Back to earth with a bump

Designs for the hot air balloon flown by André-Jacques Garnerin in 1797, similar to that used in 1802
Designs for the hot air balloon flown by André-Jacques Garnerin in 1797, similar to that used in 1802

Researcher James Thomas on why a hot air balloon ride cemented Chingford’s place in aviation history

In the history of British aviation, Chingford does not enjoy as much of a reputation as neighbouring Walthamstow, which saw the first British-made aircraft take to the skies in 1909.

But Chingford does still deserve a special mention, as the point of descent for an important hot air balloon journey undertaken during a lull in the French Revolutionary Wars. The Peace of Amiens (27th March 1802) marked a temporary cessation in hostilities between Great Britain and Napoleonic France that would last just over a year.

Paris-born André-Jacques Garnerin (1769-1823), inventor of the frameless parachute and, until 1797, a prisoner-of-war in Austria, used the temporary rapprochement to display his aeronautical innovations in London and the surrounding area during the summer of 1802.

Garnerin had already undertaken the first parachute descent (in a basket and gondola attached to a balloon) at Parc Monceau in Paris on 22nd October 1797. The following July he took part in another flight from the same location with Citoyenne Henri who, despite not being the first woman to ascend a hot air balloon, provoked some official concern about her body’s potential response to reductions in air pressure.

On a wet Monday, 5th July 1802, Garnerin – after a two-day postponement – eventually undertook his second ascent on British shores, accompanied by Kentish watercolourist and maritime administrator Edward Hawke Locker (1779-1849). In squally conditions, the pair took off from Lord’s Cricket Ground (then at Dorset Square), and landed fifteen minutes later on Chingford Green, a distance of nine miles. Unfortunately, a parachute descent was not possible because of the inclement weather.

Garnerin and Locker had been provided with a certificate of authenticity by the Prince of Wales prior to their ascent, should they have met with a hostile reception wherever they landed. The Frenchman’s first British flight on 28th June, with a ‘Captain Sowden’, had resulted in a forced landing near Fingringhoe, south-west of Colchester. A day before the Locker ascent, Sowden had published his report of the journey, describing how Epping Forest from the skies “appeared like a gooseberry bush” and how Essex farmers mistook them for sorcerers and election canvassers.

Locker and Garnerin’s ascent, attended by thousands of observers in Marylebone, did not pass without incident. Press accounts of the time refer to falling scaffolds, jostling umbrellas, a youth injured by an ox, and some uncertainty as to the identity of Garnerin’s companion. However, Locker was able to give a full account of the journey and their landing “in a field of Mr Owen’s, at Chingford” in the pages of The European Magazine, and London Review.

The pair had left Lords in high winds at 4.50pm. As the clouds became “a sea of cotton beneath us”, the balloon sailed over London and Essex to heights of 7,800 feet, before Locker noticed Epping Forest in the distance. Deciding to land, Garnerin instructed Locker to hail “some persons employed in a field” to take hold of the ropes. Initially, gales made the balloon rebound and strike a tree, the Frenchman injuring his back in the process. Although Locker described some of those attending the descent as “both troublesome and officiously impertinent”, the basket was secured and the airless balloon packed safely into a post-chaise ordered from Woodford.

The two aeronauts and six local dignitaries – including John Hughes of the Stamp Office, London – signed a document at the Kings Head Pub to witness to the event.

André Jacques Garnerin, as drawn by his 1802 balloon ride companion Edward Hawke Locker, based on an initial sketch made during the flight to Chingford
André Jacques Garnerin, as drawn by his 1802 balloon ride companion Edward Hawke Locker, based on an initial sketch made during the flight to Chingford

Garnerin would return to Paris that autumn after a successful parachute descent near St Pancras, one that nonetheless led to some controversy. Locker would later be involved in the 1811 Catalan sieges during the Peninsular War, before undertaking a sketching tour of Spain.

But for one afternoon in 1802, Chingford was the scene of a moment of calm and serenity in the bumpy ride of 19th Century Anglo-French relations.