Vincenzo Lunardi, Welham Green and Britain's first balloon landing

Vincenzo Lunardi

Vincenzo Lunardi (right) made Britain's first balloon landing near Welham Green. - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On September 15, 1784 North Mymms entered aviation history as Vincenzo Lunardi touched down for the first balloon landing in England. This is how he did it.

Born in Lucca, a city in the Tuscany region of Italy on January 11, 1754, Vincenzo was part of a minor Neapolitan nobility family and was one of three children.

He travelled to France in his youth before coming to England as secretary to Prince Caramanico, the Neapolitan ambassador for the country.

The summer of 1784 had seen Scot James Tytler become the first Britain to take to the skies, but there were still plenty of sceptics, so Vincenzo and his friend George Biggin decided to demonstrate a hydrogen balloon flight.

A 200,000-strong crowd gathered at the Artillery Ground of the Honourable Artillery Company in Finsbury, London to watch the flight, but they quickly grew impatient wait for the balloon to take off.

The young Italian decided to take off without his friend George and with a balloon that was not completely inflated, but he was accompanied by a dog, a cat and a caged pigeon in the basket.

Vincenzo Lunardi

A painting depicting one of Lunardi's famous balloon flights in England. - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Vincenzo flew north towards Hertfordshire, but he was forced to pause his journey when the cat became ill, touching down in a cornfield in North Mymms, opposite Queenswood School.

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The 30-year-old described the flight and landing in North Mymms, writing: “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.”

Among those on the ground was farmer Nathaniel Whitbread of Swanley Bar Farm, who was riding his horse across a field when he saw ‘a large machine sailing in the air’.

“The machine consisted of two parts, 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 30 feet high, and of the same diameter, made of canvass, with green, red, and yellow stripes.

Nathaniel, alongside William Harper, Thomas Blackwell, Thomas Moore and John Richardson attempted to stop the balloon, but Vincenzo urged them to let him continue.

“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,” wrote William.

Vincenzo confirmed this in his own account, continuing: “I might have terminated my excursion at this point with satisfaction and honour of being the first to ascend the English atmosphere.

“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.”

The adventurous Italian continued his journey before finally coming to a stop at Standon Green End, having flown a total of 24 miles.

Vincenzo Lunardi

The commemorative marker for Lunardi's flight at Balloon Corner in Welham Green. - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

National fame would follow as Vincenzo earned himself the nickname ‘The Daredevil Aeronaut’, and his record-breaking balloon would be displayed at Pantheon in Oxford Street.

“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,” he wrote in a letter.

“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.”

Flights in London, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Glasgow would follow in 1785, with Vincenzo’s ascents in Scotland overshadowing his predecessor Tytler and inspiring fashion of the day.

Further flights would take place in Italy, Spain and Portugal, before Vincenzo died on August 1, 1806.

In 1960, a stone commemorating the landing of the first aerial flight in England was placed at Balloon Corner in Welham Green, but the marker is actually three miles from the confirmed landing site.

Nevertheless, Vincenzo Lunardi’s and Welham Green will forever have a place in the aviation history books.