Balloon Madness

Balloon Madness

Early on the morning of 4 October 1784 a thirty-one-year-old pastry cook by the name of James Sadler took off close to Merton Field in a hot-air balloon.

‘I perceived no Inconvenience,’ he later commented, ‘and being disengaged from all terrestrial Things, contemplated a most charming distant View. With Pleasure and Admiration I beheld the Surface of the Earth like a large and extensive Plain, and felt myself perfectly agreeable.’

By the time Sadler came down to earth, some six miles away, near the village of Woodeaton, he had ascended an estimated 3,600 feet and written himself into the record books as England’s first aeronaut. 

It was yet another spectacular first for Oxford ­– and it caused a sensation. Overnight, Sadler became a national celebrity. Crowds in their thousands turned up to attend his subsequent lift-offs at a dozen different cities around the country. The great and the good serenaded him. He even got an invitation to meet the King. Not bad for a man from such humble beginnings who was, by all accounts, barely literate.

No fewer than three commemorative plaques in Oxford record his pioneering ascent: one in St Edmund Hall library, another on the wall of Deadman’s Walk, and a third in the Town Hall. Yet Sadler is no longer a household name in the city of his birth. Even those who have heard of the Montgolfier brothers in France don’t seem to be aware of our home-grown aeronautical hero … Tant pis!

Mention of France introduces the next chapter in Sadler’s remarkable story. For his engineering skills were put at the nation’s disposal as part of the ever-expanding Royal Navy, in whose service he patented a 32-pounder gun that was far more accurate than its predecessor and required only three men to operate it rather than twelve as before. ‘I would take on board the Victory as many guns as Mr Sadler could send alongside,’ declared Admiral Horatio Nelson in the weeks leading up to Trafalgar. 

‘A perfect prodigy of mechanics,’ was how one senior academic at the University described him. Among a host of experiments, Sadler conducted research into: the distillation of seawater; the seasoning of timber; air pumps; signal lights; and several models of steam engine. He even started a mineral water company, its bottling plant powered by a machine which, of course, he designed himself. Each bottle was distinctively emblazoned with his unmistakable motif ­– a flying balloon. 

Later in life, our hero took to the skies once more; but his love of all things aeronautical was dealt a tragic blow when, in 1824, his youngest son, Windham, died in a ballooning accident. James Sadler returned to the town of his birth to see out his last days. He died on 27 March 1828 and was buried in the graveyard of St Peter-in-the-East, the church in which he had been baptised seventy-five years earlier.

The craze for ballooning outlived him – a ‘madness’ charted in excellent books by Clare Brant, Mark Davies and Richard O. Smith (all three long-standing denizens of Oxford). And it remains popular to this day, not least thanks to the heroics of another local aeronaut, Richard Branson.

On summer evenings, with shadows lengthening across the stone of the buildings, look up and you may well see two, three, sometimes half a dozen balloons suspended like coloured pearls against the skyline.

And as you gaze at them, you can imagine the view from their baskets, down onto the packed detail of the colleges, the trim hedges and symmetrical rows of suburban housing, the straight lines of road, rail and canal, and beyond them the fields, lakes, sports grounds, and the loops of the rivers. 

From such a vantage point, with only the occasional gush of the burners to interrupt the floating serenity, you get a strong sense of the vale in which Oxford lies, the low green hills which enfold it, and the thermals which once carried James Sadler up, up and away.

STOP PRESS: Even as we write, there are plans for a spectacular memorial to James Sadler in Oxford. It will take the dramatic form of a tethered balloon suspended in the sky, a replica of the inflatable in which Sadler first ascended from Merton Field. It is the fulfillment of a dream first hatched by David Davies (RIP) and Dave Dunphy, both men of Oxfordshire, and it marks the culmination of fifteen years of planning and lobbying, cajoling and fundraising. The giant balloon will be located behind the Oxpens ice rink. Every fifteen minutes it will climb to a height of 150 feet, enabling passengers to rise above and look out over the dreaming spires, just as Sadler did two and a half centuries ago.

For more details see next month’s Feedback section.