Oxford

James Sadler: The Oxford balloon man history forgot

  • 12 July 2014
  • From the section Oxford
James Sadler's son John ascends in his father's balloon on 1 August 1814
Thousands lined Hyde Park during the 1814 jubilee celebrations to see James Sadler's balloons take off

Two hundred years ago James Sadler was a name on every Englishman's lips. The pastry chef from Oxford with a gift for science became the first ever Englishman to fly. So why is his name virtually unknown today?

Tens of thousands of expectant faces had lined Hyde Park in London for a glimpse of the "grand balloon".

The year was 1814, the date 15 July, and London was resplendent in its lavish celebrations of a grand jubilee, marking 100 years since the Hanoverians acceded to the throne.

Throughout the month-long festivities there were acrobats, military bands, fireworks and a spectacular re-enactment of the Battle of the Nile - depicting Nelson's naval defeat of Napoleon's forces.

Portrait of James Sadler
James Sadler was born in February 1753 to a family who ran a pastry shop in Oxford

But it was James Sadler's bright silk balloon that crowds had arrived early to see.

Balloon fever had struck England 30 years before in 1784 when Sadler had become the first ever Englishman to fly.

Back then, his hot air balloon drifted off from the vast fields by Merton College, Oxford, early on 4 October and rose about 3,600 ft (1097m) in the air.

He flew for about 30 minutes and made it four miles (6.4km) to Woodeaton.

He was brought back to the city an "an absolute hero", according to his biographer Richard O Smith.

"They took the horses off his carriage and the townspeople pulled his carriage all around Oxford for hours," he said.

The London Chronicle declared that "Sadler is known from the humble cabbage seller to the mightiest of lords".

The first English aeronaut had become an overnight celebrity, inspiring all sorts of balloon memorabilia, and remained so for much of his life.

In the 18th Century, "flight represented mankind's greatest achievement", said Mr Smith.

Corpus Christi College field
The fields by Corpus Christi College is where James Sadler became the first Englishman to perform a manned flight, doing so in his hot air balloon

Here was a man who was flying in a balloon at up to 94 mph (151 km per hour), when people were only used to speeds as fast as a horse.

Ballooning was expensive and therefore a rarity. Sadler would put his balloons on display before flying them, charging money to fund his flight.

And such was the lack of information about our skies that some people thought you could use a paddle to row in the sky.

Sadler had been warned he might collide with Heaven, and that sky dragons might come and attack him.

He was so famous that he once went to Cheltenham in 1785 to conduct a balloon flight and the entire town closed.

Mr Smith said: "I'd like to see One Direction to go to a town and see every school, shop, factory to close all day just to witness their presence."

Indeed three decades later the royal family requested three of his balloon flights for the 1814 jubilee.

"He was the highlight," said Mr Smith. "He had top billing. The crowds you got for this you wouldn't get today, there were countless numbers".

On 2 August 1814 Sadler was invited to meet Queen Caroline at the palace in London - a rare and huge honour that highlights his astronomical popularity.

Yet today, walking through his home city of Oxford, the town hall displays just one genuine artefact to represent the frenzied fanaticism surrounding Sadler - a drawer knob featuring a print of a balloon.

It is a tiny reminder of the unusual things a balloon motif was printed on during balloon mania, which included anything from snuff boxes to bidets.

Richard O Smith and a Sadler door knob with a balloon print
Sadler biographer Richard O Smith (left) said the drawer knob on display typified balloon mania in the 1780s

The French may have beaten Sadler to it a year before, when on 21 November 1783 the first manned flight was performed by Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d'Arlandes in a hot air balloon designed by the Montgolfier brothers.

And an Italian named Vincenzo Lunardi was the first to fly in England on 15 September 1784.

But Sadler ensured the British had their own ballooning hero.

Lunardi "was only a showman when compared to Sadler", says Scott McLachlan, librarian at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.

"Sadler was unique in that he was engineer, inventor, experimenter and daredevil all in one."

But apart from the knob there is little else in Oxford to recognise Sadler's achievements.

The Oxford Museum of Science displays a medal bearing Sadler's head, with prints relating to ballooning history in storage.

There is a commemorative plaque along a quiet footpath called Dead Man's Walk in Oxford, next to the field where he first set off.

And there is his gravestone in the grounds of St Edmund's Hall in Oxford, not accessible to the passing public.

Plaque by Merton College
A plaque was unveiled by Corpus Christi fields on the bicentenary of Sadler's first ascent in 1784

But as far as Sadler references go, that is pretty much it.

So why is the name James Sadler virtually unknown today?

"Very few books mention him and if they do it's usually in passing," says Mr McLachlan.

"It's hard to think how such a big celebrity of his times could be forgotten.

"But perhaps with new improvements in the exciting world of flight, people like the Wright brothers pushed an old timer out of the limelight.

"He left very, very little written work behind. Perhaps if he had written even just one decent treatise on something he wouldn't have been forgotten.

"But history has left him out."

Another reason Mr Smith and Mr McLachlan cite is his "lowly origins as a pastry chef".

James Sadler's grave
James Sadler's grave is at the now decommissioned church of St Peter-in-the-East in Oxford, now part of the college St Edmund Hall

Sadler worked for the family business as a chef in a little shop in Oxford called The Lemon Hall Refreshment House.

The building, now long demolished, was in the shadow of the city's spires and limestone colleges where some of the country's greatest minds were at work.

Sadler in his balloon in Dublin on 1 October 1812
Sadler's basket was in the shape of a gondola

Yet in the lowly surrounds of his workplace, according to the sources, Sadler was devising ways of flying with hot air.

"He worked in the back of a pastry shop and yet somehow he managed to design, manufacture, fuel and pilot the first ever balloon by an Englishman," said Mr Smith.

"Whilst others were struggling with what exactly made a balloon float - they were quite focused on smoke being the reason - Sadler understood the principles and focused on the fire," added Mr McLachlan.

"He was the first to create an adjustable fire in the basket to manipulate the balloon's altitude. He was also the first to use coal gas, an energy form which was only just being discovered."

He returned to the same field a month later and carried out what is thought to have been the first hydrogen-powered balloon flight.

"This is really remarkable because he worked in a cafe, baking pastries," said Mr Smith.

"He had no education and several sources say he was illiterate.

1814 jubilee celebrations in London on 1 August
The 1814 jubilee celebrations in London on 1 August saw Sadler's son John ascend in the balloon dropping little parachutes containing jubilee messages

"Yet somehow he managed to manufacture hydrogen at a time when the element was so new, it hadn't even been named hydrogen.

"Somehow he was using neat sulphuric acid, and zinc and iron filings to make his own hydrogen - that he then captured in a duvet."

Owing to the scant amount of original documents on Sadler, little is known about why he became interested in ballooning or how he made the journey from pastry chef to ballooning expert.

While he would have known about the French ballooning achievements, "he was not someone joyriding on the back of the age's discovered advancements", says Mr Smith.

"Sadler's legacy is that he contributed scientific progress to flight - and proof he got it right is the fact he survived 50 flights over 40 years."

Perhaps tellingly, De Rozier, the first person to fly, also became the first to die in an aviation accident.

The Royal Aeronautical Society has maintained Sadler's grave and agrees that he "paved the way for later [aeronautical] developments".

"As the proprietor of a confectionery shop in Oxford, he did not indulge in flying as a rich celebrity but, to the acclaim of his academic contacts, saw his ascents as opportunities for scientific information gathering and carried measuring instruments on later flights," says Peter Elliott, chairman of the society's Historical Specialist Group.

But Mr McLachlan says the fact he came from the "town" rather than the "gown" of Oxford meant he was snubbed by the university at the time.

Prints of Sadler's balloon ascents
The ascent of James Sadler and one Captain Paget from Mermaid Gardens in Hackney, London in August 1811 was immortalized in various prints

"He was looked down on by other academics and this perhaps contributed to forgetting him in the academic and scientific communities," he says.

Sadler died in Oxford on 28 March 1828 aged 75 - a ripe old age for a daredevil balloonist - and his achievements inspired obituaries in England and France.

Oxford University's newspaper however marked his death with one sentence : "Mr James Sadler, elder brother of Mr Sadler of Rose Hill, Oxford, has died."

Line drawing of James Sadler
A line drawing of James Sadler was a "mass selling item"

This is remarkable considering his scientific discoveries in other fields, such as cannon design, for which he was praised by none other than Lord Nelson.

"Sadler worked out that all of the rifles and the cannons, including the ones aboard HMS Victory, over one third of them missed their target by over five feet," says Mr Smith.

"Sadler changed the smelting process, the length of the barrel, plus the size and weight of shot to optimise efficiency and accuracy.

"So you could argue that if it wasn't for Sadler the French and Napoleon would've won, and today in Britain we'd be eating croissants for breakfast."

And so his achievements rose like the height of his balloons.

At the jubilee celebrations in 1814, he was the celebrity more than the chemist, but overall he shunned any money-making spectacle and studiously focused on the science.

As a result he never became wealthy and died in poverty.

"Nowadays his name is almost unknown," says Mr Smith.

"It shows that even the mightiest stars one day collapse and emit no light."

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