September 19, 1786
Mr LUNARDI having undertaken to make an aerial excursion from the Spital-field, in Newcastle, on this day (Tuesday), at one o’clock, he began the process of filling the
balloon. When it was about two-thirds full, a quantity of acid was added to accelerate the
process. In a few minutes a considerable effervescence was perceived; and, in order to
ascertain its force, Mr. Lunardi drew the plug from the funnel, which was followed by the emission of a quantity of gas, the sudden noise of which gave an unnecessary alarm to several gentlemen on that side of the balloon, who rushed from their stations, and by their motions and involuntary expressions, dictated by groundless apprehensions, caused the others near them to quit their hold, and fly to the opposite side. One side of the balloon being, by this means, totally deserted, its strong power of ascension tore the neck where it joined the barrel. The noise of this being heard, and the gas escaping in a considerable quantity, notwithstanding Mr. Lunardi’s assurances of safety, and his entreaties not to quit their hold, the alarm became general, and in a few seconds, the balloon was liberated. It immediately disengaged itself from the barrel, and ascended with great velocity. One of the ropes fastened to the top of the balloon was retained to assist Mr. Lunardi in descending, of which, during the operation of filling, Mr Ralph HERON was kind enough to take the care; and having inadvertently coiled it round his hand and arm, he was by that means unfortunately carried up by the balloon to a great height. His weight having turned the balloon, its top, to which the rope was tied, tore away, and brought with it the netting, which accompanied the gentleman in his fall into a garden adjoining. The groans and exclamations issuing at this moment from every beholder formed a chorus the most distressing that can possibly be conceived. He did not appear to have received an external contusion from the fall, but complained much of pain in his back and intestines. In his state he continued for a few hours, and then expired. The following copy of Mr. Lunardi’s hand-bill issued the following day, will shew that gentleman’s feelings on the occasion.
”Mr. Lunardi is deeply afflicted for the melancholy accident that attended his endeavours to gratify the curiosity of the public with the ascension of his balloon; and is only to be consoled by the reflection of its having been occasioned by circumstances which it was not in his power to prevent. It remains for him to yield his own wish to fulfil the expectation of the town to the feelings of a parent, wounded by the loss of a most amiable young son;
and to forbear a repetition in this town, which, without fault on his part, has been fatal to the peace of a respectable family. The unvaried success of his former exhibitions, though the remembrance of it now serves but to embitter his grief, will, he hopes, rescue him, in the eyes of a just and generous people, from any imputation injurious to his honour. – King’s Arms, Newcastle, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 1786.”
One can imagine Lunardi burning the midnight oil to get that statement written very
carefully, and to get it printed and displayed rather quickly. Just think what an opportunity this case would provide today in our litigious society!
I’m sure someone can probably tell us the method used to inflate the balloon. It doesn’t
seem to have been hot air – rather some form of gas?
It would seem that this was not the first ascent, this day being notable only for the tragic
Comment on our Swedish Parish Saami guests during the same year:
We don’t know whether ”the laplander girls” (Anna, 25 – soon to be 26 – and Sigrid, 22) or their Saami neighbour from home Anders Larsson, the reindeer businessman (most often referred to as a ”servant” or a ”interpreter” they were present that day.
If so, they were some likely soon headed to leave for a return trip home.
Illustration: Captain Vincenzo Lunardi with his assistant George Biggin, and Mrs. Letitia Anne Sage, in a balloon (John Francis Rigaud, 1785)
John Francis Rigaud – Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Oil on copper 48.3 x 35.6 cm 1785