In the predawn of Monday October 4th 1784, flickering lanterns cast dancing shadows around an eerie billowing shape that appeared to be rising from the ground on Christ Church Meadow in Oxford. The strange goings on were history in the making. James Sadler, a man with no formal education, but enormous skill and ingenuity was preparing to take to the skies in a hot air balloon that he’d designed and made himself. It took him about three hours to inflate the balloon, then at around 5.30am he took off, rose to approximately 3,600ft and drifted for about half an hour before landing uneventfully between Islip and Wood Eaton. He was the first Englishman to fly.
Today anyone can float over Oxford in a hot air balloon for less than £150. A leisure flight is a fun, worthwhile experience, but fairly routine. Hot air is provided by readily controlled propane gas cylinders, fire retardant materials are used for the envelope and the experienced pilots have flown hundreds of times. They can read the weather conditions and know when to fly and when not to fly. Not so in 1784. Then, the lift was achieved by stoking an onboard stove, the balloon was made of silk, and once your kit was ready you picked a date and made your attempt.
The very first untethered, manned balloon had taken to the air in Paris barely a year before Sadler’s success, so he must already have been working on his own prototype. Such was the naivety of the early balloonists that they believed that once aloft you could row through the air, and early balloons were fitted with oars! Nor had they much concept of the importance of prevailing weather conditions to the success of a balloon flight. They learnt the hard way, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
It was possibly purely by chance that James Sadler’s first flight took place in the early hours, when weather conditions are usually most suitable for ballooning. He was probably doubtful about his prospects of success and chose to experiment when he thought no-one would be around. Although most good Oxford folk would be abed at 3am, it was too much to expect that a huge silk balloon billowing on Christ Church Meadow, and the kit required to inflate it to its ultimate 170ft size, could go unnoticed. Not to mention the horse and cart that would be needed to bring the man-sized gondola that it would carry, as well as other equipment and fuel. There would be a lot of noise, heat and smoke. Inevitably the unusual activity aroused much curiosity and astonishment, and a witness report appeared in the Oxford Journal later the same day.
The second time he flew a month later, tens of thousands of people came to watch.
Flying balloons doesn’t come cheap, even if you do make them yourself. This time, more confident of success, he’d advertised his intention in advance, and to raise funds had put his balloon on display in the Town Hall for the paying public to inspect. Ever the innovator, on that occasion he filled the balloon with a gas that he’d manufactured himself – a gas we now know as hydrogen, but in 1784 it was un-named.
He landed near Aylesbury and on his return to Oxford was cheered and paraded around the streets in a carriage. The crowds were impressed, not only by the fact that he had flown – and landed safely – but also that in a twenty minute flight he covered a distance that by horse and carriage took two hours at best.
Sadler must have had amazing courage and conviction to face not only the potential hazards of flying, but to take off into the unknown with only limited control of his transport. At that time many people seriously thought that dragons patrolled the upper skies and that anyone who ventured into their realm was in danger of attack. Worse, maybe, was the possibility of ascending too high and invoking the wrath of God by bumping the edges of heaven which was believed to be ‘up there’ somewhere. Sadler was warned of the perceived perils. To us this seems like fanciful twaddle, but in the 18th century both were fairly widely held beliefs and it was a body of opinion he had to contend with.
More impressive to the modern mind is the fact that he designed and built all his own equipment. He even calculated the exact weight that the onboard stove would need to be to produce the heat required for lift, so it wouldn’t be heavier than necessary, and he fed it with wool which was lighter than wood. Imagine the smell in the balloon basket! All this is amazing when you consider that although Sadler was Oxford born and bred, he was a man of the “town” with no academic qualifications. In fact he was barely literate and was looked down on by the University establishment.
Before taking to the skies he had previously experimented with unmanned balloons, all of his own design and construction. Clearly what he lacked in tutoring he more than made up for in intelligence, innovative flair and practical skill. It seems fair to say that James Sadler was a genius, but the University had no time for him.
How did this unusual talent develop? The exact date that James Sadler was born is uncertain, but we know he was christened in the Church of St Peter-in-the-East (now deconsecrated and in the grounds of St Edmunds College) in February 1753 and in those days babies were christened as soon after birth as possible because infant mortality was high.
James’s father was a cook and confectioner who ran the Lemon Hall Refreshment House on the High Street on the site where the Examination Schools now stand. The young James followed his father into the family business where he learnt a variety of skills, many of which would later prove useful. He’d start as a kitchen boy, whose initial responsibilities would be to fetch and maintain a constant supply of wood for the fire and the stove, and to bring water from the nearest pump, which was probably in the back yard, for drinks, cooking, washing up and cleaning.
He’d have the job of keeping the brick oven constantly at a suitable temperature for cooking and he’d learn by observation that hot air rises, carrying with it flakes of wood ash. He’d also discover the ways in which the fire could be manipulated: stoked or damped as required.
In a busy kitchen equipment would often become worn or damaged and it’s likely that the Sadlers would in most cases fix it themselves, so in addition to learning to bake cakes and pastries for the cafe, James would no doubt become adept at mending pans, sugar tongs, bellows, pot hoists and any other of the sundry items that might be found in a Georgian commercial kitchen. He no doubt developed a skill for devising and making kitchenware.
How did the teenage James progress from kitchen boy to pastry cook to aeronaut? If he could hardly read, how could he even make such a leap of imagination to envisage a man flying by means of a balloon? Refreshment houses were where news and gossip were exchanged. In the absence of the sort of communications networks that we have today much topical information was transmitted by word of mouth. In Oxford conversations over a coffee and a pastry would include reports of the latest events in the scientific world both at home and on the Continent.
When James took over the running of the Lemon Hall from his father, he’d also acquire responsibility for managing “front of house”. There’d be a lot for a clever young man to overhear. The intelligentsia would gather and discuss the issues of the day. This is probably how he learnt about aeronautical experiments and became fascinated.
To broaden his scientific knowledge James also took a job as an assistant in the University chemical laboratories, which is probably where he learnt to make hydrogen from metal filings and sulphuric acid.
Unusually for a balloonist of the age, James Sadler lived into his seventies, which is a tribute to his understanding of his craft. He was also responsible for a diverse range of other innovative scientific achievements, but it was his aeronautics that drew the crowds.
Today he is almost unheard of. Why? Probably his rudimentary literacy is the answer. Just one book might have made all the difference, but he left no diary, no reports of his experiments and wrote no learned treatises, and Oxford University virtually ignored him. Much of his life is conjecture, but what is certain is that this brilliant man deserves recognition. There’s a plaque on the wall along Dead Man’s Walk in Oxford and you can seek permission at St Edmund’s to visit his grave next to the church where he was baptised. Other than that he’s lost in obscurity.
There are, apparently, plans afoot to create a James Sadler Oxford Balloon Experience. So far it’s just a proposal and a site has to be found, but if it does come to fruition, when in future you say “Oxfordshire Balloonist” perhaps the name Sir Richard Branson may not be the only one that comes to mind.