Early balloon flights from Rochester

Coal-gas balloon flights from Rochester!

The invention of the balloon was a technical and theatrical marvel of the 19th Century; balloons, wherever they were inflated or exhibited, drew huge crowds.

Rochester was well placed to be on the balloonist’s circuit because it had a gasworks. Early gas-filled balloons were inflated with hydrogen that was both expensive and difficult to transport, but this was soon replaced with coal/town gas that was more readily available and was, so to speak, ‘on tap’.The first record found of a balloon ascent in Rochester was from the Bull Inn on Wednesday 6th June 1827.  The entrance fee to the yard was 2s, whilst access to the Bull’s ballroom, that had been made available to accommodate ladies, was 3s. This was a considerable amount of money, approximately £9 and £13.50 at today’s prices , so it’s little wonder that crowds assembled early to secure vantage points on the bridge and castle, as well as other elevated positions around the city .

The balloonist on this occasion was Henry Green, brother of the celebrated Charles Green. He was to be accompanied on his assent by an associate and Mr. Rawlings, and a Rochester man, who had paid £10 [£880] for the privilege .

The inflation of the balloon, which required 20,000 cubic feet of gas, commenced around 12 noon under the superintendence of Mr. Bacon an engineer to the Rochester gas works. Once fully inflated the balloon stood 60ft high and had a circumference of 40ft.

At 5pm the ropes were loosened to commence the ascent when the wind caught the balloon and dashed it against nearby houses causing two or three rents in the balloon. With assistance from those on the ground the balloon was pulled back down. Although the balloon had been damaged Henry Green did not want to disappoint the crowds and therefore decided that as the tears were below the cone he would attempt another ascent. However with less gas it was necessary to lighten the load so Mr. Rawlings was not able to take his expected ride. The second attempt was more successful and the balloon eventually made a safe landing 35 minutes later in a bean field between Rainham and Newington. The reporter for the South Eastern Gazette recorded disappointment that the numbers that turned out was not as great as expected or the exhibition deserved.

Presumably to offer some recompense to Mr. Rawlings, a further Rochester ascent was planned for Thursday 19th July 1827 but it needed to be abandoned because of very “boisterous and unfavourable weather”. Although the “numerous and respectable crowd were disappointed they did not betray any angry feelings”.  Not to be deterred Mr. Green tried again on Tuesday 24th July from an unspecified location in Rochester. The inflation, watched by a crowd of several thousand, began around 4pm with gas from the Rochester gasometer. At 5:30pm Mr. & Mrs. Green and Mr.Rawlings took their seats in the car. The balloon was loosed and rose majestically into the air to the sounds of a band and the acclamations of thousands of people. The balloon eventually landed, with assistance from some farm workers, in a field about 5 miles outside Southend. The voyage, which was not uneventful, lasted 1.75 hours during which it travelled a circuitous route of 78 miles .

No further press reports of balloon flights from Rochester have been found – as of yet – until 1838 when Mr. John Hampton made ascents from Rochester. However Henry Coxwell, in his memoirs, recalls watching with his father from the Chatham Lines, an ascent from Rochester in 1828.

Henry Coxwell from Wouldham, who was to become a self-confessed Balloonatic and champion of the military use of balloons, recalls witnessing an ascent by Mr. Green from Rochester, which he described as the first event of its kind in this part of Kent. He goes on to describe the balloon travelling across Chatham Dockyard and eventually landing in Essex.

As Henry Coxwell is recalling an event he witnessed when he was eight or nine, he could have been mistaken as to the actual year and the significance of the event as the first known ascent landed in Rainham, Kent, not Essex as Henry recalled. He was almost certainly not describing an ascent in 1838 as at the age of 19 he would not have been short enough, as he described, for him to stand in front of his father so his father could use his shoulder as a rest for his spyglass. One is therefore left to wonder whether he witnessed the 26 July 1827 ascent that was by Henry Green, that did land in Essex and probably would have passed over Chatham Dockyard.

If this is the case perhaps the launch-site could have been on the common land close to the gasworks? This possibility has a number of things going for it; proximity to the gasometer, some distance from buildings that caused damage during the earlier ascent, and the Chatham Lines would have been a better vantage point than the castle for viewing an ascent from the common. Some reports of the 6 June 1838 ascent state it was from the Bowling Green of the Bull Inn. It is possible that there was a Bowling Green in the Bull Yard but no evidence for this has been found, and it was a busy coaching inn. Rochester though did have a bowling green. The 1633 Medway Alnwick Map, which is more of a diagrammatic representation of Rochester than a map, shows a bowling green adjoining the New Churchyard (cattle market / Corporation St. car park) – approximating to an area between the now Northgate and Blue Boar Lane. What hasn’t been determined is whether the Bull Inn owned or leased the land described as the Bull Bowling Green

Interest in ‘balloonfests’ seemed to wane in the 1830’s until Charles Green on 7 November 1836, made an epic 18-hour voyage from London in a huge balloon, crossing the channel and reaching the Duchy of Nassau (Germany). This established a new record for a balloon flight that lasted until the end of the 19th Century. To celebrate the successful voyage the balloon was renamed the Royal Nasseu. Residents of Rochester would probably have been able to see the balloon that was 157 feet in circumference and 80 feet high, early on in its voyage as it crossed the Medway seven miles south of Rochester. With press interest reawakened balloon ascents were once again reported.

Jumping ahead to 1838 and the ascents from Rochester undertaken by the balloonist John Hampton in that year – incidentally in the same year that he became the first Englishman to make a successful parachute descent.

The first record of an ascent in Rochester by John Hampton was made from “the City Tea Gardens, Eastgate, Rochester” on possibly 5th July 18387. The same ascent, as reported in the West Kent Guardian, stated it had been rescheduled from the 3rd, because of torrential rain, to Wednesday 4th July, and that the ascent was from the City Bowling Green, Eastgate . The “stupendous machine’ was inflated with gas that had been laid on from the main pipes of the street in Eastgate. “Several temporary ascents were made in the course of the evening for the purpose of gratifying the aspiring propensities of individuals among the highly respectable company assembled in the Gardens who, for a gratuity were allowed to accompany the aeronaut to the extent of several fathoms of line”.

Mr. Hampton made the untethered ascent alone. The wind took the balloon in the direction of the confluence of the Thames and Medway. This not being a desirable place to land Mr. Hampton released gas and deployed a grappling hook to safely land in the parish of Hoo around 8pm .

In a short piece in the Maidstone Journal & Kentish Advertiser published 17th July 1838, it was reported that Mr. Hampton planned a second ascent in his balloon from the city Bowling Green, Rochester, near the town pump. Indeed he did make a second ascent in his balloon, the ‘Albion’, from the City’s bowling green in Eastgate on the evening of Tuesday 17th July .

Reports of this ascent describe the balloon being ‘liberated’ from its tethers at about 7:15pm and bounding “through the air with the rapidity of an eagle.” It headed off in the direction of Hoo but as it gained height it was “driven at a fearful velocity towards the main ocean” leaving Mr. Hampton with no choice other than to ditch into the sea about 13 miles from Sheerness . Hampton and his balloon were picked up by a brig and eventually conveyed to Gravesend .

The accounts of these two ascents (4th & 17th July 1838) give a few more clues as to the location of the City’s ‘aerostation’.  In all probability both ascents took place from the same location because of the complexity of laying on a gas supply. The Eastgate pump – now relocated beside the Guildhall Museum – was positioned approximately opposite the Queen Charlotte pub, the site of which may have been ‘clear’ in 1838 and may well have faced onto land / marshes that continued on from the cattle market. A news report, unrelated to ballooning, reports that a meeting of the ‘Rochester True Blue Club’ took place in 1836 at Mr. Bulling’s bowling green, Cock Inn, Rochester . Although long-gone the Cock Inn was near what is now 172 High Street – the cafe opposite the Queen Charlotte PH – and thereby indicating the possibility that there was a bowling green in Eastgate. Taking all accounts of these two balloon ascents into consideration, and matching it with other news reports and local information, it seems quite possible that Rochester’s first ‘aerostation’ was not far from what is now the Queen Charlotte pub. But where was Rochester’s Tea Garden, or more precisely, as there could have been more than one, the garden from which John Hampton made his ascent in July 1838? In 1863 there was a business known as the “City Tea Mart” at Star Hill – could it have been trading 25 years earlier with a tea garden?

Further balloon excitement in Rochester was witnessed a few days later on Tuesday, 31st July 1838 when Mr. Green and four companion voyagers in the Royal Nassau balloon, descended in a field on Wichland farm on the Strood bank of the Medway, a short distance above Rochester Bridge. The huge balloon and the “multitudes of people from across the three towns” who rushed to the spot where it landed, did considerable damage to the crop . “The stupendous machine” left Vauxhall at 6:45pm and the aeronauts accompanied by Mr. Green alighted at 8:10pm. The party stayed a short while at the Crown Inn before departing Rochester at 11:30pm .

No further Balloonastic stories associated with Rochester have yet been found but it appears that ascents in tethered balloons continued to provide an attraction for some time at fetes. An advert for an event organised by the Ancient Order of Foresters to be held on the grounds of Mr J L Edwards, Maidstone Road, Rochester on 28 June, listed balloon ascents as one of the attractions . [Mr. James Latchford Edwards rented “Upper Delce Farm, St. Margaret’s, from the Rochester Bridge Trust .]

Our Own Balloonist – Henry Tracy Coxwell of Wouldham

One cannot end the Rochester account of ballooning without a little more information about Henry Tracy Coxwell who was born in the Parsonage in Wouldham in 1819. He was the youngest son of a naval commander and was inspired to take up ballooning after witnessing a balloon ascent from Rochester by Mr. Green. Henry went on to train as a dentist but adopted the name of Henry Wells for his ballooning, as he didn’t want his patients to think a Balloonatic was treating them. In 1848 he gave up dentistry and became a professional balloonist. He set up a balloon manufacturing company in Seaford, Sussex, and no doubt making use of his scientific training, specialised in ascents to make meteorological observations and to take aerial photographs. This probably led him to recognising the potential benefits that balloons could bring to the military.  Coxwell made various demonstrations to the British army with limited success, but the benefits that would come with having observation balloons was recognized by the Germans when the Franco-Prussian war broke out, and who put him in charge of forming two balloon companies for them .

There are many inconsistencies and contradictions in the contemporaneous news reports. I have endeavoured to resolve some of these in order to locate the sites on which particular events took place. However, some of the descriptions of places such as the “Eastgate Tea Garden” and the “Bull Bowling Green” defy verification. If you know the answer or where leads could be found, do please email me – geoff.rambler@me.com.

Geoff Rambler
12 December 2015

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