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James Sadler (1751-1828) gained the distinction of being the first Englishman to fly


THE first Englishman to ascend, anASCENDING FROM MERTON FIELDS, OXFORD, on July 7, 1810, James Sadler made a voyage of two and a half hours in this balloond perhaps the first man in England to make serious contributions to the art of ballooning, was James Sadler.

Sadler was born in 1751. There was some controversy about the date of his first ascent, but it is generally believed to have taken place in 1784, at Oxford.

The balloon in which this ascent was made had a cubic capacity of 38,792 feet, and a circumference of 170 feet. It was designed to carry one or more aeronauts. Oars were fitted to the car or platform of the balloon.

ASCENDING FROM MERTON FIELDS, OXFORD, on July 7, 1810, James Sadler made a voyage of two and a half hours in this balloon before landing at North Crawley, Buckinghamshire.

According to a report in Jackson’s Oxford Journal for October 9, 1784, the ascent took place on October 4. This report said that Sadler rose to a height of about 3,600 feet. At the beginning of the ascent the barometer showed 29½ inches, but at 3,600 feet it showed a little more than 25 inches. From the gallery or car of the balloon was suspended a stove containing a fire for expanding the envelope. To descend from 3,600 feet Sadler shut the stove. A light breeze drove the balloon from its course. The barometer reading had risen to 27 inches, from which indication Sadler calculated that he had descended 1,350 feet. The power of ascension was now weakened and to raise the balloon it was necessary for the heat in the stove to be more evenly communicated. Sadler dropped the fork with which he should have done this, and unable to enlarge the fire, he abandoned his attempt to reach Woodstock, in Oxfordshire.

The balloon was descending at great speed towards a wood, and an accident appeared to be inevitable. Sadler used the oars with which the balloon was fitted, and attributed to them his success in manoeuvring the balloon; he ultimately landed some six miles from Oxford.

Considerable doubts were expressed as to whether the ascent had taken place. No one saw Sadler ascend or descend. The Oxford Journal was, however, an old-established and responsible newspaper and unlikely to have printed an inaccurate report about so momentous an event. Moreover, the same newspaper published an appeal from Sadler for support. It is improbable that he would have made this appeal if he knew the report to be fictitious.

Sadler’s second ascent was also made from Oxford, on November 12 of the same year. A tear in the envelope caused a gas escape. To avoid a too-rapid descent, Sadler discarded all his ballast, instruments and provisions. He finally landed at Hartwell, near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, having travelled some fourteen miles in seventeen minutes. After the balloon had landed it was completely destroyed, and Sadler was dragged for some distance along the ground.

He built a balloon in which he hoped to achieve his ambition of being the first to cross the English Channel. An accident prevented him from making the attempt. Before he could try again, Blanchard and Jeffries, on January 7, 1785, crossed from Dover to France.

Undiscouraged, Sadler made many more ascents, including one from Moulsey Hurst, on the Thames, in May 1785. Once again Sadler found himself in a balloon which began to descend too rapidly. Believing that the envelope had burst at the top, he released too much ballast. Now the balloon rose too quickly and Sadler cut the silk tube to allow for a quicker escape of gas. The balloon travelled across country until Sadler was dangerously near the sea, and he decided to descend. Once more he released too much ballast, and the balloon went up too quickly. A new device designed to take the place of a valve failed to work, and Sadler was forced to make a rent in the envelope.

He finally descended where the Rivers Thames and Medway meet, but people who helped him in the landing allowed the balloon to escape. It was picked up by a ship after having fallen into the sea near the Nore.

In that same month Sadler ascended from Manchester and reached his highest altitude - over 13,000 feet. He remained above the clouds for three-quarters of an hour, suffered from the cold and had great difficulty in breathing. The valve-gear froze, and the expansion of the gas caused the envelope to be seriously strained. The balloon landed at Pontefract, in Yorkshire. Sadler was dragged along the ground, and this time was badly injured.

During the next twenty-five years Sadler seems to have given up balloon work, but during that period he took out a patent for an improved steam engine.

Later he resumed ballooning and his most ambitious exploit was his attempt to cross the Irish Sea, from Dublin to Holyhead, on October 1, 1812. The balloon in which he made the attempt had a diameter of 55 feet and a capacity of 87,114 cubic feet.

A rent appeared in the balloon at a joining of the tube through which the valve cord passed. Unable to repair the rent, Sadler formed a temporary ladder from the rope used for the grappling iron and tied a knot, or “neck-cloth”, to prevent any escape of gas. Then he met bad weather and, hoping to find a ship, he descended to within a few feet of the sea. He saw no craft and ascended. He was forced down again, this time into the sea and was dragged through the water for half an hour before he was rescued. His son, Windham Sadler, made this crossing on July 22, 1817.

James Sadler died on March 26, 1828.

You can read more on “The First Aerial Voyages”, “Flights of Fancy” and “The Romance of Ballooning” on this website.

James Sadler: The First English Aeronaut