Credit for making the first manned free floating balloon flight across English skies goes to a man who came to Britain as the Secretary to the Neapolitan Ambassador in London in the 18th Century. During this historic journey he literally made a flying visit to the District of Hatfield.
Italian hot air balloonist Vincenzo Lunardi, commonly referred to as Vincent Lunardi, took off from the Honourable Artillery Company grounds, at Moorfields, London on 19 September 1784 to make the first manned, free floating balloon flight in English skies. He had a cat, a dog and a pigeon for company (due to the balloon not inflating sufficiently he was forced to leave human company behind – some sources refer to one, others to two intended travelling companions). An estimated 150,000 people gathered at the Honourable Artillery Company grounds to see him take off. Among the distinguished spectators and guests was the Prince of Wales (later George IV).
It was less than a year since the world's first manned, free floating balloon flight, which was made in France by Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier (also called Francis Pilâtre de Rozier) and François Laurent d'Arlandes (also called Marquis d'Arlandes) using a Montgolfier Brothers balloon on 21 November 1783. Initially the French King had only agreed to a manned flight if it were made by two criminals, who if they had returned alive would have been given a pardon.
The first manned, untethered balloon flight in British skies had been made by James Tytler in Edinburgh on Friday, 27 August 1874 (he had made his first ascent using a tether on 25 August 1874, with an abortive attempt earlier in the month). Incidentally, James Tytler developed his interest in hot air ballooning while almost single-handedly revising the second edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, increasing it from three to ten volumes.
Lunardi's balloon differed from Tytler's in an important respect: Tytler's was a hot air balloon, while Lunardi was using a balloon filled with hydrogen (essentially relying on its lighter than air properties to make it float).
Lunardi's aerial journey across London caused quite a commotion. One report states that he lost part of his steering mechanism during the initial ascent and the falling debris was mistaken by a female spectator as the aeronaut falling to his death. She was so shocked and horrified it is claimed that she died shortly afterwards.
A more light-hearted consequence reported was of the case of a jury, deliberating the verdict on a prisoner, wondering what the commotion outside was about as the balloon came into view. However, as they could not satisfy their curiosity without giving their verdict, they promptly found the defendant not guilty. Court was then discharged and everyone rushed out to take in the novel sight.
His first stop was at Welham Green (some accounts refer to the location by the parish name of Mymms), when he briefly came back down to earth to release at least one of his animal companions which had been feeling the cold. The supposed landing site (some think he landed further away) is marked as Balloon Corner on maps, and has a memorial stone marker (pictured above) with the following inscription:
'Near this spot at 3.30 in the
afternoon of September 19th
1784 Vincenzo Lunardi the
Italian balloonist made his
first landing whilst on his
pioneer flight in the English
Having handed out a cat and dog
the partners of his flight from
London, he re-ascended and
According to one source, the Welham Green name was devised by property developers following the arrival of the railways in 1850. However, this reference appears to relate to the railway station area. 'Wellom Gr.' is shown on a 1748 map of Hertfordshire engraved by Thomas Kitchin and published in the London Magazine.
The area around the railway station appears to have been originally called Marshmoor (and there are parts that still go under that name). A report in The Times on an 1870 rail accident refers to a Marshmoor-gate crossing. While the three acre site of the Marshmoor Mill – including railway sidings, track and foreman's cottage – was advertised for sale in 1933.
Having allegedly rained a cat and dog* on the probably bemused people of Mymms, and no doubt feeling all the more buoyant for having done so, he continued upwards and onwards.
*Please note: the pigeon had escaped at a very early stage of the flight. Most accounts state that he only let the cat out at Welham Green. If so, it's not clear when the dog was released but the balloon, along with the cat and dog, were later put on public display.
Incidentally, the expression 'raining cats and dogs' had been in use for over a century before this event, and is generally attributed to them taking shelter in thatched straw roofs which became slippery after heavy rain. The animals evidently making themselves home in roofs that extended to the ground or at least low enough for dogs to jump up.
Lunardi's flight finally ended around 40 minutes later, when he came back down to earth at Standon, near Ware, in Hertfordshire.
Landing a lighter-than-air balloon was not straightforward. Especially, when the people below, whose help was required, weren't expecting him, had never seen a balloon before, and some apparently thought he was in league with the devil. Fortunately for him, a young girl, Elizabeth Brett, had more presence of mind and seized the rope he was dangling. Her courage embolden at least some of the men in the area to lend a hand and together they hauled Lunardi's balloon safely down to the ground.
According to The Times, some gentlemen who had followed his progress on horseback from London soon rode up and took Lunardi to the Bull Inn in Ware for a celebratory drink.
A memorial was erected in the field at Collier's End, near a house called Long Mead, where his flight ended. Its inscription reads:
'Let posterity know, and knowing be astonished, that on the fifteenth day of September, 1784, Vincent Lunardi of Lucca, in Tuscany, the first aerial traveller in Britain, mounting from the Artillery Ground in London, and traversing the regions of the air for two hours and fifteen minutes, in this spot revisited the earth. On this rude monument for ages be recorded this wonderous enterprise successfully achieved by the powers of chemistry and the fortitude of man, this improvement in science which the great Author of all knowledge, patronizing by his Providence the inventions of mankind, hath graciously permitted, to their benefit and his own eternal glory.'
Vincenzo Lunardi became the toast of the town. He was made an honorary member of the Honourable Artillery Company, granted a special audience with the King, and was presented with a watch by the Prince of Wales. His balloon was later exhibited at the Pantheon (a theatre) in Oxford Street.
Sadly, neither Vincenzo Lunardi nor James Tytler's stories had happy endings. Lunardi died poverty stricken in a monastery in Portugal twelve years later. While Tytler was forced to emigrate to emigrate in 1792 after a political handbill he printed was considered to be seditious. He died in Salem, Massachusetts in 1804.