SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: Croydon’s association with pioneering aviation is focused on the former airport. But DAVID MORGAN has found evidence of an historic flight over the town that took place almost 100 years before Britain’s first international airport was opened
The importance of Croydon Airport to the history of British aviation is (relatively) well known, but few of those even with a deep knowledge of the history of Croydon will know about a pioneering balloon flight that took place over the town in 1824, and which ended in tragedy.
The flight was some 40 years after the Montgolfier brothers had first taken passengers up in their balloon, watched by Marie Antionette, in 1783. The English Channel was first crossed in a balloon flight by Jean-Pierre Blanchard and Dr John Jeffries a year later.
But when a balloon was in flight over Croydon in the late afternoon of Monday, May 25, 1824, it was still a rare enough event that it was probably the first time locals will have witnessed such a modern wonder. The balloon was more than 45 feet high and globular in shape. Two passengers sat in a canoe-like basket hanging underneath it.
The craft flew quite low over Dobbins Hill, near Whyteleafe, and observers might have thought it was coming in to land. However, strong gusts of wind took the balloon back up into the air again over Croydon and carried it on towards Carshalton.
The balloon descended rapidly and crashed into a tree at Beddington, fatally injuring the pilot. The fact that this balloon was flying at all was quite remarkable and was due to the imagination and persistence of Thomas Harris.
According to the inquest into Harris’s death, the flight had begun from the garden of the Eagle Tavern, on the City Road in Shoreditch. The balloon, named Royal George, was huge. It was nearly 120 feet in circumference and it was estimated that it needed 176,800 gallons of gas to fill it.
The gondola in which the passengers were to ride under the balloon was elegantly covered with crimson Genoa velvet and trimmed with gold lace. The curtains and hangings were of green and yellow silk, with festoons among the material. No functional austerity here!
This was a very grand affair. For the last hour and a half of filling the balloon with gas (probably hydrogen, although the inquest reports fail to be more specific, just stating “gas”), Harris personally supervised the operation until he was satisfied everything was correctly done. A twenty-past four, a waiting band struck up with See The Conquering Hero Comes, and marched towards the balloon, with Harris and his companion following behind.
The identity of Harris’ flight companion was not known until just before four o’clock on the day, when he announced that Sophia Stocks would be joining him. Until that afternoon she had never met Harris. The young lady, about 17 or 18 years of age, had only come down to the tavern’s garden to see the spectacle of the balloon flight, paying her entrance fee like everyone else. On hearing a conversation that Harris had no one who wished to go up in the balloon with him, she volunteered.
Though she was not suitably dressed for the flight, wearing only a white dress, Harris accepted her offer. For his part, Harris had chosen to wear “a naval uniform and anchor button with a white hat” for the occasion.
After the ropes were released, the Royal George rose quickly into the clouds and was soon lost to view from the ground. The crowds in the Eagle’s garden weren’t unduly concerned when the balloon didn’t reappear, assuming the winds had carried the craft further than expected. Harris had planned for such an eventuality, carrying a wicker basket in the car containing two carrier pigeons which he could release with a message tied to their legs about where he had ended up.
Nothing more was seen of the balloon until just after five o’clock when it was spotted near Whyteleafe, around 12 miles south of where the journey started. Harris apparently tried to land on some open ground on Dobbins Hill, but was unsuccessful and wind blew the balloon on again and over Croydon. After a mile or two, the balloon crash landed at Beddington Park, at that time owned by the Gee family.
The inquest was held in the Plough in Beddington to establish the facts of the crash and why it had happened. The first person on the scene, who saw the disaster unfold, was the Gees’ gamekeeper. He lifted the silk of the balloon and discovered in the gondola a man, dead, with a black mark across his neck and a young lady, badly injured, but conscious.
He pulled the woman clear of the wreckage and she groaned, “Where am I? Have I fallen out of the car?”
A surgeon from Carshalton, John Wallace, was called to the scene immediately and he attended to the woman, having confirmed that the man was quite lifeless. Sophia Stocks was complaining of severe pains to her back, stomach and legs. She was taken to a room at The Plough where she was bled by the surgeon, who later applied leeches to her. Despite this treatment, she survived.
The inquest jury listened to evidence about how the air had come out of the balloon. Harris had designed and made a new valve which he was using on this occasion and which was supposed to allow a more regulated deflation of the balloon if required. It clearly hadn’t worked properly.
The inquest heard that Harris hadn’t reacted in the way that might have been expected. The ballast had not been jettisoned to try and lighten the load. Officials recovered 40 pounds of sand from the bottom of the car, the bags containing them having burst in the crash. When the body of Harris was removed from the car, he was in his shirt sleeves, his jacket having been taken off in the flight.
The pigeons in their wicker basket did not survive the crash either.
A verdict of accidental death was eventually reached, with the coroner stating the probable cause of the crash being the rapid escape of gas from the balloon. Whether that was by an accidental tangling of the ropes or a mistake on the part of Harris, he couldn’t say.
Harris’s father and brother attended the inquest. The father was asked if his son had held a rank in the Royal Navy, but replied that he hadn’t. The father explained that Thomas Harris had been apprenticed to a cabinet maker but ran away and took a voyage to the East Indies. On his return to England 16 months later, Harris had returned to his apprenticeship and served out his time.
The father also spoke about how he had constantly told Thomas that he was building a machine that would bring his destruction, but that his son would always tell him to mind his own business.
On the day after the inquest, Sophia was well enough to receive visitors so Mr Thompson, a member of the committee that was backing Harris’ dream to become an aeronaut and who had been at the launch from the Eagle Tavern, asked her about the flight.
She replied that the ascent had gone well and that she had felt not the least dread. During the flight, when the balloon was in a cloud, she was so chilled that she began to shiver. Harris said he would pour her a brandy. She was duly served with a small glass, whereupon Harris declared that it was time to descend.
While he put his fob watch back in his pocket, he asked his companion to hold the rope which was the valve line, which she duly did. When Harris turned back to her, he shouted out, “Good God, the gas is bursting through.” At that point, Sophia fainted and didn’t come round until the gamekeeper got her out of the wreckage.
By the end of the week, Sophia had recovered sufficiently to go home to her mother’s house on Henry Street, near the Vinegar Yard on City Street, Shoreditch.
Thomas Harris’ widow and children were supported by friends and a month after the crash one of her relatives took a flight in the same balloon to raise money for them.
Thomas Harris’ body was buried at St James’s, Piccadilly. His story was part of an exhibition held there to show what had been uncovered from an archaeological dig at their huge Georgian and Victorian burial ground near Euston Station, which had been undertaken in preparation for the HS2 rail line.
Previous articles by David Morgan:
- Croydon painter Sant, a portrait artist by Royal Appointment
- Spinster sisters’ life-long service to the Girls Friendly Society
- Mystery surrounding the lost coffin of Sir William Brereton
- When Minster was the venue for an Anglo-Saxon peace treaty
- The church fire that consumed a thousand years of history
- David Morgan, pictured right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups
If you would like a group tour of Croydon Minster or want to book a school visit, then ring the Minster Office on 020 688 8104 or go to the website on www.croydonminster.org and use the contact page
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Yet another amazing slice of Croydon’s less-known history served up here by David.
What a tragic outcome for the aeronaut and pigeon pair.
Perhaps the lady passenger who fainted was relaxed, being comatose, so she did not tense up before impact.
How brave of her to volunteer. This was clearly a free-floating balloon, not teathered i to the Earth by a rope. A very different experience.
The Eagle tavern must be that of the Pop goes the Weasel song or nursery rhyme. I wonder if the balloon initially flew up and down the City Road, in and out of the (airspace of ) the Eagle ?
The balloon flight pre-dates the song, though, according to Wikepedia.