Cuckfield was the location of the landing of a pioneering gas balloon flight in 2 June 1824 by balloonist George Graham accompanied by his 20 year old wife Margaret. The latter was to become a far more accomplished balloon pilot than her husband and billed as ‘The only English female aeronaut’. She flew many dangerous ascents and had several eventful landings, but survived to tell each tale.
They were at the mercy of wind currents for destination, unsupported by a ground crew chasing the flight, and were relying on the primitive Victorian balloon flying technology of balloon flying. Their departure point was White Conduit House in Pentonville, London and we learn more of their flight from the book 'Ballooning: A History, 1782-1900' by SL Kotar and JE Gessler:
Remarking that after his first unsuccessful voyage last year, Graham took every precaution to guard against failure and never, added the reporter, had he seen ‘a more handsome and magnificent balloon.’
Mrs Graham chose to accompany her husband on the flight and both appeared to be in high spirits ‘as if undertaking the jaunt of the honeymoon. The lady appeared 'ill-dressed for the rigours of the occasion'.
At 5.25pm the pair ascended, the balloon remaining in sight nearly 20 minutes. The brand new balloon was made ‘of silk, thickly varnished, coloured crimson, blue and bright stone in the shape of a pear.’
From a description of a later flight two weeks later we learn that the gondola beneath the balloon - or ‘car’ as they called it then - ‘was gorgeously painted and gilded and hung with purple velvet and furnished with cushions of the same material.’
The balloon envelope was 37 feet in diameter filled with 30,000 cubic feet of coal gas. supplied by the Imperial Gas Company who were rumoured to have sponsored ‘Graham’s expedition’.
House of Commons suspended
As the balloon ascended and drifted its way over Westminster - the rarity of the spectacle resulted in the postponement of the House of Commons while MPs went out to view the passing balloon.
The pilot gave a first hand account for the Morning Chronicle for Saturday 5 June 1824, details of the journey were carefully logged for the benefit of other pioneering aeronauts:
On ascending we were obliged to throw out all our ballast owing to the clouds being heavily charged with rain; had the city in view full thirty-one minutes; on entering the first cloud we experienced cold, and a very great thirst, which we unfortunately had not the means of allaying, as we had no liquor with us but brandy.
After passing through a vast number of dense clouds, we reached a clear atmosphere, when the sun shone forth in the greatest splendour; the clouds beneath us having the usual appearance of snow mountains, but much more clear than I ever before observed. We were not entirely in the dark in passing through the dense clouds. The thermometer at a quarter-past six o'clock stood at the freezing point, and at half-past six as low as twenty. Passed several currents of air, which whirled the car round many times.
After passing the clouds, the inclination of the balloon to ascend was extremely strong, in consequence of the rarefaction of the atmosphere, and my having parted with all my ballast. I here lowered my grapple-iron to a considerable extent of rope, to obtain gravity and discharged a portion of gas.
Having remained in the air one hour and twenty minutes, we began our descent, which was as gradual as our ascent. We alighted in a field a short distance from the village of Cuckfield, in Sussex, 40 miles from town. Immediately on our descent, we experienced a heavy shower of rain; the balloon at this time remained as erect as when on the stage at the gardens; and it afforded shelter for thirty persons from the shower.
Greatest courtesy from the villagers
After the storm abated, I drew the machine nearer the earth, and discharged the gas; Mrs. Graham and myself having safely stepped out of the car. A club being then held at the village of Cuckfield, about two hundred persons were on the spot at the descent.
We experienced the greatest courtesy from the inhabitants of this romantic village; a carriage was brought into the field which took Mrs Graham off to the Kings Head, amidst the shouts of the assembled throng and was then sent back, accompanied by a cart, to carry the balloon.
We are indebted for much kindness to Mr Kemp, toy-merchant, of Barbican, who happened to be in this place; also to Mr Sugden, Esq. of Cuckfield.
Having taken refreshment, we started for home, in a chaise and four horses, at half-past nine; and arrived at Poland Street at half-past two this morning, having experienced no other inconvenience than Mrs. G and myself having a violent earache and slight deafness. When in the air, for some time we could not hear each other speak, in consequence of the density.
I need not say anything of Mrs Graham on this occasion. Her conduct on entering the car was quite sufficient to prove the pleasure I experienced from her company, and remarks during the voyage.
The length of line to the grapple iron was 270 feet. Mrs, G., looking over the car, observed that the grapple looked about the size of a small knife. The greatest height we reached appeared to be by the gauge, two miles and a half (13,200 feet). Mrs Graham threw over the car an empty ballast bag; after this had descended a considerable distance, it became inflated, and ascended to the level of the car, and remained with us till we descended, having at one time reached as high as the equator of the balloon.
The couple landed 40 miles south at 6.55pm after being in the air for one hour and 20 minutes. Edward Bates, local clockmaker and diarist confirms the event: ‘An air balloon descended with Mr. & Mrs. Graham in the car in a field near Cuckfield Town about a quarter before seven in the evening came.’
Edward Bates, local clockmaker and diarist confirms the event: ‘An air balloon descended with Mr and Mrs Graham in the car in a field near Cuckfield Town about a quarter before seven in the evening came.’
In a cruel twist of irony, Graham’s balloon passed over the mourners coming from the
burial of a Thomas Harris another pioneering English balloonist from a fatal balloon flight a week earlier. From a newspaper account of the time we learn some details of the ill-fated flight:
When about two miles from the earth, owing to some mismanagement in letting the gas off, the balloon descended with so much rapidity that Mr. Harris was instantaneously killed, and Miss Stocks materially injured (Ed: badly bruised).
Mrs. Harris, whose face was completely concealed by her hood, appeared to be deeply affected on taking a last view of the coffin in the grave, but seemed more composed on the return till within a short distance of her home, when the shouts of the populace announcing the ascent of Mr Graham, revived her extreme grief.
Mr Graham was an accident-prone balloonist - but Margaret built up a reputation for her daredevil flights, albeit not without incident. One story led to the apocryphal account of her skirts acting as a parachute to slow he descent in a fall. If you would like to know more check out the audio account listed below . The ballooning history book makes a fascinating read too.
Ballooning: A History, 1782-1900, by SL Kotar and JE Gessler, McFarland & Co, 2011
Viewable in part on Google Books: http://tinyurl.com/y49eas52
Morning Chronicle, Saturday 5 June 1824.
Wikipedia entry for Thomas Harris: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=xB-hBAAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=snippet&q=Cuckfield&f=false
Wikipedia entry for Margaret Graham: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Graham_(balloonist)
To read more about George Graham's misadventures download the pdf: 'Up, up and away an account of ballooning in and around Bristol and Bath 1784 to 1999'
Margaret’s story on an audio file: https://abneypark.org/virtual-events/2020/5/10/the-amazing-life-and-story-of-margaret-graham-abneys-aeronaut
A similar gas-filled French balloon of the time.
A period posted promoting another of Margaret's later adventures.
A ‘collecting card’, portraying Thomas Harris chivalrously falling to his death to save his companion.
Contributed by Malcolm Davison