Times past: Pioneering flight went down like a lead balloon

Ilfracombe was the setting for the first attempt at a hot air balloon flight across the Bristol Chan

Ilfracombe was the setting for the first attempt at a hot air balloon flight across the Bristol Channel. - Credit: Archant

This week, Bideford historian and author Peter Christie looks at the first attempt to cross the Bristol Channel in a hot air balloon. Things did not go according to plan...

The absence of aircraft trails in the sky of late reminds me that flying is a relatively modern phenomenon with the first aerial ascent in North Devon actually taking place in 1882.

In that year Captain Molesworth of Bideford was chair of the Balloon Society of Great Britain when they decided to attempt a pioneering crossing of the Bristol Channel, starting off from Westward Ho!

The ‘aeronaut’ who was to attempt this was Joseph Simmons who announced that ‘nothing whatever should stand in the way of his crossing, providing that the weather would permit him to do so.’

Only a week after this, however, he attempted to cross the English Channel but had to ditch in the sea from where he was rescued by a passing ship – not an auspicious omen.

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Nothing daunted, Simmons brought his newly repaired balloon to Westward Ho! - unfortunately few of its residents were interested and he moved to Ilfracombe where he got a far more supportive reception.

On April 10 Simmons made his attempt on a day that was ‘magnificently fine, with a clear bright sky, and the wind almost a dead calm’. At 7am that morning inflation of his balloon began on a field to ‘the rear of the Independent Chapel’ – which took no less than four hours.

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As a test the balloon was sent up to 300 foot carrying Simmons, two local men and a Miss Street – a brave Victorian lady.

After two more test flights Simmons and a two-man crew set out on their flight. The balloon rapidly rose to a mile high – accompanied by the cheers of the large crowd that had gathered to send them off.

As luck would have it the wind seems to have changed direction and rather than going north across the Bristol Channel they began to drift eastwards later turning west and drifting towards Barnstaple.

Some hours later it gently descended to land at Hacketts Farm, Swimbridge – a mere 16 miles in the wrong direction.

Local newspaper editorials mocked the whole attempt with one writing ‘It is difficult to write with patience of such hare brained follies as occupied attention in North Devon on Monday. Ballooning under any conditions is sufficiently hazardous, but it argues suicidal mania or idiotic recklessness to select for the scene of an ascent the margin of the sea.’ Indeed the whole thing was a ‘ludicrous and contemptible farce’.

Not a great start to the history of flying in North Devon!

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