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The historic North Mymms balloon landing

The day Vincenzo Lunardi touched down


Image courtesy of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, USA, released for public use by Archive.org under the terms of Creative Commons
Image courtesy of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington
Released for public use by Archive.org under the terms of Creative Commons

On the afternoon of Wednesday 15 September 1784, North Mymms entered aviation history.

The Italian balloonist, Vincenzo Lunardi, making the first manned aerial voyage over England, touched down briefly in a cornfield near the parish border with Northaw.

He'd earlier taken off from the Artilliery Ground in London in his hydrogen balloon on the inaugural flight across the English countryside accompanied by a pigeon, a dog, and a cat.

Lunardi’s balloon rising from the Artillery Ground - 15 September 1784 Image courtesy of the Wellcome Collection, released via Creative Commons BY 4.0
Lunardi’s balloon rising from the Artillery Ground - 15 September 1784
Image courtesy of the Wellcome Collection, released via Creative Commons BY 4.0

As 30-year-old Lunardi flew over Hertfordshire the cat became ill and the Italian aeronaut decided to return to ground to release the animal.

Farmer Nathaniel Whitbread of Swanley Bar Farm, riding his horse across a field, saw “a large machine sailing in the air”. 

He watched as ‘the machine’ “came to ground” and was “dragged along in a slanted direction”.

Whitbread called to 12 men and 13 women who were working nearby to try to stop the machine.

But, with “the gentleman in the machine desiring them to desist”, the farm workers held back and, after the cat was released, the balloon “cleared the earth” and headed north at a “very great height”.

Whitbread and the 25 farm labourers had just witnessed history in the making.

Lunardi’s balloon continued its journey. Fifty minutes later at 4.20pm it came down at Standon Green End, north of Ware, Hertfordshire.

After landing, Lunardi was taken to the Bull Inn, where he met the former MP for Hertford, William Baker, of Bayfordbury.

Two days later Baker travelled to North Mymms to verify where Lunardi had touched down, and to collect witness statements from those who had been in the field at the time.

In a letter to Lunardi, written three days after the landing, Baker confirmed where the balloon had touched the ground.
“Yesterday morning I made to the very spot where your Balloon in its passage touched the ground, and where your cat was landed, and with the assistance of several people who were witnesses, particularly of a person whom you may recollect to have been near the Balloon at the time on horseback, and of the very girl who picked up the cat, have ascertained the place with sufficient precision.
“They pointed out the part also where your grapple dragged, and mentioned some other circumstances, the most of which I propose to collect into a formal deposition and shall attend them again today to obtain their most solemn confirmation of the facts.
“With respect to the identical spots on which you made your two descents, you may wish to know the literal fact. That where you made your first descent, that is, where your gallery came to the ground, and where, or near to which, you put out the cat, is a large ploughed field, belonging to John Hunter, Esq. of Gubbins, in the county of Hertford. 
“The field itself is part of the lately enclosed common of North Mimms in the manor of the Duke of Leeds.  The field is about half a mile to the eastward of the sixteen-mile stone, on the road leading from London to Hatfield, and adjoining to the road leading from the said turnpike-road to Northaw on the left. The particular spot in the field is on the east side very near to the boundary line between the manors of Northaw and North Mimms. 
“For the present a common hedge-stake only marks the spot, but with your leave and the permission of Mr. Hunter, I propose to erect a stone there, with a suitable inscription to record the fact; as I shall likewise do on the spot of your last descent, if, as I have no doubt, I can obtain permission of the proprietor.”
The field referred to by Baker is opposite Queenswood School north of Shepherds Way (B157) to the south-east of Brookmans Park.

As far as we know, a stone “with a suitable inscription to record the fact” was not erected at the spot, as proposed by Baker.

The letter Baker wrote to Lunardi is embedded below, along with sworn statements given by the witnesses he met on his visit to North Mymms.

As with all documents embedded on this site you can click on the black pop-out button at the top right to view it in full-screen mode.




Witness accounts of the landing


The North Mymms History Project has reproduced parts of the witness accounts, and embedded the originals below the excerpts.

Farmer Whitbread said that the part of the balloon in which Lunardi was standing “did not actually touch the ground for more than half a minute”, during which time “the gentleman threw out a parcel of what appeared to be dry sand”.

When the balloon rose a grapple with four hooks dragged along the ground, which Whitbread said “carried up with it into the air a small parcel of loose oats, which the women were raking in the field”.

Whitbread said that when the balloon had risen about 20 yards “the gentleman used his trumpet to wish them goodbye” saying he would “soon go out of sight”.

The Swanley Bar farmer described “the machine” as consisting of two parts connected by ropes,
“namely that in which the gentleman appeared to be a stage boarded at the bottom and covered with netting and ropes on the sides, about four feet and a half high, and the other part of the machine appeared in the shape of an urn, about thirty feet high, and of the same diameter, made of canvass, with green, red, and yellow stripes”.
Farm worker William Harper was mowing oats with Thomas Blackwell, Thomas Moore, John Richardson, and several others, when he saw what he described as “a large machine hovering in the air” and “gradually approaching the ground near the boundary line of the manors of Northaw and North Mimms”.
“While the machine touched the ground, Mr. Nathaniel Whitbread, who was likewise present on horseback, desired this deponent, and the rest who were present to stop the said machine, which some of them, and in particular, Thomas Blackwell attempted to do, but the gentleman desiring them not to stop the machine”.
Mary Butterfield, who was raking oats along with Mary Crawley, Sarah Day, and others, said she “perceived a large machine hovering over Northaw Common, and approaching the earth in the field” where she was working. “When it touched down, a kitten, which was in the lower part of the machine, came out on the field”, she said.

She described the machine as being two parts connected together,
“namely that in which the gentleman was, appeared to be a frame-work of wood and netting, from which there stuck out a sort of wing, and the other part of the machine appeared in the shape of a large pear with the stalk downwards, and appeared to be made of silk or canvas, in stripes of green and red”.
The witness accounts given to Baker and sworn on oath by Whitbread, Harper, and Butterfield are embedded below.



Lunardi’s account of the flight


After the flight, a book containing letters written by Lunardi to his guardian, Chevalier Gherardo Compagni was published. The book also contained Baker’s letter to Lunardi and the statements from witnesses to the flight across the Hertfordshire countryside and the landings.

Compagni had been Lunardi’s guardian following the death of his parents when he was younger, tutoring him and encouraging him to study diplomacy. At the time of his flight Lunardi was Secretary to the Neapolitan Ambassador in London.

The book, An Account of the First Aerial Voyage in England is available to download as an e-book. An earlier edition, can also be downloaded as a PDF by clicking here.

The early edition, which was put together hastily to raise money to fund Lunardi’s adventures, had, mistakenly transcribed the supposed landing place as “South Mimms”. This was corrected in later editions.

In one of the letters in the book, written on September 24th 1784, Lunardi described his ascent from the Artillery Ground and the subsequent flight, including his landing in North Mymms:
“I then had recourse to the utmost use of my single oar: by hard and persevering labour I brought myself within three hundred yards of the earth; and moving horizontally, spoke through my trumpet to some country people, from whom I heard a confused noise in reply.
“At half after three o’clock, I descended in a corn field, on the common of North Mimms, where I landed the cat. The poor animal had been sensibly affected by the cold, during the greatest part of the voyage.”
Lunardi wrote that he “might have terminated my excursion at this point with satisfaction and honour” for being the “first to ascend the English atmosphere” and although the “people about me were very ready to assist at my disembarkation” he decided to continue his voyage to enable more experimentation with “the effect of oars acting vertically on the air”.

He continued: “A gentleman on horseback approached me, but I could not speak to him, being intent on my re-ascension, which I effected, after moving horizontally about forty yards.”

Shortly after the historic flight Lunardi’s balloon was put on show at the Pantheon in Oxford Street, London. The building, which stood where Marks and Spencers is now, was demolished in 1937.

Lunardi’s balloon rising below the dome at the Pantheon in Oxford Street
1784 Etching and aquatint © The Trustees of the British Museum
Released via Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0

Lunardi explained, in a letter to Compagni on 9 November 1784, that charging people to see the balloon would help him cover his costs.
“Now I am exhibiting my Balloon at the Pantheon, one of the most magnificent halls in London and, I believe, one of Europe’s largest and most splendid Rooms. This is enabling me to pay all the debts incurred by its manufacture, to keep a carriage and a servant and a good house and put two thousand scudi in the Bank - all in one month. I aim to keep the Balloon on show for another month, then make a second ascent with my friend Mr. George Biggin, who was not able to come with me the last time”
Note: Scudi is the plural of scudo, an Italian coin in circulation up to the 19th century.

Attempts to establish the location of the North Mymms landing


170 years later, historian Miss H.M. Stafford, in her book ‘Queenswood, The First Sixty Years 1894-1954’, about the history of Queenswood School wrote:
“A further interesting historical connection is to be found in an eighteenth-century engraving which shows Vincent Lunardi, the pioneer aeronaut in Britain, landing in his balloon on the present hockey field in order to jettison superfluous ballast and an unhappy cat, who was evidently the reverse of air-minded”. 
At the time Stafford’s book was written the school’s hockey field was to the north of Shepherds Way.

It’s not known which engraving Stafford is referring to, or how she identified the landing place.

North Mymms Common Enclosure Map 1782
North Mymms Common Enclosure Map 1782
Map from the Peter Miller collection
The Kentish Lane junction shown in the map above is as it was before a later realignment to the north. The area hatched in blue, although allotted in April 1782 to the Duke of Leeds, was bought by John Hunter of Gubbins in June the same year.

Hertfordshire historian, Malcolm Tomkins, using evidence from Lunardi’s book and the 1844 North Mimms Tithe Map, attempted to identify the location of Lunardi’s landing in an article published in the June 1971 edition of ‘Hertfordshire Countryside’ magazine, embedded below.

The same article was later published in the 1991 book ‘Hertfordshire Yesterdays’ by Frank Ballin and Malcolm Tomkins. The cutting, embedded below, is from the Peter Miller collection.



William Baker’s description of the location of the landing in first edition copies of Lunardi’s book described the place as ‘adjoining to the road leading from the said turnpike-road, to the northward on the left’.

Tomkins found this confusing, but was still able to identify the landing place. Later editions of the book were corrected to read “adjoining to the road leading from the said turnpike-road, to Northaw on the left”.

First edition text
First edition text


Second edition text
Second edition text


Commemoration stone almost three miles from North Mymms landing


In 1960, a stone commemorating the landing of the first aerial flight in England was placed at Balloon Corner, at the junction of Parsonage Lane, Huggins Lane and Dellsome Lane in Welham Green.


The commemoration stone at Balloon Corner, Welham Green Image by the North Mymms History Projected released via Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0
The commemoration stone at Balloon Corner, Welham Green
Image by the North Mymms History Projected released via Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0
The inscription, now worn by time, reads:
“Near this spot at 3.30 in the afternoon of September 15th, 1784, Vincenzo Lunardi, the Italian balloonist, made his first landing whilst on his pioneer flight in the English atmosphere. Having handed out a cat and dog, the partners of his flight from London, he re-ascended and continued north-eastwards.”
Why the stone recording the landing was placed almost three miles away from the actual spot is not clear, but the balloon’s brief visit to North Mymms has become an important part of local history.

Dorothy Colville, a local teacher and historian, referred to the landing in chapter nine of her book North Mymms - Parish and People, published in 1971.

The paragraph in the chapter titled Aerial Travellers reads:
“At 3.30 on that ‘very fine hot day’ here in North Mymms farmer Whitbread, of Parsonage Farm, was busy with his men in a cornfield near the workhouse. The first balloonist to land in England was slowly floating down to land beside them. The cat was suffering from air-sickness and was left in the care of a woman, and after throwing out ballast Lunardi continued his flight, leaving the amazed labourers to stare after the colourful object, which eventually reached Colliers End about an hour later.”
Rosie Simmonds in her article Welham Green from 1900 - 1953 also referred to Balloon Corner when she wrote:
“Balloon Corner is at the junction of Dellsome Lane, Huggins Lane and Parsonage Lane. The two latter are almost built up now and there is a stone to signify that here the first balloon came down.”
Balloon Corner is mentioned in a number of books on this site including James Chuck - My Life in the Village, and Peter Kingsford’s books Victorian Lives in North Mymms and North Mymms People in Victorian Times.

The first known reference to Balloon Corner is in the 1841 census, 57 years after Lunardi’s landing and potentially within living memory at the time.

The Ordnance Survey (OS) six-inch map of the area, published in 1883 almost 100 years after the landing, names the same spot in Welham Green as Baloon (sic) Corner.

The 25-inch to the mile OS map published 1898 also has the location marked as Balloon Corner.


OS six-inch map published in 1883 showing Baloon (sic) Corner, Welham Green Image courtesy of the National Library of Scotland released under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0
OS six-inch map published in 1883 showing Baloon (sic) Corner, Welham Green
Image courtesy of the National Library of Scotland
Released under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0

OS 25-inch map published in 1898 showing Balloon Corner, Welham Green Image courtesy of the National Library of Scotland Released under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0
OS 25-inch map published in 1898 showing Balloon Corner, Welham Green
Image courtesy of the National Library of Scotland
Released under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0

In the early 1980s, Hunting Gate Homes of Hitchin built housing on the playing fields of the old Welham Green School near Balloon Corner and named the road Vincenzo Close after Lunardi.

Vincenzo Close Photograph by Peter Miller
Vincenzo Close
Photograph by Peter Miller


North Mymms Parish Council (NMPC) has an image of a balloon on its logo as one of five icons which the council has chosen to illustrate the history, geography, and location of the Domesday parish of North Mymms.

On the NMPC website the council sets out why a balloon appears on the local authority’s logo.
“The top left-hand quarter is the balloon of the Italian aeronaut Vincenzo Lunardi who flew from the Artillery Ground, London to Standon Green End, Hertfordshire on 15 September 1784 in the first manned aerial flight over England. Travelling with Lunardi was a pigeon, a cat, and a dog. During the flight the cat took ill and Lunardi briefly landed his balloon in a North Mymms field to leave the animal with a local woman while he continued his flight. The field where Lunardi touched down is three miles south-east of Welham Green north of what is now Queenswood school. To mark the event, a commemorative stone was placed at what is known as Balloon Corner, at the junction of Dellsome Lane and Parsonage Lane, Welham Green.”


Marking the final landing with a stone


William Baker made good on his vow to have the final landing place marked with a stone. That monument at Standon Green End is now recorded by Historic England as a Grade II listed building.

The Lunardi balloon stone at Standon Green End, Hertfordshire  Image by the North Mymms History Project released via Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0
The Lunardi balloon stone at Standon Green End, Hertfordshire
Image by the North Mymms History Project released via Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0
But it’s not known what happened to Baker’s wish to mark the place of the North Mymms landing with a stone, as suggested in his letter to Lunardi.

The field close to the border between what were the manors of North Mimms and Northaw
Image by the North Mymms History Project released via Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0


North Mymms’s celebration of the landing


The parish of North Mymms proudly claims the landing as part of its local history. Stories about the balloon touching down are now part of local folklore celebrated with various community events over the years.

In 1970 an event called Expo - North Mymms was held in Welham Green to commemorate the flight and landing of Lunardi.


Expo North Mymms pamphlet 1970 Image from D. Cooper part of the Images of North Mymms collection
Expo - North Mymms pamphlet 1970
Image from D. Cooper part of the Images of North Mymms collection

Expo North Mymms pamphlet 1970 Image from D. Cooper part of the Images of North Mymms collection
Expo - North Mymms pamphlet 1970
Image from D. Cooper part of the Images of North Mymms collection

Letter for Balloon Post 1970 Image courtesy of S. Amodio - part of the Images of North Mymms Collection
Letter for Balloon Post 1970
Image courtesy of S. Amodio - part of the Images of North Mymms Collection

Postcard by Balloon Post 19 September 1970 Image courtesy of S. Amodio - part of the Images of North Mymms Collection
Postcard by Balloon Post 19 September 1970
Image courtesy of S. Amodio - part of the Images of North Mymms Collection

Lunardi’s flight has been the subject of much celebration by followers of the history of aviation. The postcard pictured below was published for the 200th anniversary in 1994.

Postcard marking the 200th anniversary of Lunardi's flight Image from Ron Kingdon part of the Images of North Mymms collection
Postcard marking the 200th anniversary of Lunardi’s flight
Image from Ron Kingdon part of the Images of North Mymms collection


The 200th anniversary of the Lunardi landing held in Welham Green Image by M. Lovell, part of the Images of North Mymms Collection
The 200th anniversary of the Lunardi landing held in Welham Green
Image by M. Lovell, part of the Images of North Mymms Collection

Lunardi might have been the first man to fly in England, but he was not the first in Great Britain. That record is held by James Tytler from Edinburgh who, 19 days earlier, had flown for half a mile reaching a height of 300ft before crashing to earth.

Attribution


The documents embedded in this document, apart from the newspaper cutting, were among a collection of cuttings contained in a scrapbook donated to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, USA. The material - Scrapbook of Early Aeronautica - has been digitised and released for public use by Archive.org under the terms of Creative Commons. Attribution for all images and historical records used on this site is included under the item.


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