, but had given Pompey a new half-crown, and had accepted groundsel for her Canary-bird from the poor black boy.

NOTE. — About a month after sitting to me for his portrait, the young black gentleman whom I have endeavoured to describe, (I do not mean Pompey, but the doll,) set out upon his travels. He had been constructed in this little Berkshire of ours for some children in the great county of York, and a friend of mine, travelling northward, had the goodness to offer him a place in her carriage for the journey. My friend was a married woman, accompanied by her husband and another lady, and finding the doll cumbersome to pack, wrapped it in a large shawl, and carried it in her lap baby fashion. At the first inn where they stopped to dine, she handed it carelessly out of the carriage before alighting, and was much amused to see it received with the grave officious tenderness usually shown to a real infant by the nicely dressed hostess, whose consternation, when, still taking it for a living child, she caught a glimpse of the complexion, is said to have been irresistibly ludicrous. Of course my friend did not undeceive her. Indeed I believe she humoured the mistake wherever it occurred all along the north road, to the unspeakable astonishment and mystification of chambermaids and waiters.

The Strangers cropped

This story was written by Mary Russell Mitford, a noted writer in the first half of the nineteenth century. Her life story is remarkable, I won’t go into details, please look her up, but she finally achieved success with her stories about rural life. These were first published in various magazines, and then brought together in several volumes under the collective title of Our Village. The Two Dolls is to be found in the fourth volume published in 1830, and subsequently included in one of many collections of her stories called Children of the Village.

These stories are based upon her life in Three Mile Cross near Reading in Berkshire, including a mixture of real and imaginary people. One real person, who appears in the background of several stories, was a professional doll maker. So I suspect that the doll was real (and probably the story of his travels to Yorkshire are true), though Pompey and Fanny Elvington are just delightful and remarkable fiction.

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Sir Walter Scott & Jane Austen – a matter of admiration.

Today is the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of the great writer, Sir Walter Scott, The Wizard of the North. This is something I wrote a few years ago concerning the mutual admiration the two greatest novelists of the day had for each other’s work. The Wizard of the North.

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To Swing or be Swung – a puzzle from the Long Eighteenth Century

Today, the Times published a piece on some work being carried out on one of the treasures of the Wallace Collection, the glorious work by Fragonard, The Happy Accidents of the Swing. In the article it mentioned that one of the things they hoped to discover was, if the elderly gentleman pushing the swing had originally been painted as a bishop, as a tale told about the paintings creation suggested.

This description of the elderly gentleman ‘pushing’ the swing is repeated in both the Wallace Collection’s catalogue and on their website. However if you look closely at the painting you will see that he is not ‘pushing’ the swing, rather he is ‘pulling’ it using a pair of ropes.

And that is the puzzle, if you look at illustrations, and surviving examples, of swings over the centuries it is clear that they were either swung by the person on the swing, or pushed from behind. This happened across Europe, Asia and Africa from the second millennium BC until the present, apart from in Europe during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, there the swing was swung by ropes.

'The Swing' by Nicolas Lancret 1735


Why this should be is a mystery, certainly at this time swinging was seen as an adult, as well as a child’s, recreation and was prescribed as a suitable exercise for elderly persons. Certainly the use of ropes would make swinging an elderly lady or gentleman easier, when they couldn’t swing themselves or it would be inappropriate to push them.

Philibert Louis Debucourt, Modes et Manières No. 9- L'Escarpolette


Also swinging was regarded as an ‘adult’ activity in that a young lady could be swung so that a viewer could have an ‘interesting’ view like the lover in Fragonard’s painting. This ‘activity’ is described in the remarkable poetic description of the great gardens at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, by Gilbert West in 1732.

A cool Recess there is, not far away,
Sacred to Love, to Mirth, and rural Play.
Hither oftimes the youthful Fair resort,
To cheat the tedious Hours with various Sport.
Some mid the Nine-pins marshall’d Orders roll,
With Aim unerring the impetuous Bowl.
Others, whose Souls to loftier Objects move,
Delight the Swing’s advent’rous Joys to prove:
While on each side the ready Lovers stand,
The flying Cord obeys th’ impulsive Hand.
As on a Day contending Rivals strove,
By manly Strength to recommend their Love;

Toss’d to and fro, up flew the giddy Fair,
And scream’d, and laugh’d, and play’d in upper Air.
The flutt’ring Coats the rapid Motion find,
And One by One admit the swelling Wind:
At length the last, white, subtile Veil withdrew,
And those mysterious Charms expos’d to view—
What Transport then, O — possess’d thy Soul!
Down from thy Hand, down dropt the idle Bowl:
As for the skilful Tip prepar’d you stood,
And Hopes and Fears alarm’d th’ expecting Croud.
Sudden to seize the beauteous Prey he sprung;
Sudden with Shrieks the echoing Thicket rung.

But the swing was also used by children, with the pulling ropes attached, though with a much more innocent purpose.
In the delightfully titled; Healthful Sports for Young Ladies of 1822, is a description of a swing that would make a modern health and safety enthusiast proud.

1 The Swing

The posts which supported the swing were a little decayed since the preceding year, but they were soon repaired. Madame D’Hernilly recommended prudence to the young people in partaking of this amusement, and, as an additional precaution, she took care to be present whenever they enjoyed it, and strictly ordered that no one should swing in her absence. They were prohibited standing upon the seat; neither were two persons allowed to get in at the same time; Ernestina, or Aglaé, or another of their friends, placed themselves by turns upon the seat, which was furnished with a soft cushion; and, while the one who took the exercise grasped the cords tightly with her two hands, two or three of her companions pulled the end of the cord, and thus made it go backward and forward.


And that is almost the last mention of ropes pulling a swing. I have seen a few later pictures, but these are clearly inspired by earlier works. Why they appeared, why they disappeared, I don’t know, but it is little puzzles like this that can make history so fascinating.


[The man (certainly no gentlemen) who pursued the young lady in the gardens at Stowe was a local clergyman, Conway Rand. Randy had been used as a term for a drunken gathering before this date, but it is only after this time it is used for a man who is sexually excited. Officially the origin of that meaning of the word is unknown – but perhaps?]

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The Magpie Song

Here is another traditional poem, illustrated by Georgian and later genre pictures (but without any birds).

One for sorrow,

1 Antoine Jean Duclaux La reine Hortense sous une tonnelle à Aix-les-Bains 1813

Two for joy,

2 Charles Haigh Wood - The Engagement

Three for a girl,

Grandmother's Birthday

Four for a boy,

4 Francis Cotes - Portrait of Master Smith

Five for silver,

5 Frédéric Soulacroix Correspondance

Six for gold,

6 George Dunlop Leslie - The Goldfish Seller

Seven for a secret never to be told.

7 Caspar David Friedrich - Moonrise over the sea

If you like this you might like these. Here’s to the Maiden, Dashing away with a Smoothing Iron and Monday’s child.

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Blunders in two Emmas or Anachronistic Tree Blossoms

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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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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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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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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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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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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