BALLOONS OVER NEWHAM. They took off from Stratford and North Woolwich and often landed causing damage to property.
During the last [18th] century a frequent sight in the skies over East and West Ham which made people stop and stare was the appearance of a brightly coloured balloon carrying an aeronaut and a basket full of passengers on a sightseeing flight from one of London's pleasure gardens.
Since earliest times man has dreamed of being able to fly but it was balloons rather than wings that were to provide the means of leaving the ground.
The Montgolfier brothers in France carried cut experiments with balloons filled with hot air and soon developed one large enough for Francois Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes to make the first manned ascent in 1783.
Interest in balloons soon spread throughout Europe. In September 1784 Vincent Lunardi made the first manned ascent from London in a hydrogen filled balloon and immediately became a popular hero, touring the country until the death of one of his crew in 1786 forced him to leave Britain in disgrace.
Despite the risks, a number of balloonists earned their living both as pilots and showmen devising ever more elaborate and dangerous aerial stunts to draw the crowds. One of the leading showman-balloonists during the first half of the19th century was, Charles Green, who made his first ascent using coal gas to inflate a balloon when he flew from Green Park to Barnet to celebrate the coronation of George IV in 1821.
Subsequently he made a number of ascents around the country.
For his 98th flight it was advertised that his balloon, "the most magnificent one ever constructed being composed of l200 yards of silk and containing 140,000 gallons of gas" would ascend from "that most spacious and delightful spot, "the bowling green of the Swann Inn, Stratford" on July 9, 1828.
Having been refused a supply of gas by the local gas company he was forced to make other arrangements to fill the balloon and tow it three miles to Stratford.
Arriving there at 5 o'clock in the morning it was not until 7.30 in the evening of the next day that the public, who had paid two shillings to be admitted, saw the balloon go up.
The balloon finally descended in Holloway's mead, East Ham where the remaining gas was discharged.
As a result of the many descents, some of which caused hundreds of pounds worth of damage the "Tenants and Occupiers of land in the several parishes of East Ham and West Ham, Wanstead, Leyton, Barking and Ilford" issued a notice to aeronauts in May 1853. In it they warned that they would take legal action against those who descended on their land or encouraged others to trespass on it.
Thousands of people travelled by railway and steamboat to see the balloons go up at Newham's own pleasure gardens - the Royal Pavilion Gardens -which had been opened at North Woolwich during the 1850s.
Coxwell by then an experienced balloonist was hired to make ascents there and to assist other artistes such as the Hayes brothers to perform their trapeze act suspended under the basket of his balloon.
While he was at North Woolwich, Coxwell visited the studio of Thomas Wright in East India Dock Road, Poplar, to have his photograph taken. He was so pleased with the result that he invited Wright to make an ascent with him but Wright said no.
Wright watched from the ground but was determined that when the next opportunity arose he would go up.
His chance came and after the flight Wright decided he would become a balloonist and later succeeded Coxwell, the man who had inspired him, as the balloonist at the Crystal Palace. Wright was in turn succeeded by his assistant Captain William Dale, who lived not far from him in Cecil Road, Plaistow.
Despite his experience Dale lost his life in a balloon accident at the Crystal Palacee on July 29 1892. He had been hired to make an ascent for the crowds who had gone to see the festival of London school choirs.
While his balloon was being inflated his wife noticed a tear in the fabric but soon repaired it. Accompanied by his son and two passengers he took off but within a few minutes a tear appeared near the top of the balloon. The gas escaped, they plunged to the ground.
The spectators looked up in horror as it fell and rushed to where it had landed where they found Dale dead and the passengers injured. One of the passengers later died.
At the inquest it was found that the fabric of the balloon was old and weak having been made up from the material of several old balloons. A few days earlier he had been given warning of its dangerous condition when a large tear appeared in the balloon.
Many of the leading balloonists including Thomas Wright attended Dale's funeral in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalene Church, East Ham. His gravestone, which records the circumstances of his death can still be soon there to the right of the main entrance in High Street South - a reminder of the days when balloonists lived and died to entertain.
(Originally published as Local Studies Notes No. 62 by Newham library service; compiled by the late Howard Bloch, former Local Studies Librarian).