On a sunny day in October 1821 many people caught their first sight of a manned balloon in the skies over Sussex.
Charles Green (1785 – 1870) was to become Britain’s most famous balloonist of the 19th century but in 1821 he was still a pioneer of flight, the first outdoor manned flight only having been made in 1783 by Etienne Montgolfier in France.
Green’s first Sussex flight is believed to be only his second ascent and it began at Brighton gasworks.
His balloon was the first-ever to employ coal gas to achieve lift as a cheaper and more readily available alternative to hydrogen.
The wind blew the balloon eastwards. One celebrated witness to the exploit was Dr Gideon Mantell, the man who would later become famous for discovering the fossil remains of the iguanodon dinosaur in the Sussex Weald. Mantell kept an extensive diary and the entry for 2nd October 1821 reads: “A remarkably fine day. Mr Green ascended in a balloon from the gasworks near Brighton. Mrs Mantell was walking with me and we perceived the balloon from the top of Keere Street; it fell in the sea, off Cuckmere, and was picked up by a packet; the aeronaut was almost drowned.”
Keere Street is close to the High Street house by the castle in Lewes where Mantell lived.
Charles Green went on to become a professional balloonist, making more than 500 flights in a long airborne career. He returned to Sussex to make balloon flights on several occasions. In September 1828, on the day of Lewes Great Sheep Fair, a band played stirring music as he made an ascent above the town, a scene recorded in the drawing reproduced above.
A few days later Mantell was a passenger alongside Greene in a tethered balloon that “ascended to a considerable height” over the gardens in Brighton’s Steine. Mantell recorded that they were accompanied by “Mr Lee, the editor of the Lewes paper who was aged upwards of 80”.
In 1836, Green established a major distance record when flying 480 miles overnight from Vauxhall Gardens in London to Weilburg in Germany. On 31st March 1841, he was back in Sussex and set off on a five-hour flight from Hastings over the English Channel to Neufchatel, about 10 miles south-west of Boulogne. His companion in the balloon was the Duke of Brunswick who, according to a local newspaper report of the time, was on the run as a result of committing perjury in a libel case!
By 1845, Gideon Mantell had moved to South London. His diary for 8th August reads: “Walked to Battersea Bridge and saw Green ascend in his balloon at eleven at night; a beautiful shower of fireworks from the car, when at almost 800 feet high.”
At this time Mantell was a strong believer in the future of balloon transport. In a letter to a friend he wrote: “I never see him (Green) without regretting that a few thousands from the millions to be expended in new railroads not required, should be devoted to the perfection of aerostations, which I am persuaded will sooner or later entirely supercede railway travelling for passengers. We have had a frightful number of accidents lately; and no wonder! Our express trains which go at the rate of fifty miles an hour are terrific to behold; they raise up clouds of dust from the whirlwinds induced by their rapid passage through the air.”
However, the proliferation of balloons, some in clearly inexperienced hands, soon led to a dangerously crowded sky and Mantell came to completely change his opinion about the usefulness of such devices. In 1851 he witnessed a balloon just skirting the top of the Duke of Wellington’s house at Hyde Park Corner before falling to the ground in St James Street. His diary entry concerning the incident reads: “It was on its way from Kensington whence it ascended under the ‘guidance!!!’ of Mr and Mrs Graham, who were found almost killed, lying on the top of a house. When will this folly be put an end to?”
So what happened to Charles Green? Well, despite choosing such a dangerous occupation, he lived on to the ripe old age of 85, something that certainly wouldn’t have happened but for the timely presence of that boat (or packet) on that 1821 day when his balloon came down into the sea near Cuckmere Haven.