The Dominion of the Air; the Story of Aerial Navigation

Author: John Mackenzie Bacon

Chapter X. The Commencement of a New Era.

Resuming the roll of progressive aeronauts in England whose labours were devoted to the practical conquest of the air, and whose methods and mechanical achievements mark the road of advance by which the successes of to-day have been obtained, there stand out prominently two individuals, of whom one has already received mention in these pages.

The period of a single life is seldom sufficient to allow within its span the full development of any new departure in art or science, and it cannot, therefore, be wondered at if Charles Green, though reviving and re-modelling the art of ballooning in our own country, even after an exceptionally long and successful career, left that pursuit to which he had given new birth virtually still in its infancy.

The year following that in which Green conducted the famous Nassau voyage we find him experimenting in the same balloon with his chosen friend and colleague, Edward Spencer, solicitor, of Barnsbury, who, only nine years later, compiles memoranda of thirty-four ascents, made under every variety of circumstance, many being of a highly enterprising nature. We find him writing enthusiastically of the raptures he experienced when sailing over London in night hours, of lofty ascents and extremely low temperatures, of speeding twenty-eight miles in twenty minutes, of grapnel ropes breaking, and of a cross-country race of four miles through woods and hedges. Such was Mr. Spencer the elder, and if further evidence were needed of his practical acquaintance with, as well as personal devotion to, his adopted profession of aeronautics, we have it in the store of working calculations and other minutiae of the craft, most carefully compiled in manuscript by his own hand; these memoranda being to this day constantly consulted by his grandsons, the present eminent aeronauts, Messrs. Spencer Brothers, as supplying a manual of reliable data for the execution of much of the most important parts of their work.

In the terrific ordeal and risk entailed by the daring and fatal parachute descent of Cocking, Green required an assistant of exceptional nerve and reliability, and, as has been recorded, his choice at once fell on Edward Spencer. In this choice it has already been shown that he was well justified, and in the trying circumstances that ensued Green frankly owns that it was his competent companion who was the first to recover himself. A few years later, when a distinguished company, among whom were Albert Smith and Shirley Brooks, made a memorable ascent from Cremorne, Edward Spencer is one of the select party.

Some account of this voyage should be given, and it need not be said that no more graphic account is to be found than that given by the facile pen of Albert Smith himself. His personal narrative also forms an instructive contrast to another which he had occasion to give to the world shortly afterwards, and which shall be duly noticed. The enthusiastic writer first describes, with apparent pride, the company that ascended with him. Besides Mr. Shirley Brooks, there were Messrs. Davidson, of the Garrick Club; Mr. John Lee, well known in theatrical circles; Mr. P. Thompson, of Guy’s Hospital, and others—ten in all, including Charles Green as skipper, and Edward Spencer, who, sitting in the rigging, was entrusted with the all-important management of the valve rope.

"The first sensation experienced," Albert Smith continues, "was not that we were rising, but that the balloon remained fixed, whilst all the world below was rapidly falling away; while the cheers with which they greeted our departure grew fainter, and the cheerers themselves began to look like the inmates of many sixpenny Noah’s Arks grouped upon a billiard table.... Our hats would have held millions.... And most strange is the roar of the city as it comes surging into the welkin as though the whole metropolis cheered you with one voice.... Yet none beyond the ordinary passengers are to be seen. The noise is as inexplicable as the murmur in the air at hot summer noontide."

The significance of this last remark will be insisted on when the writer has to tell his own experiences aloft over London, as also a note to the effect that there were seen "large enclosed fields and gardens and pleasure grounds where none were supposed to exist by ordinary passengers." Another interesting note, having reference to a once familiar feature on the river, now disappearing, related to the paddle boats of those days, the steamers making a very beautiful effect, "leaving two long wings of foam behind them similar to the train of a table rocket." Highly suggestive, too, of the experiences of railway travellers in the year 1847 is the account of the alighting, which, by the way, was obviously of no very rude nature. "Every time," says the writer, "the grapnel catches in the ground the balloon is pulled up suddenly with a shock that would soon send anybody from his seat, a jerk like that which occurs when fresh carriages are brought up to a railway train." But the concluding paragraph in this rosy narrative affords another and a very notable contrast to the story which that same writer had occasion to put on record before that same year had passed.

"We counsel everybody to go up in a balloon... In spite of the apparent frightful fragility of cane and network nothing can in reality be more secure... The stories of pressure on the ears, intense cold, and the danger of coming down are all fictions.... Indeed, we almost wanted a few perils to give a little excitement to the trip, and have some notion, if possible, of going up the next time at midnight with fireworks in a thunderstorm, throwing away all the ballast, fastening down the valve, and seeing where the wind will send us."

The fireworks, the thunderstorm, and the throwing away of ballast, all came off on the 15th of the following October, when Albert Smith made his second ascent, this time from Vauxhall Gardens, under the guidance of Mr. Gypson, and accompanied by two fellow-passengers. Fireworks, which were to be displayed when aloft, were suspended on a framework forty feet below the car. Lightning was also playing around as they cast off. The description which Albert Smith gives of London by night as seen from an estimated elevation of 4,000 feet, should be compared with other descriptions that will be given in these pages:—

"In the obscurity all traces of houses and enclosures are lost sight of. I can compare it to nothing else than floating over dark blue and boundless sea spangled with hundreds of thousands of stars. These stars were the lamps. We could see them stretching over the river at the bridges, edging its banks, forming squares and long parallel lines of light in the streets and solitary parks. Further and further apart until they were altogether lost in the suburbs. The effect was bewildering."

At 7,000 feet, one of the passengers, sitting in the ring, remarked that the balloon was getting very tense, and the order was given to "ease her" by opening the top valve. The valve line was accordingly pulled, "and immediately afterwards we heard a noise similar to the escape of steam in a locomotive, and the lower part of the balloon collapsed rapidly, and appeared to fly up into the upper portion. At the same instant the balloon began to fall with appalling velocity, the immense mass of loose silk surging and rustling frightfully over our heads.... retreating up away from us more and more into the head of the balloon. The suggestion was made to throw everything over that might lighten the balloon. I had two sandbags in my lap, which were cast away directly.... There were several large bags of ballast, and some bottles of wine, and these were instantly thrown away, but no effect was perceptible. The wind still appeared to be rushing up past us at a fearful rate, and, to add to the horror, we came among the still expiring discharge of the fireworks which floated in the air, so that little bits of exploded cases and touch-paper, still incandescent, attached themselves to the cordage of the balloon and were blown into sparks.... I presume we must have been upwards of a mile from the earth.... How long we were descending I have not the slightest idea, but two minutes must have been the outside.... We now saw the houses, the roofs of which appeared advancing to meet us, and the next instant, as we dashed by their summits, the words, ’Hold hard!’ burst simultaneously from all the party.... We were all directly thrown out of the car along the ground, and, incomprehensible as it now appears to me, nobody was seriously hurt."

But "not so incomprehensible, after all," will be the verdict of all who compare the above narrative with the ascents given in a foregoing account of how Wise had fared more than once when his balloon had burst. For, as will be readily guessed, the balloon had in this case also burst, owing to the release of the upper valve being delayed too long, and the balloon had in the natural way transformed itself into a true parachute. Moreover, the fall, which, by Albert Smith’s own showing, was that of about a mile in two minutes, was not more excessive than one which will presently be recorded of Mr. Glaisher, who escaped with no material injury beyond a few bruises.

One fact has till now been omitted with regard to the above sensational voyage, namely, the name of the passenger who, sitting in the ring, was the first to point out the imminent danger of the balloon. This individual was none other than Mr. Henry Coxwell, the second, indeed, of the two who were mentioned in the opening paragraph of this chapter as marking the road of progress which it is the scope of these pages to trace, and to whom we must now formally introduce our readers.

This justly famous sky pilot, whose practical acquaintance with ballooning extends over more than forty years, was the son of a naval officer residing near Chatham, and in his autobiography he describes enthusiastically how, a lad of nine years old, he watched through a sea telescope a balloon, piloted by Charles Green, ascend from Rochester and, crossing the Thames, disappear in distance over the Essex flats. He goes on to describe how the incident started him in those early days on boyish endeavours to construct fire balloons and paper parachutes. Some years later his home, on the death of his father, being transferred to Eltham, he came within frequent view of such balloons as, starting from the neighbourhood of London, will through the summer drift with the prevailing winds over that part of Kent. And it was here that, ere long, he came in at the death of another balloon of which Green was in charge.

And from this time onwards the schoolboy with the strange hobby was constantly able to witness the flights and even the inflations of those ships of the air, which, his family associations notwithstanding took precedence of all boyish diversions.

His elder brother, now a naval officer, entirely failed to divert his aspirations into other channels, and it was when the boy had completed sixteen summers that an aeronautic enterprise attracted not only his own, but public attention also. It was the building of a mammoth balloon at Vauxhall under the superintendence of Mr. Green. The launching of this huge craft when completed was regarded as so great an occasion that the young Coxwell, who had by this time obtained a commercial opening abroad, was allowed, at his earnest entreaty, to stay till the event had come off, and fifty years after the hardened sky sailor is found describing with a boyish enthusiasm how thirty-six policemen were needed round that balloon; how enormous weights were attached to the cordage, only to be lifted feet above the ground; while the police were compelled to pass their staves through the meshes to prevent the cords cutting their hands. At this ascent Mr. Hollond was a passenger, and by the middle of the following November all Europe was ringing with the great Nassau venture.

Commercial business did not suit the young Coxwell, and at the age of one-and-twenty we find him trying his hand at the profession of surgeon-dentist, not, however, with any prospect of its keeping him from the longing of his soul, which grew stronger and stronger upon him. It was not till the summer of 1844 that Mr. Hampton, giving an exhibition from the White Conduit Gardens, Pentonville, offered the young man, then twenty-five years old, his first ascent.

In after years Coxwell referred to his first sensations in characteristic language, contrasting them with the experiences of the mountaineer. "In Alpine travels," he says, "the process is so slow, and contact with the crust of the earth so palpable, that the traveller is gradually prepared for each successive phase of view as it presents itself. But in the balloon survey, cities, villages, and vast tracts for observation spring almost magically before the eye, and change in aspect and size so pleasingly that bewilderment first and then unbounded admiration is sure to follow."

The ice was now fairly broken, and, not suffering professional duties to be any hindrance, Coxwell began to make a series of ascents under the leadership of two rival balloonists, Gale and Gypson. One voyage made with the latter he describes as leading to the most perilous descent in the annals of aerostation. This was the occasion, given above, on which Albert Smith was a passenger, and which that talented writer describes in his own fashion. He does not, however, add the fact, worthy of being chronicled, that exactly a week after the appalling adventure Gypson and Coxwell, accompanied by a Captain whose name does not transpire, and loaded with twice the previous weight of fireworks, made a perfectly successful night ascent and descent in the same balloon.

It is very shortly after this that we find Coxwell seduced into undertaking for its owners the actual management of a balloon, the property of Gale, and now to be known as the "Sylph." With this craft he practically began his career as a professional balloonist, and after a few preliminary ascents made in England, was told off to carry on engagements in Belgium.

A long series of ascents was now made on the Continent, and in the troubled state of affairs some stirring scenes were visited, not without some real adventure. One occasion attended with imminent risk occurred at Berlin in 1851. Coxwell relates that a Prussian labourer whom he had dismissed for bad conduct, and who almost too manifestly harboured revenge, nevertheless begged hard for a re-engagement, which, as the man was a handy fellow, Coxwell at length assented to. He took up three passengers beside himself, and at an elevation of some 3,000 feet found it necessary to open the valve, when, on pulling the cord, one of the top shutters broke and remained open, leaving a free aperture of 26 inches by 12 inches, and occasioning such a copious discharge of gas that nothing short of a providential landing could save disaster. But the providential landing came, the party falling into the embrace of a fruit tree in an orchard. It transpired afterwards that the labourer had been seen to tamper with the valve, the connecting lines of which he had partially severed.

Returning to England in 1852 Coxwell, through the accidents inseparable from his profession, found himself virtually in possession of the field. Green, now advanced in years, was retiring from the public life in which he had won so much fame and honour. Gale was dead, killed in an ascent at Bordeaux. Only one aspirant contested the place of public aeronaut—one Goulston, who had been Gale’s patron. Before many months, however, he too met with a balloonist’s death, being dashed against some stone walls when ascending near Manchester.

It will not be difficult to form an estimate of how entirely the popularity of the balloon was now reestablished in England, from the mere fact that before the expiration of the year Coxwell had been called upon to make thirty-six voyages. Some of these were from Glasgow, and here a certain coincidence took place which is too curious to be omitted. A descent effected near Milngavie took place in the same field in which Sadler, twenty-nine years before, had also descended, and the same man who caught the rope of Mr. Sadler’s balloon performed the same service once again for a fresh visitor from the skies.

The following autumn Coxwell, in fulfilling one out of many engagements, found himself in a dilemma which bore resemblance in a slight degree to a far more serious predicament in which the writer became involved, and which must be told in due place. The preparations for the ascent, which was from the Mile End Road, had been hurried, and after finally getting away at a late hour in the evening, it was found that the valve line had got caught in a fold of the silk, and could not be operated. In consequence, the balloon was, of necessity, left to take its own chance through the night, and, after rising to a considerable height, it slowly lost buoyancy during the chilly hours, and, gradually settling, came to earth near Basingstoke, where the voyager, failing to get help or shelter, made his bed within his own car, lying in an open field, as other aeronauts have had to do in like circumstances.

Coxwell tells of a striking phenomenon seen during that voyage. "A splendid meteor was below the car, and apparently about 600 feet distant. It was blue and yellow, moving rapidly in a N.E. direction, and became extinguished without noise or sparks."


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Chicago: John Mackenzie Bacon, "Chapter X. The Commencement of a New Era.," The Dominion of the Air; the Story of Aerial Navigation, ed. Smiles, Samuel, 1812-1904 in The Dominion of the Air; the Story of Aerial Navigation Original Sources, accessed July 20, 2024,

MLA: Bacon, John Mackenzie. "Chapter X. The Commencement of a New Era." The Dominion of the Air; the Story of Aerial Navigation, edited by Smiles, Samuel, 1812-1904, in The Dominion of the Air; the Story of Aerial Navigation, Original Sources. 20 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: Bacon, JM, 'Chapter X. The Commencement of a New Era.' in The Dominion of the Air; the Story of Aerial Navigation, ed. . cited in , The Dominion of the Air; the Story of Aerial Navigation. Original Sources, retrieved 20 July 2024, from