North Mymms - Parish and People
by Dorothy Colville
Chapter 12 - Aerial Travellers
Perhaps the English nation never witnessed upon any occasion such a number of persons being collected together … . as were to be seen yesterday within the environments of Moorfields: not a plain or an eminence, a window or a roof, a chimney or a steeple, within the sight of Bedlam, but was populously thronged." So reported the Morning Post in its edition for September 16, 1784.
The great number of people, said to have been 200,000, had gathered to see Vincenzo Lunardi ascend in the huge red and blue striped balloon which had been a floating captive in the Strand during the month of July. No doubt many of those gathered together had paid to see the balloon at its moorings, for it had earned Lunardi £900 in admission fees. It had been deflated and brought to the Artillery Ground - "ground which should have been liberally offered but was most unhandsomely rented" commented the Morning Post.
Lunardi, a handsome young Italian attached to the Neapolitan embassy, had many friends among the leaders of fashion and had met the king, George III, and the Prince of Wales. George Biggin, who gave his name to the "coffee-biggin," was one of Lunardi’s closest friends.
At about 1.30 the Prince of Wales arrived at the Artillery Ground, the king adjourned a conference, saying "We may resume our deliberations but we may never see poor Lunardi again," and Lunardi, fashionably attired as usual, checked his equipment and soothed the cat and dog which he planned to take with him on his historic flight. "Shortly after 2 o’clock, Mr. Lunardi, having embraced his friends and all matters being adjusted … cannon was fired as the signal of ascension …a most beautiful ascension. After he had cleared the buildings he saluted the populace with great elegance and gallantry by waving a blue flag" said the Morning Post. So the intrepid young man floated away.
One Hertfordshire man who saw him was John Carrington, of Bacon’s Farm, Bramfield. He wrote in his diary "He assended to a great Hithe over Barnat, North Hall [Northaw] then went for St. Albans. . . . I saw him plane as he came over Bacons, he was at a Great Hight for his Boloon was 30 feet round but apeard no biger than a Boys Kite."
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. There, according to farmer Carrington, "he throwd his line out & was pulled Down by a young woman in the meadow, who was fritned at first & Run away, thought it the Devell, till he made her sencable & gave her five guineas … Wm Baker Esqr of Bayford Bury took him home in his carriage to the Bury . . . and was their some time, a weak or more.
A seven days’ wonder which gave its name to a district of our parish. The commemorative stone at Balloon Corner was placed there in 1960.
Nearly 100 years later on a beautiful Saturday in June another intrepid young man ascended in a balloon, but he was "unhonoured and unsung." Alfred Longstaff, aged about twelve, whose home was one of the picturesque cottages known as Pancake Hall Cottages, idly watched a speck in the clear blue sky. It grew bigger as it slowly moved from the direction of London and Alfred realised it was a balloon. "It’s coming down" he shouted to his mother as he raced away towards the church. The parish magazine for July 1882 tells us "About six o’clock on Saturday evening, the 24th ult., a balloon was seen to cross the Church Field, and to attempt, by throwing out the grappling iron, to descend in the opposite field belonging to Mr. Sinclair. The anchor, however, not gaining a hold in the ground, at length became securely fastened to the boughs of one of the trees in the wood, which skirts the field on its eastern side. Many of the villagers had noticed the descent of the balloon and hastened to the spot, while a committee of gentlemen who were assembling at the vicarage, about the parish charities, were also speedily at the place and joined in doing all in their power to help the aerial voyagers to make good their descent and to rescue the balloon from dreaded entanglement among the trees. For this purpose it had to be towed through the field by the party assembled, and during the process Alfred Longstaff, at the invitation of one of the aeronauts, took a seat in the car and rode through the air amid much maternal anxiety. North Mymms Park was thus reached, the car was detached, the gas pressed out of the balloon and the silk case neatly rolled up and packed in the now empty basket. The voyagers afterwards left with the balloon in a cart—to meet the 9.44 train from Potters Bar. The ‘Dudley Castle,’ it should be added, had ascended from Alexandra Palace at 5.35 p.m. and had made the voyage to North Mymms in twenty-five minutes. The repetition of an event which for many years has given a name to one part of our parish can scarcely be uninteresting to our readers."
During the early days of this century "aeroplane spotting" became a pastime, and one or two aeroplanes made forced landings in the parish. One is remembered as having come down in Church Field and another which landed at Parsonage Farm was the subject of a poem by the local schoolmaster, Mr. B. Mallett. He wrote:
"An aeroplane descended on Tuesday afternoon Near the spot where people tell us the very first balloon That went up in this country came down long time ago, We call it Balloon Corner, as local people know.
‘Twas really most amusing to see the people run, They all were keen and anxious to witness all the fun, The men and women hurried, their excitement was intense, The children fairly scurried, their enjoyment was immense.
O’er fields and lanes and hedges they came from near and far, From Welham Green and Water End, from Roestock and Bell Bar, On foot, on bikes, in motor cars they came in eager haste, They thought such opportunity it would not do to waste.
The mothers left their housework, the ploughmen left their ploughs, The gardeners left their spades and forks, and the cowmen left their cows. Through mud and ditch and stubble they hurried up and down, So anxious all to reach the place where the aeroplane came down.
Oh many things will be forgotten as the years roll by, The young will soon be middle-aged, the older folk will die, And some will leave the country and go to live in town, But they never will forget the day when the aeroplane came down."
Dorothy Colville, 1971
Chapter 13 - Manors and Houses
Index - North Mymms Parish and People