BALLOONING was a dangerous occupation back in the 18th century. And one of the most daring aeronauts was Oxford’s own James Sadler.
An uneducated pastry cook, he worked at his father’s business, The Lemon Hall Refreshment House, in High Street.
Few could ever have imagined he would become the first Englishman to fly.
In October 1784, Sadler made his first ascent in a 170-foot hot air balloon, aged 44. He flew over Oxford to 3,600 feet, landing six miles away after half an hour in the air.
He started from the site where St Hilda’s College now sits, in Cowley Place, and travelled as far as Water Eaton.
But the feat was all the more impressive because he did everything himself, Oxford comedian and author Richard O Smith discovered for his new book The Man With His Head in the Clouds.
Richard O. Smith's book on James Sadler
Sadler had fallen into obscurity over the years but is now the subject of two books; The Oxford Aeronaut, written by Grandpont resident Marianne Richards.
Mr Smith said: “James Sadler achieved undeniable greatness; designing and building his own balloon and basket, manufacturing his hydrogen and piloting his own creation; taking off in gales, crashing into hills, plopping into the Irish Sea and Bristol Channel.
“He once ascended in a severe gale aiming for Birmingham, but landed in Boston, Lincolnshire.
“Sadler lived like a prototype of Jackass the Movie.”
It followed a series of other cooky experiments by Sadler involving unmanned balloons, as well as some with dogs as passengers. They were accompanied by notes to those who might find them with Sadler’s home address written down.
Sadler’s exploits earned him an unusual celebrity status for someone of his humble beginnings.
An illustration of one of James Sadler’s balloon flights over Merton Fields in 1784
Mr Smith said: “It was at a time when society rewarded individuals with its attention for genuine acts of derring-do.
“To become a household name without education or breeding was exceptionally uncommon.”
Sadly his life is not well-recorded, with only the most important facts known.
This was the challenge facing Mr Smith in researching his book.
He spent the better part of two years poring over any documents he could get about Sadler, looking for “gold nuggets” of information not previously seen.
When he died, Oxford University noted his passing with just one sentence: “Mr James Sadler, elder brother of Mr Sadler of Rose Hill, Oxford, has died.”
Mr Smith’s own theory about what happened is what he calls an unrecorded dispute with Oxford University and the military as well.
Sadler died in George Lane, now George Street, surprisingly peacefully in his bed aged 75 in 1828. But his earlier career may hold clues as to what went wrong, the author claimed.
He carried out a number of flights between 1784 and 1785, then abruptly stopped. He did not resume his activities ballooning until 1810, when he was 57. By 1815 he had achieved 47 ascents.
This, Mr Smith said, could either have been because his wife made him stop, or because of the end of support from Oxford University.
A plaque in James Sadler's honour
According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, a letter sent by British statesman William Windham later said: “(Sadler) a prodigy … is oppressed, to the disgrace of the University … from pique and jealousy of his superior science.”
And despite gaining Lord Nelson’s favour for improving the Navy’s rifles after his first period of ballooning, he later had a fraught relationship with the inspector-general of the naval board, Samuel Bentham.
Though the aeronaut continued working for the Navy in the difficult circumstance, he was fired without any form of compensation in 1809. These two instances combined may have contributed to his modern obscurity, Mr Smith claimed.
He said: “I have a huge desire to get Sadler better known and polish his reputation for the 21st century. He is a great example of why this country has its hubris.”
Sadler was not the only man looking to the skies in the 18th century.
Another depiction of a Sadler flight
The most famous balloon escapade worldwide was carried out by Pilatre de Rozier and Marquis d’Arlandes in October 1783.
They were carried over Paris in a balloon designed by the Montgolfier brothers.
But the Montgolfiers were wrong in their understanding of why the contraption flew.
“Their theories were based around the idea that it was smoke which caused the balloon to soar, when it was in fact hot air.
That, Mr Smith claims, is where Sadler may have been right.
He said: “Sadler was a chemist and we know he worked out it was hot air that made them work. That is why today you will only ever see a balloon at dawn or dusk, because that is when air temperatures are at the best levels.”
The aeronaut also later developed the use of hydrogen in the balloons, which he even created himself using chemical reactions involving acids and metals, capturing it using special blankets – a highly dangerous thing at the time.
A medal minted in Sadler’s honour
But Mr Smith has huge admiration for Sadler, which is in no small part down to his own chronic fear of heights.
And, alongside the aeronaut’s story, his effort to overcome that fear is also charted throughout the book. It culminates in him eventually even going on a hot air balloon ride of his own.
In the book, he notes: “My fear of heights is extreme. Acute acrophobia forbids me from standing on a stool, yet alone dangling from the strings of an oversized party balloon.”
He said: “My admiration for Sadler is partly because of that.
“Last year I started seeing a specialist about my vertigo and that helped enormously.
“And at the end of the book I recreate Sadler’s flight from October 1784. I was supposed to be reformed by then but I actually had a BBC documentary radio crew following me and for scheduling reasons it had to be done before my treatment had fully concluded.
“So I have to say I was pretty terrified. You look down at the sheer drop of 3,000 feet or so and you look up and the balloon is on fire. But it was a fantastic feeling once I had done it.”
UNCOVERING A FEAR OF STAIRS
- RICHARD O. Smith discovers in his book The Man With His Head in the Clouds that he has bathmophobia – a fear of slopes or stairs.
- It is similar to climacophobia, a fear of climbing stairs, except sufferers may only panic when simply anticipating a steep slope.
- Vertigo, according to the NHS, is actually a symptom rather than a condition itself. It makes people feel as though the environment around them is moving or spinning and attacks can happen very suddenly, or even last for days.
- Effects can be nausea, a loss of balance and lightheadedness.
- It you have persistent symptoms, it is recommended you visit a GP.
- NHS Choices says the cause can be ear conditions, such as benign paroxysmal positional vertigo or Ménière’s disease, which affect the inner ear, or an inflammation of the nerve which sends messages to the brain from the ear to help control balance.
- Treatments can include corrective procedures, medicines and rehabilitation training from a trained therapist.
A MAN LOOKING TO THE STARS
- JAMES Sadler was designing and constructing airworthy balloons by February 1784. This included the one he exhibited at Oxford Town Hall, St Aldates, which had a 63-foot diameter, as part of a marketing exercise to raise funds. His flights included:
- February 19, 1784 – Sadler launched his first test balloon, unmanned and made of silk, from a field slightly west of the Plain, Oxford. The balloon was later discovered in a field, with a tag noting Sadler’s address, by a man walking in Wrotham, in Kent. It was swiftly sent to a local newspaper by letter and reported.
- May 11, 1784 – Sadler repeated his February exercise in May, but this time with a furry occupant aboard the balloon. A dog was placed in the basket to test if there was sufficient oxygen in the atmosphere for any future manned ascent. Launched again from Oxford, it was discovered in the countryside 10 miles south of Colchester. A local surgeon found the basket, but not the dog.
- October 4, 1784 – After reviewing his designs and experiments, Sadler decided to test the balloon for himself and the effort was reported on by Jackson’s Oxford Journal, the city’s paper of record at the time. The basket was affixed with a stove to produce the hot air Sadler needed to make the balloon rise. Taking off at 5.30am opposite Magdalen College, a brisk breeze carried it quickly upwards and he reached an astonishing maximum altitude of 3,900 feet. He unfortunately dropped his stoking stick, used for the stove, and after 30 minutes descended to a field between Islip and Woodeaton. Nonetheless, he had become the first Englishman to fly.
- The Man With His Head in the Clouds was published on May 1. For more information, visit signalbooks.co.uk
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