Early hot air balloons often came down in Havering

Hot air balloons in 1908. Picture: PA

Hot air balloons in 1908. Picture: PA - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

The first hot air balloon was developed by the Montgolfier brothers in Paris in 1783.

Their rival, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, soon staged several flights of hydrogen balloons in London.

In May 1785, watched by a large crowd, he released a small balloon, before taking off himself in the “boat” of a larger balloon.

The small balloon was “picked up in the meads below Hornchurch” by a boy working for a local miller. The “meads” were probably in the Hacton area.

Blanchard sailed over Hornchurch shortly afterwards.


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Balloons launched in London usually floated on westerly winds over Essex. Skilled “aeronauts” often descended locally, to avoid being carried out to sea.

Charles Green was a leading balloonist from the 1820s. In June 1823, he came down at Noak Hill.

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In August 1836, Charles and his brother George launched two balloons from London’s Vauxhall Gardens. One came down in Hainault Forest, the other near Romford.

Charles flew a large balloon from Chelsea in 1845, carrying no fewer than seven passengers. “He descended safely at Hornchurch.” It was his 301st flight!

Another intrepid aeronaut was Margaret Graham. In 1836, she was 32, with seven children under the age of twelve.

Despite being pregnant again, she carried a distinguished passenger, the Duke of Brunswick, on a flight over Essex.

Both were badly shaken by a crash-landing at Doddinghurst, near Brentwood. Mrs Graham suffered a miscarriage.

On a two-hour flight in 1865, Victorian scientist James Glaisher measured height and temperatures in a forty-mile swing around south Essex. From 3,000 feet, he was struck by the “innumerable dykes” of Rainham marshes. The breeze carried him north over Billericay, to land near Chelmsford.

In 1898, balloon manufacturer Percival Spencer decided to test a dangling rope as a possible steering device. He took three passengers from Earls Court, reaching the Isle of Dogs in 18 minutes, and on to “the swampy wastes and broad flats of Barking and Dagenham”.

Over Rainham, Spencer dropped 500 feet of rope, which steadily dragged the balloon lower.

Soon, more than 200 feet of rope dragged along the ground, drifting north through ploughed fields and woodland. Nobody seems to have minded the damage it must have caused.

The crew were now low enough to exchange shouted messages with people on the ground. One “countryman” told them they were at Cranham.

Using the straight axis of the Upminster-Grays railway as a baseline, Spencer tried (and failed) to steer a right turn. The balloon landed between Brentwood and Billericay.

It was impossible to control a round balloon.

German inventor Count Zeppelin found the answer: fit a gasbag into a cigar-shaped frame, and then attach a rudder.

The British pioneers of the “dirigible” (a balloon that could be steered) were F.A. Barton and F.L. Rawson, who built a 180-foot long airship in 1905.

Instead of a gondola, a lattice-work of bamboo poles below the gasbag supported a narrow walkway.

A test flight, from Alexandra Palace in 1906, ended in disaster.

The airship drifted low over Romford. Two labourers tried to catch its dragging ropes.

Guests at a garden party at Heaton Grange, near Harold Hill, applauded the sinking craft. Thoughtlessly, Barton and Rawson moved forward along the walkway to acknowledge the cheers, and upset the balance. Britain’s prototype airship crashed in a Straight Road potato field, “like a broken wicker basket”.

An international balloon race filled Havering skies on a May afternoon in 1909, with 15 entries from Belgium, Britain and Germany.

Competitors ascended from Fulham, aiming at an imaginary finishing line 25 miles to the east, beyond Billericay.

Each balloon carried three passengers.

Two crews drifted close enough to chat over Havering-atte-Bower. A German entrant came down in Bedfords Park, east of Collier Row, while a British balloon sank into Dagnam Park, next to Harold Hill.

Six years later, almost to the day, Zeppelin raids began on London.

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