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Out of Time: James Sadler, The Man Who Launched the First Manned Balloon Flight

29 May 21 words: Ashley Carter
illustrations: Natalie Owen

We take a look back at the life of pioneering aeronaut James Sadler, the man who launched the first manned balloon flight from Nottingham in 1813...

If you went back two centuries, you’d be hard pressed to find a person in Britain who didn’t know the name James Sadler. The balloonist was the first British person to slip the surly bonds of Earth, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, and touch the face of God when he made a successful balloon ascent in 1784. From humble working class beginnings as a pastry chef, he achieved immortality for his achievement as, for all of Britain’s aeronautical history, from the Spitfire and the Battle of Britain to the Red Arrows and Tim Peake spending 186 days in space, James Sadler was the first. 

Europe had been gripped by a combination of fear, delight and confusion at the prospect of manned flight ever since brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier completed the first successful manned balloon ascent in Annonay, France, in 1783. Not to be left behind, Germany launched their first flight later that same year and Italian aeronaut Vincenzo Lunardi piloted the first successful attempt on British soil soon after. Crowds of up to 400,000 watched in stunned amazement as man achieved the seemingly impossible, breaking the invisible shackles that had kept us bound to the Earth since the beginning of time. 

It wasn’t long after that Nottingham almost had its first flight. Aspiring balloonist Mr. Cracknell – whose first name is lost to history – widely advertised his intentions, and enormous crowds gathered on Forest Racecourse (now Forest Fields) on 13 July 1785. Shops were shut, schools were closed and thousands waited with baited breath as Cracknell began to inflate his balloon. Unfortunately for him, the crowd grew restless and, by 7pm, mutterings of discontent turned to violence. The once-excited crowd had become a dissatisfied mob that cut his balloon cords, sending it skyward, half-inflated, as a helpless Cracknell watched on. The rest of his expensive apparatus was fuel for an ensuing bonfire, while his balloon eventually landed near Horncastle, where it was found by labourers and dissected for souvenirs. Nottingham would have to wait almost three decades for its next chance to witness a manned flight. 

James Sadler was neither highborn nor well-educated, meaning that much of his early life is lost to the haze of history. We know that his formative years were spent working in the kitchen of his family’s small pastry shop in Oxford and that he had an interest in chemistry, but precious little else. That is until his name pops in relation to building an airworthy balloon in February 1784. He tested his creations with a string of unmanned flights. By May, Sadler was confident enough to send a dog skyward – 180 years before the Soviets launched Laika, and forty years before the founding of the RSPCA – but, rather bizarrely, the dog was nowhere to be found upon landing. But the tests clearly had the desired effect on Sadler, as he was ready for the next step: piloting his own balloon flight. 

On a cold, early Oxford morning in October 1784, James Sadler began to fill his balloon with his specially manufactured “rarified air”. It was 3am, and it would take a full two-and-a-half hours before he was ready to fly. To say that Britain wasn’t fully prepared for air flight would be an understatement: an earlier unmanned balloon, which had landed in Devon, had been attacked by pitchfork-wielding farmers, presumed to be a foreign alien intent on stealing their cows. Sadler had also been warned against colliding with Heaven itself, and asked if he had planned to take any weapons, lest sky dragons attack him. The intricate nature of rudimentary air flight wasn’t fully understood to the extent that it was thought that man could simply row through the skies, which is why Sadler counted two large oars among his flight apparatus. The ascent was a success, with Sadler’s unmanned balloon drifting four miles during a thirty-minute flight at a height of around 3,600ft. 

The once-excited crowd had become a dissatisfied mob that cut his balloon cords, sending it skyward, half-inflated, as a helpless Cracknell watched on

Overnight, Sadler was a national hero. Oxford shut down to celebrate his miraculous success, as townspeople took the horses from his carriage in order to personally pull him around town for hours in celebration. The London Chronicle declared Sadler “the mightiest of Lords”, whereas a Mr. Smith wrote that the flight “represented mankind’s greatest achievement.” 

Subsequent flights, merchandise, public events and even an invitation to meet the Queen followed, as the name Sadler became synonymous with British endeavour, bravery and ingenuity. Thirty years later, Sadler still drew crowds that numbered in the tens of thousands to see him fly his grand balloon as part of the centenary celebrations of the Hanoverians ascending the throne. He drew praise from some of the biggest names of the time, including Lord Nelson, who Sadler had helped win the Battle of Trafalgar. Noticing that over a third of the rifles and cannons aboard the HMS Victory were missing their target by over five feet, Sadler suggested some amendments, which drastically improved their efficiency. 

The following year, Nottingham was finally given the honour of seeing its first manned air flight. And what’s better, it was at the expense of Derby. A special committee had been formed to raise 500 guineas to pay Sadler to perform the first manned balloon flight in the East Midlands, but when Sadler arrived in Derby he found that the town’s authorities no longer intended to honour the deal. A sharp exchange of words followed over the subsequent months, before Sadler eventually decided to extract the ultimate revenge and relocate the flight to Nottingham. 

On 1 November 1813, 30,000 people gathered on Canal Street to prove that the popularity of Sadler, and manned flight in general, was far from waning. They waited for seven hours in the cold, their patience rewarded when Sadler’s enormous red and white silk balloon ascended to the skies. Eyes that had gathered from Newark, Mansfield, Leicester and, yes, Derby, filled every possible vantage point to catch a glimpse of the spectacle. In 2013 the Nottingham Civic Society unveiled a plaque on the front door of Mellows, Morton and Clayton pub on Canal Street – the location thought to be the site used for his ascent – to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Nottingham’s first flight. 

After his historic Nottingham flight, Sadler started to limit his aeronautical activities. Like a middle-England Icarus, his flying activities were starting to become more trouble than they were worth. Never one to exploit his passion for financial gain, Sadler only ever raised enough funds to complete his flights, and his nationwide celebrity never transferred into financial stability. Then in 1824, Sadler’s son Windham (who had also flown from Nottingham, launching from the Castle grounds just a year earlier) died in a tragic ballooning incident. The event broke Sadler, and haunted him until his death four years later. He died penniless, and with exciting new technological advances taking the limelight, coupled with his frustrating lack of first-person written accounts of his exploits and a class prejudice against his lowborn beginnings, his reputation was largely lost to history.  

His name might not be widely remembered today; save for the odd book, plaque and discussion amongst aeronaut enthusiasts, but James Sadler is a name that should be celebrated. He was the first Englishman to cut the umbilical cord from Mother Earth, scaling heights that none other had before him and blazing a trail that would eventually lead to the Moon and, given enough time, further afield still. 

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