“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.
20 June 1824
‘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.
“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
10 June 1824
Miss Sophia Stocks groaned slightly as she tried to find a more comfortable position to lie on the sofa, she was pleased to be allowed out of bed, but wanted to be back on her feet. She knew she had things to do. Her aunt came bustling in, a letter and magazine in her hand.
“You see he was a foolish man, he didn’t understand the science.”
“Who didn’t understand the science?”
“Yes he did, it was a fault in the valve, not the science of it.”
“No, not those silly things people talk of as science, but the true science.”
She waved the magazine again, Sophia saw the title The British Astrologer it had a crude woodcut on the cover – of a collapsed balloon!
The illustration from The British Astrologer
“Your aunt Jemima sent it from Bath, it tells why that foolish man was killed and you..”
“He was not foolish!” Sophia grabbed at the magazine. He aunt pulled it away, “No, you shouldn’t get excited.”
“If you won’t let me see it, at least read it to me.”
Her aunt sat down.
“Very well, now lie still.”
She sat, put on her glasses and began.
‘While I sympathize with his dearest friends in lamenting the untimely death of Mr. Harris, who, when he ascended into the clouds in his balloon, bade them, and the thousands whose cheers accompanied him, farewell for ever, I feel it necessary to say, for the good of other intrepid and enterprising candidates for popular applause, that no gallant adventurer should have exposed himself to a danger that admitted of delay, under the fatal prognostics that were pending. The planet Jupiter came into the point of the Dragon’s tail in the ominous sign Cancer but a few hours preceding the ascent; the planet having been, at the precise moment of his baleful transit of the node, in a partial square with the moon.
This anyone, who understands the least of the science, will say is enough: for there are records of all ages to testify, that such an aspect could not be expected to pass by without leaving behind it many fresh examples of its fatality; and a forewarning which portends death, or indeed accidental mischance, should not be tempted, on any consideration, by those who embark in aerial expeditions.’
The reason I give of the life of his fair companion having been so wonderfully preserved, is, that Venus, Georgium Sidus, and Mars, being mutually in trine with one another, was a most lucky aspect for her, as a female, and foreshowed her recovery.’
Sophia listened in amazement then, when her aunt lowered the magazine with almost a triumphant air, burst out,
“But Sophia, Mr Harris was not at all dreadful, just misguided, to try and fly when….” She peered at the magazine again.
“Jupiter was sitting on the dragons tail. I heard, Mr Harris wasn’t at all dreadful, in fact he saved my life, the dreadful man was whoever wrote that rubbish.”
“Mr Raphael isn’t dreadful at all, he is just a very wise man who is trying to show how …”
“He can make money out of somebody else’s tragedy. Oh, Mary!”
“What’s that? Who?”
“Mary, Mrs Harris. If she were to see this rubbish.” She got up, and winced.
“I must go to her at once.”
“But Sophia, should you?”
“Isn’t visiting a bereaved widow one of the things a charitable young lady should do? I am sure you told me once or twice.”
She winced again as she left the room, but was careful not to show it. Neither did she show her discomfort an hour later as she was shown into the small parlour of Mary Harris’s house.
On the way there she had worried about what she was going to say, she had written to her as soon as she recovered consciousness, but had received no reply. So she was feeling very nervous as she stepped into the room.
“Oh, I am sorry!”
“Oh, I am sorry!”
They said simultaneously, then looked at each other in surprise. Stepped up to each other and hugged.
“I am so sorry, you were almost killed!”
“No, I’m all right, but you, how are you, poor Mr Harris.”
“For some years I was married to a soldier, then a balloonist, I always knew that this might happen.”
For a few minutes they sat in silence, then Sophia noticed a copy of The British Astrologer on the table.
“Oh, you have seen it. I am sorry.”
“Yes, but it is so silly, there have been much worse.”
“Yes, Mr Sadler, he was once Thomas’s partner, but quarrelled with him and is now saying that not only was his valve a stupid idea but his other ideas were stupid as well. He is a balloonist as was his father and people are listening to him. Thomas had invented a lightning conductor for ships, the East India Company were interested in fitting it to their vessels, now I learn they are ‘reconsidering’.”
“Is there anything that can be done?”
“If the balloon could fly again perhaps, and show that the valve works, but who would want to take the risk? I have tried to sell it but no one wants a balloon that killed its builder.”
“I am a wealthy woman.” Said Sophia, Mary went to say something. Sophia ignored her.
“I know you won’t take any money from me as a gift, but you will sell me the balloon.”
“Sell you the balloon! What on earth will you do with it?”
“First you need the money, then…..” she suddenly had an amazing idea, she knew what she had to do, she looked at her friend. “ I will fly it of course. I will show Mr Sadler and all the East India Company that your husband was no fool!”
To be continued
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