25 May 1824
Miss Sophia Stocks considered that there were some advantages to being an orphan. Of course she would have loved to have had parents, but her father had been killed in the war when she was a baby, and her mother had died shortly afterwards, so she had no memories of them. She had been raised by two kind aunts, and been shuttled between their homes in London and Bath (attending schools in both those cities), so now, at the age of eighteen she was well practiced in all the official ‘female accomplishments’, and was also, according to her uncle in York, who looked after her property, a considerable heiress.
It was for this reason that she was now in London, where her aunt was supposed to be ‘introducing her into society’, so that she could make a suitable match. Sophia was finding this incredibly boring, the men she was meeting were either very bored with her, or very interested in, she suspected, her fortune. The only good thing to come out of this latest visit to London was her meeting with Mr and Mrs Harris. Mr Harris had known her father in Spain, and his young wife Mary was very friendly, and it was because of them that Sophia was about to do something that, if she had had parents, she guessed would have forbidden. She had told her aunt that she was going to make a short trip with her friends, and her aunt had said nothing, she had completely forgotten how excited her niece had been when she had learnt that Mr Harris was a balloonist!
The carriage swung into Vauxhall Gardens where the green and yellow balloon towered over the trees. As they approached the launching point the gates were opened for them, shutting behind them to keep out the people who hadn’t paid for a close view of the launch.
“Are you sure?” Mary asked as they climbed down.
“Of course”, replied Sophia, as she walked towards the balloon. Now was not the time to show fear, she had been amazed at her temerity a week earlier when she had heard how Mr Harris’ companion had quarrelled with him and refused to fly. Mary had explained that she had flown in the past, but would not now her baby had been born, Sophia had suddenly said that she would accompany him in the balloon, and almost immediately been accepted.
Mary sat to one side as Mr Harris led Sophie round the balloon, pointing out the various features of the craft, in particular he was very proud of a new valve, which she could just see at the top of the balloon, a cord led from it down to the gondola.
“It will enable me to release gas from the envelope. A little will make the balloon descend where I want to, then as soon as we have landed I can release a lot, indeed all, of the remaining gas and the envelope will collapse and not drag the gondola across the ground.”
After more explanations he climbed into the basket, a box had been placed beside it for her to use like a mounting block, she stepped up and, to cheers from some of the crowd, swung herself into the gondola. The reporters present were impressed by her complete lack of fear.
The main weights were released, the balloon rose a few feet, held by six strong men. Then, at Mr Harris’s order the lines where released and they were off. The basket swung from side to side for a moment then settled down, she was aware of the strange sensation of her feet pressing into the basket, then looked around and gasped.
They were already above the rooftops of London, in the distance she could see the dome of St Pauls, they seemed to be higher than that, it was the most wonderful feeling she had ever had. For a while she admired the view, then turned to Mr Harris, he was bent by the barometer. She knelt and helped him take the reading as he explained how the barometer readings would enable them to calculate how high they had flown.
For the next hour she learnt how to fly a balloon, how to drop tiny quantities of ballast to rise, ‘a handful of sand it all that is required’, he said, and how to release small amounts of gas from the neck of the balloon to descend.
“Why haven’t you used the valve?” she asked.
“Because it is still experimental, if I release too much the balloon may have to land, and I want to wait until I know I can land safely.”
Sophia nodded and watched until they had passed over a small town.
“Croydon, I think.” He commented, “Now let’s see what the valve will do?”
He pulled the cord, there was a click from above then a rushing sound. The balloon lurched, he tugged again and again on the cord.
“No!” he shouted.
“What is it?” she shouted back, the wind was rushing by her now, upwards!
“The valve is stuck open, all the gas is venting, we are falling too fast.”
“Then let’s slow our descent at least.”
She unfastened one of the bags of sand and dropped it overboard. As the ballast fell away the balloon slowed its descent slightly, but they were still falling too fast. The instruments followed, then he pulled off his coat and boots, she dropped her pelisse over the side and pulled her dress over her head and that too tumbled to the ground.
She touched her chemise, and said with a sad smile.
“That could go as well, but I don’t think it would be of any use.”
“No,” he shouted, “there is only one thing that might help.”
He climbed onto the side of the basket.
“Just before we hit the ground I will try and jump into the trees. The loss of my weight should give the balloon enough lift so you can land safely.”
A French Illustration of Thomas Harris’s Death
“No!” she screamed, as he jumped. A few moments later the basket hit the ground she tried to hold on but was thrown out, she heard a crashing sound, there was sudden pain, and then nothing.
Another French Illustration
“It’s a woman.”
She opened her eyes to see a surprised man looking down at her.
“Yes, I’m a woman.” She replied and tried to get up, she managed to stand for a second, then dropped to the ground again.
“Where is Mr Harris?” she asked looking around. The man looked up then there was a shout from the woods nearby. Then two men stepped out carrying something between them, it was Mr Harris and he was clearly dead. For the first time in her life Miss Sophia Stocks fainted.
To be continued
The Fallen Balloon