Friday, January 23, 2009

How did 'The Air Balloon' get its name?

In the 1973 Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, A.P. Woolrich is mildly dismissive here in a footnote (to his paper on Joshua Gilpin's 1796-97 diary) that reads: "The Air Balloon at Crickley Hill was called the New Inn in 1782. (Glos R.O. D/CE 88(11). Contrary to popular opinion it does not commemorate a local balloon ascent (BSS)."

Well, that told us. I was fosseting about in the bowels of the internet and came across a website selling, for heaven's sake - but good luck to them - digital photographs of pub signs, amongst which are various signs that have, over the years, graced the 'Air Balloon'. This website states that the "pub's name commemorates the famous balloon flight by Edward Jenner which ended close to the building on 2nd September 1784."

I had visions of the good doctor himself whizzing about in the air: I had no recollection of him knocking spots off the brothers Montgolfier so I continued my researches. Before I started, should I perhaps have vaccinated myself against that scourge of the modern age, internet hyperbole?

My next stop was the Jenner Museum housed in his former house which has the following:
"Edward Jenner's lifelong friend, the physician Caleb Hillier Parry, probably carried out the first flight of an unmanned balloon in the West Country. He launched a hydrogen balloon from the Crescent in Bath on 10th January 1784. It was 17ft in diameter and 8.5ft high, made of varnished silk. It flew 19 miles, landing just west of Wells. Determined to try the experiment for himself, Edward Jenner wrote to Parry requesting a length of silk and urging him to join him in Berkeley. Jenner launched his hydrogen balloon from the courtyard of Berkeley Castle at 2pm on 2nd September 1784. It flew 10 miles north eastwards, landing in a field at Kingscote, where, the Gloucester Journal reported, it terrified the reapers so much that for some time they could not be persuaded to approach it! The balloon was re-launched and drifted north along the line of the hills for a further 14 miles. Its journey ended a few miles east of Gloucester at the beauty spot known as Birdlip. The local inn, known since the 1820s as the Balloon Inn and now called the Air Balloon Inn, may well commemorate this exciting event."

There is no source cited for this version of events, but we know from Joshua Gilpin's diary that the inn had changed its name from the New Inn in 1782 to the Balloon by 1796-7, so the 1820s reference at least is not quite on the mark. The Jenner Museum version seems to have been liberally replicated across the web by many parties.

Perhaps the most balanced, and certainly the best, light is shed by a fascinating and well researched article on the history of ballooning by John Penny, of the Fishponds Local History Society. The part of his article illuminating what is known about the 'Air Balloon' is this passage relating to developments in 1784:

"Messrs. Sharpnell and Dyer it appears proposed to launch a balloon from Stinchcombe Hill at midday on August 3rd, and as details of the event had been carried in the "Gloucester Journal" (31) it was not surprising that a large crowd had gathered in anticipation. They were, however, to be disappointed and as "Felix Farley's Bristol Journal" subsequently reported (32) "after waiting many hours in anticipation behold! nothing but a child's paper kite was exhibited. After some altercation with the company assembled, the artists thought proper to take to their heels, and so escape the lashes of the spectators whips". The exact identity of Sharpnell and Dyer is not known, but it is possible that one of them was William F.Shrapnell, surgeon to the South Gloucestershire Militia who was a close friend of the famous Edward Jenner M.D. L.L.D. F.R.S. of Berkeley (1749 - 1823), remembered with affection the world over for his discovery of vaccination as a preventative of smallpox (33).

Nevertheless, this fiasco at Dursley did nothing to dampen enthusiasm for ballooning in the southern part of Gloucestershire, for the very next month Dr.Jenner himself carried out his first aeronautical experiment, although he was careful to keep the details from the public, fearing the result of another local failure. Jenner had also been a close friend of Dr.Caleb Parry since boyhood days, when they had both attended the Rev.Dr.Washbourne's school at Cirencester (34), so it was not surprising that he should try to emulate his friend's achievements, and Parry, it seems, was happy to provide details of balloon construction. Jenner subsequently wrote to him stating, "your directions respecting the Balloon are so clear and explicit, 'tis impossible for me to blunder; but to make it quite a certainty, I intend first to fill it and see if it will float in the Castle-Hall, before the public exhibition. Should it prove unwilling to mount and turn shy before a large assembly, don't you think I may make my escape under the cover of three or four dozen Squibs and Crackers?" (35).

Caution, it appears, prevailed for on Thursday September 2nd 1784, and in private, he finally launched his hydrogen filled balloon from the Inner Court of Berkeley Castle. It was released at two o'clock in the afternoon, and later that day was seen to descend into a meadow at Symond's Hall only a short distance from Kingscote Park, at that time the residence of Anthony Kingscote Esq., father of three most eligible daughters. The balloon's arrival in the parish caused a great deal of excitement and, "the reapers were so much terrified that they could not for some time be prevailed to approached it" (36).

Jenner's ride over to retrieve his little aerostat resulted in his first meeting with Catherine Kingscote, a lady he subsequently married on March 6th, 1788, so there must have been little difficulty in persuading him to re-launch the balloon from Kingscote Park, for the benefit of the family and their friends. This was soon accomplished and in the best romantic traditions the balloon rose into the air carrying a poem, specially written by Jenner's friend Edward Gardner, and dedicated to Catherine, his new found love (37). No details have come to light regarding the balloon's fate, but it is just possible that it came to earth a little over 20 miles away on high ground near Birdlip Hill, where there still exists a public house bearing the title "Air Balloon Inn".

31) Gloucester Journal 2/8/1784 p3d.
32) Felix Farley's Bristol Journal 14/8/1784 p3d.
33) Fisk, Dorothy, "Doctor Jenner of Berkeley", Heinemann, London, 1959, p110.
34) Anon, "Lives of the British Physicians", Murray's Family Library, 1830, p275.
35) and Miller, Genevieve (ed), "Letters of Edward Jenner", John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, p3.
36) Gloucester Journal 6/9/1784 p3c; Fisk, pp 76-78.
37) Baron, John M.D. F.R.S., "The Life of Edward Jenner MD LLD FRS", Henry Colburn, London, 1827, p72."

So there we have it. The Jenner Museum suggests a relaunch on the same day, that ended up at Birdlip, which if it happened, eluded John Penny's researches. John Penny's account appears more likely, not least because the paraphernalia required to get the balloon in the air again would have had to be transported to Symond's Hall near Kingscote, or the balloon would have had to be brought back to Berkeley Castle. Since the first flight only started at 2 p.m. I think the Jenner Museum version begins to look implausible, if not impossible. Perhaps further research is required. I'd start with a gander at the 6th September 1784 edition of the Gloucester Journal...

Would it be too hair-splitting to suggest that John Penny's conclusion can be reconciled to A.P. Woolrich's 1973 footnote to Gilpin by the notion that the pub was named not after an ascent, but a descent, of an air balloon? I must ask Dr Ferris to share some cider with me as we mull over the possibilities.

1 comment:

Max said...

However it got its name, it has attracted some unsavoury types over the decades. See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/gloucestershire/7921542.stm