Posts Tagged ‘aviation’

A guest post by John Waters.

Have you seen the 2019 film The Aeronauts? A stirring tale of ‘derring do’ and unbelievable adventures in the sky. An enjoyable, film although I did think it was a little far-fetched! Then I read about the Holloway Aeronauts and realised that the film was based on real events and that fact is so often stranger than fiction.

The conquest of the air has always been a dream of mankind but it was not until the eighteenth century that man finally took to the air. It was 1783 that the first vogage into the air was made in a Montgolfier balloon manned by a sheep, a cockerel and a duck! This was quickly followed by the first human balloon flight and it was not long before ‘balloon mania’ swept across Europe and the press of the day was full of tales of brave aeronauts. But the sight of balloons soon became quite commonplace and something was needed to keep the public interest from waning.

Step up Charles Green.

Charles Green was born on the 31 January 1785 at 92 Goswell Road, London, the son of a poor fruiterer, Thomas Green. Charles, on leaving school, joined the family business for a while but then became fascinated by the ballooning exploits reported in the Press.

At that time balloons were filled with hydrogen which was prohibitively expensive. Charles Green had been experimenting with coal gas as a means of lighting and felt that this could be used as a cheaper and more practicable option for ballooning.

He made his first balloon ascent in 1821 during the Coronation celebrations of George IV . Charles Green’s initial flight was the first to use coal gas. He took off from Green Park and the flight was successful although he got into trouble over the Thames and had to be rescued by a passing ship. The captain saw Green was in trouble and managed to pierce the balloon with his bowspit releasing the gas and bringing the balloon down.

Undaunted, Green threw himself wholeheartedly into ballooning. It was a dangerous occupation and there were many incidents and near misses. On one occasion he left Green Park on a forty minute flight but when he attempted to land in Barnet he was thrown out of the basket and dragged over quarter of a mile before coming to rest with just a few bumps and bruises! A more serious incident occurred on another flight when, on nearing the ground, Green threw out a grappling hook which jerked the basket so badly that the supports snapped and the basket was left hanging upside down. Green and the other occupants managed to cling on to the ropes but were dragged for some distance through hedges and fences before the balloon came to rest. Several of the passengers sustained quite severe injuries.

On another occasion, when ascending from Cheltenham, the passenger basket broke away from the balloon (it was found later that the ropes had been cut!). Green and his passenger (a Mr. Griffith) had to hang on to the ropes on the hoop of the balloon. The car undeneath was still connected by one cord causing the balloon to career dangerously and gradually to break through the netting holding it in position. Their only hope was that the balloon would make a landing before it broke through the netting completely leaving them to plummet to earth. The balloon broke free before they landed and they fell some 100ft to earth. They were both injured after the perilous descent but miraculously they were not killed. Mr. Green received a serious contusion on the left side of the chest, and Mr. Griffith a severe injury of the spine. Happily they both recovered and Green soon resumed his flying career.

Charles Green was a showman as well as a serious balloonist. He advertised flights in the Press and he became a common sight at fetes and carnivals.

Green produced hundreds of theatre-style posters and handbills advertising his flights. In short, his balloon flights became public spectacles. He would use all kinds of gimmicks to promote his flights. Night ascents, orchestral background music even fireworks set of from below the balloon basket as he took off ( a little risky in view of all that gas!). He would often stage balloon races with one his brothers, William, Henry or James who were also balloonists.

Another of his more bizarre stunts was to take off from The Eagle in City Road whilst seated on the back of a pony. They finally landed safely at Beckenham in Kent after half an hour in the sky.


Charles Green often took animals up in his balloons and released them by parachute! The most famous of these was ‘Jokopo – The Monkey Who Has Seen The World’. Jokopo made many parachute descents but often went missing for hours after landing forcing Green to fix a label to the reluctant monkey offering a ‘ £2 Reward For Anyone Who Returns Him’. Sadly Jokopo was killed after a particularly heavy descent in 1835.

Green often took celebrities of the day up in his balloons. General Tom Thumb was one and another was ‘Herr Davide Joel, the German Siffleur (whistler) who will give his unrivalled animal imitations whilst in the air’!

In 1838 he caused something of a commotion when he took a party of paying guests to view the East End with its ‘poverty, sickness and crime’. As they cruised over the East End the balloon was followed by an outraged mob of locals and when it landed at Hackney Marshes, Green and his companions had to beat a hasty retreat from a baying mob to the Eagle and Child public house where they hid until 1.00am in the morning and they could make good their escape back to the West End.

Charles had married Martha Morrell in 1806 and they had eventually set up home at Ariel Villa (later Gloucester Lodge), 51 Tufnell Park Road. Martha often accompanied her husband on flights as did their infant son George, who was born in 1807.

In spite of all the ‘showbiz’ surrounding Charles Green he did much to further the science of aeronautics and he was responsible for inventing ‘the guide-rope’. This was a large heavy rope trailing from the car, which could be lowered or raised by means of a windlass and used to regulate the ascent and descent of the balloon. This gave a much greater degree of control to the pilot. The only down side was the damage the large trailing rope caused on the ground. It often got caught up, ripping down fences, damaging roofs and chimneys to say nothing of the terror it caused to cattle and sheep.

The popularity of Green’s shows had led him to transfer his aerial entertainments to a new venue – the Royal Gardens Vauxhall – whose owners Messrs Gye & Hughes financed the construction of an 80 foot tall mammoth balloon containing 70,000 cubic feet of coal gas, built under Green’s design. He named his new balloon the Royal Vauxhall. Construction of the new balloon cost over £2,000, which today would be well over £100,000, the silk alone costing over £700. The contract to make the silk was given to a company in Spitalfields. The gondola itself was decorated in purple velvet with a large golden eagle’s head at either end of the basket. Green later bought the balloon (with financial backing of his friend Edward Spencer) for £500.

This new balloon could carry several passengers and records show that as many as twelve people made ascents at a time in the Royal Vauxhall. The new venture was a huge success but Green was eager to put his new balloon to more scientific use and decided to attempt a long-distance flight to the continent. MP and aeronautical enthusiast Robert Holland financed the flight and joining the passengers was Irish musician and opera singer Monck Mason, who later wrote about the expedition.

The “stores” which the adventurous travellers took with them, consisted of twelve fowls, two tongues, eight dozen biscuits, two dozen penny rolls, a large piece of cold boiled beef, two gallons of coffee, one gallon of sherry, two quarts of brandy and two four-gallon kegs of water. Green was particularly fond of coffee and amongst the equipment was novel coffee maker which used slaked lime to heat the coffee as, for obvious reasons, using any naked flame for heating would have been disastrous. A large bench was set up in the centre of the basket to act as a table and a huge cushion laid on the floor to allow for resting.


They set off in the afternoon of November 7th 1836 heading for the channel. They passed over Canterbury and Dover, dropping messages for the mayors of both towns along the way before sitting down to a ” fair, square meal which was heartily and happily enjoyed”.

As night drew in they were surrounded by blackness and complete silence until they passed over the blazing city of Liege, with the lurid lights of countless foundries and furnaces below. They described the noise from the industrial morass as being deafening and the smells overpowering. They then settled down to rest in the blackness. Suddenly around 3.30am they were awoken by what sounded like a terrible explosion and the car being jerked around violently. They thought the balloon had exploded and they were hurtling towards the ground but what had in fact happened, was that they had ascended to a great height and the noise was due to the ‘cracking’ of stiffened net and silk under the rapid expansion caused by their speedy and lofty ascent. The incident left them shaken up but what was worse was that Charles Green’s precious coffee machine had fell overboard in the confusion!

They eventually landed at Weilburg in county of Nassau, Germany. The balloon had covered some 500 miles in eighteen hours, an unheard of accomplishment at the time. The intrepid voyagers were feted by a series of public balls, dinners and other festivities and the balloon was formally rechristened ‘The Great Balloon of Nassau’ in a civic ceremony held before the day of their departure back to England – via Paris – where the aeronauts were greeted as heroes. The trip was a huge success and crowds flocked to Vauxhall Gardens. Articles and poems were detailing their exploits were published in the press.



Tragedy was to strike twelve months after Green’s epic flight. In July 1837, along with his good friend Edward Spencer and Robert Cocking he took off from Vauxhall Gardens. Robert Cocking had developed a parachute which he believed was a great improvement on the current models in use. They took off accompanied by a band playing the National Anthem. Robert Cocking toasted the gathered onlookers with a glass of wine and when they had reached sufficient height he wished Green and Spencer ‘Good Night’ and jumped to his death, his parachute failing. Green and Spencer travelled on to land in Kent and only found out about the tragedy the following day.

Green continued to push back boundaries and in September 1838 he took his balloon up to a height of over five miles. The temperature was a cruel 27 degrees below freezing and gusts in the upper air currents carried the balloon along at 80 to 100 miles an hour before safely landing at Lewes in Sussex.

Charles Green was a true pioneer but his one regret in life was that he never crossed the Atlantic in a balloon. In later years he proposed such an undertaking many times but could not get backing. This was probably just as well considering it was not until 1978 that such an expedition was successful. His last and farewell public ascent took place from Vauxhall Gardens on Monday, 13 September 1852. Estimates vary but it is known that he made at least 500 flights and perhaps as many as a thousand.

After living in retirement for many years he died suddenly of heart disease on 26 March 1870. He was eighty five years old. Charles Green is buried in Highgate Cemetery. His grave is marked by a monument featuring a balloon although there is some confusion as the stone is engraved as being in rememberance of Charles Green Spencer – his godson.


A very appreciative passenger in one of Green’s ascents had a salver (a silver medal) made and gave it to Charles in commemoration of the flight made in 1839. Today, the Charles Green Salver is awarded by the British Balloon and Airship Club to British Aeronauts for exceptional flying achievements or services to ballooning. The first recipients in 1988 were Per Lindstrand and Richard Branson.


GEORGE GREEN – the only son of Charles Green was also an aeronaut. He lived next door to his father at Belgrave Villa on Tufnell Park Road. His only son George was an accomplished pilot and made many ascents often using the Nassau balloon incuding one near Berlin when ‘ignorant’ peasants frightened by the huge balloon tried to shoot him down!

EDWARD SPENCER – was Charles Green’s closest friend and financial backer. Edward was a successful solicitor with a passion for ballooning. He flew many times with Charles Green as well as solo flights. His son was named Charles Green Spencer in honour of Charles who also was the boy’s godfather.

CHARLES GREEN SPENCER – went on to become a well known balloonist and aeronaut in his own right (often accompaied by his wife Louise). He set up a balloon making company – C. G. Spencer & Sons at 14 Ringcroft Street in Holloway. He also experimented with gliders and is credited with helping to introduce the bicycle to Britain.


SPENCER LEGACY – Charles Green Spencer’s family went on to have a great influence on aeronautics. His sons Percival, Arthur and Stanley founded Spencer Bros Ltd at Highbury Grove (later Stoke Newington) where they manufactured balloons and parachutes in a converted garage often touring the country demonstarting their products. It is said that the works were visited by perhaps the most famous aeronaut of the time, Count Von Zeppelein. If it is true, the visit must have inspired Stanley as he is credited with being the first Englishman to build an airship.



The brothers were also landlords of the Highbury Barn public house for a time.

Their legacy obviously continued with their children especially the women who can count amongst their credits – the first woman to ride in an airship, the first woman to fly in a powered aircraft and the first woman to parachute in Britain.



“SERIOUS ACCIDENT – THE NASSAU BALLOON. Thursday the feelings of several hundreds, who had. notwithstanding the unfavourable state of the weather assembled in Vauxhall-gardens to witness the ascent the Nassau balloon, as well as those the vast numbers persons on the outside of the gardens, who had been on the look out for the balloon, were for some time kept in a state of painful excitement for the safety of less than 11 individuals, who had accompanied the immense machine.

At 7 o’clock, the balloon having been sufficiently inflated, Mr. Charles Green, the veteran aeronaut; Mrs. Green, his wife; Mr. and Mrs. Green, his nephew and his wife; Miss Green, and Miss Gascoyne, of Vauxhall-gardens; Mr. Cranshaw, the iron-master; Mr. Stephens, Mr. Faunce, Captain Oudre, and Mr. Pierce, making altogether 11 individuals, got into the car, and the words “all right”‘ having been given, the ropes were unfastened and the balloon mounted into the air in very good style, and the ascent was considered a very beautiful successful one.

The balloon proceeded in a northeastern course, but it was soon observed that it was descending so rapidly that it was generally thought that a considerable leakage of the gas must have taken place, and that an accident a serious character was inevitable. Mr. Green, who was seated in the car, perceiving the extreme danger in which he was placed, commenced emptying the sand bags of ballast as quickly as he possibly could, but even this did not prevent the gradual sinking of the balloon. On passing over the St. George’s-road, near West- Square, it was painfully evident to the thousands who were looking on that the balloon must come contact with some of the buildings, and in an instant it struck the roofs of the houses 94 and 95 on the north side of the London-road, and only one house removed from the Nunnery which had been formerly the Roman Catholic chapel.

The car, in which seven of the aeronauts were seated, struck the front of the house with considerable force, so much that three of the persons who were standing on the hoop were thrown forward on to the roof, which fortunately happened to be a flat one ; but a fourth clung to the network of the balloon. The machine being thus relieved from the weight three of its occupants, and having fortunately escaped damage, instantly rose into the air to a considerable altitude, when a brisk current of air carried it in southerly direction, apparently towards Croydon. The three individuals who had thus fortunately escaped descended through the trapdoor of adjoining beershop from the roof, reached the street, and having procured a cab drove as fast they could to the gardens relieve their friends and the visitors from their painful anxiety. A good deal of injury done to two houses in the London-road—one of which is occupied Mr. Cross, a marine store dealer, and the other by Mr. Hammond, a hairdresser. The coping-stone, for about 10 or 12 feet, has been carried to the roofs, and the chimneys are much damaged, so that it will take 10/. or 12/. to repair.

Mr. Green seemed to have sustained a severe shock, and it was stated that he was suffering from an internal injury, having been violently thrown against the edge of the car when the balloon struck the house tops, and falling on his side bruised his ribs, which some years since were affected by the accident. During his journey home he was very sick, and his appearance indicated that he was in great pain. Mrs. Green also seemed to be very ill; she had received a slight abrasion of the skin on the side her face. Miss Gascoygne had a wound her forehead, occasioned by the grapnel and Mrs. W. Green had one of her hands much bruised.

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