BIZARRELY, SURGEON JOHN SHELDON had a legitimate claim to having been the first Englishman to make a manned balloon flight and to being among the first ‘to fly’ anywhere outside France, when he made the ascent in the company of French balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard from the Royal Military Academy at Little Chelsea on 16 October 1784.
A legend below the above etching reads: GRAND AEROSTATICS BALLOON in which M Blanchard on Sat Oct 16th 1764 ascended from the Royal Military Academy at Little Chelsea, a fourth Time into the Atmosphere accompanied by the ingenious Mr Sheldon – at Ten Minutes after Twelve the two gallant adventurers, preceded by two small Balloons as Signals, after taking leave of their generous Host & a numerous circle of Nobility & Friends, arose with the most majestic grandeur & wafter by the prayers and plaudits of upwards of Four Hundred Thousand Spectators in Eighteen Minutes were lost in Aether – after a number of astonishing manoeuvres Evolutions the Travellers made a stop at Sunbury, where for the expediting the Machine the gallant Sheldon (unwillingly) descended left his friend to pursue alone his Journey through “the tactless void,” who after passing over Guildford, Farnham & about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, finding the day too far spent to cross the Channel to Brest, after hovering a considerable Time over Portsmouth, the Isle of Wight &c &c alighted at Rumsey near Southampton and amidst universal acclamations finished by far the most extraordinary Journey ever performed.
Blanchard had taken to the air for the first time in his hydrogen gas-filled Montgolfier balloon in Paris just a few months earlier, on 2nd March.
He moved to London in August in order to further develop his ‘machine’. The French inventor had developed a system of propulsion that involved flapping wings and a windmill, which proved ineffective.
According to the account that appears below the etching of the day’s events Monsieur Blanchard set out with the intention of crossing the Channel.
However, their departure was delayed by the huge crowds that turned out to witness the event, upwards of 400,000 according to the legend on the illustration.
History does not record what Sheldon thought of his momentous journey but a sense of the occasion was rendered in an etching by one of the great artists of the day, Paul Sandby, a founding member of the Royal Academy.
Spectators were clinging to rooftops
The etching shows Sheldon waving what appears to be a Union Jack, while Blanchard holds the ‘flapping wings’ with which he hoped to be able to steer the balloon. Bags of discarded ballast can be seen falling from the craft, while spectators are shown clinging to the rooftops to cheer on the adventurers.
Nonetheless, that record-breaking first flight flew for some 71.5 miles, landing initially in Sunbury before taking off again and continuing on to Romsey in Hampshire, just seven miles from Southampton, way surpassing the distance covered by the first French flight.
Just three months later, In January 1785, Blanchard made history again when he piloted his balloon to complete the first aerial crossing of the English Channel.
A somewhat different account of the day’s events appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine, which also alluded to the great public interest shown in the event, saying: “The fields for a considerable distance round little Chelsea were crowded with horse and foot, in consequence of which a general devastation took place in the gardens, the produce being either trampled down or torn up.
“Turnips grown there were totally despoiled.
“At 12 o’clock M Blanchard and Dr Sheldon stepped into the boat pending from the balloon, and the cords being loosed, it took a diagonal direction across the garden, its altitude being about two feet off the ground, and then rose above the wall, but not high enough for the boat to clear it.”
The report tells how Blanchard tried to persuade Sheldon to leave the balloon in order to lighten the load but Sheldon, who was paying for the trip, refused.
A much-piqued Blanchard reacted by throwing Sheldon’s scientific instruments overboard and the balloon finally took off.
The two men had a violent quarrel as they floated over South West London and into Surrey and when the balloon came down at Sunbury, Sheldon departed, leaving Blanchard to fly on alone to Romsey.
PART THREE: John Sheldon’s less savoury side laid bare