John Money Aloft


The First Crossing of the English Channel by balloon

In the first instalment of balloonist Major John Money’s story, I dealt with the background and the arrangements made in Norwich for the balloon to take off. You will recall, that Money was to have gone up with two other people, but it proved impossible to generate sufficient hydrogen to carry more than Money himself. We’ll now continue with the tale from the point where the balloon left the ground.

Take Off

The balloon finally took off at 4:25 in the afternoon and things started to go wrong from the beginning. First of all, it became entangled in a tree. Then Major Money had to throw out his greatcoat in order to get airborne, even though the balloon carried no ballast. Still, it did eventually take off and rose slowly into the air in a manner, according to the newspaper, “peculiarly graceful and majestic”.

First of all, the balloon headed westwards, which was fine for the spectators since they got an excellent view. However, as it rose higher it virtually doubled back on itself, passing over the Quantrell’s Garden once again and heading now to the north-east. It seemed to be rising and falling, now entering the clouds, now appearing again below them. Forty-five minutes later, it disappeared entirely from sight.

People outside Norwich were able to view it for longer. One man, who had armed himself with a telescope, kept it in sight for a considerable time. It was heading towards Great Yarmouth. Two people, equipped with a speaking trumpet, even called out to Money, who answered by waving a flag.

At around five o’clock, the wind had changed again, veering more towards the north-west. As a result, the balloon now began to turn in the direction of Lowestoft. It also rose still higher, so that it disappeared into the clouds and was lost to sight at 5:35 PM. The last view the man with the telescope had showed Major Money standing in the gondola with his arms held above his head, apparently trying to grasp the bottom edge of the balloon.

From Bad to Worse

Major Money gave his own account of the flight, which was published in the Norfolk Chronicle for July 30th. We therefore know what was happening in the balloon, related in his own words. It makes such an exciting story that I would love to be able to quote it in full, but it’s far too long. You’ll have to be content with some extensive extracts.

According to the Major, he never intended to make more than a short flight. Given that it had been so difficult for the balloon to get airborne, he assumed that he would be able to bring it back to earth whenever he wanted. Sadly, this did not prove to be the case. He soon found that it was impossible to descend. It was his belief that as the balloon rose the afternoon sun caused the gas inside to expand, thus carrying the balloon ever higher. He had equipped himself with a string attached to a valve at the base of the balloon. By use of this valve, he had hoped to be able to discharge gas and cause the balloon to descend. This went wrong too. He found that it took considerable strength to hold the valve open; and even then, little gas escaped. I think we can guess that the bulk of the gas had risen to the top of the half empty balloon, while the valve was at the bottom. It was going to take a very long time to allow sufficient gas to escape. He tried to reach to the part of balloon that was most inflated, but it was far above his head. In desperation, he made a large cut in the ballon in the part that he could reach. This too produced no benefit. This is how he described it:

“. . . no inflammable air [hydrogen], however, escaped by this, and he says that the external air rushed into the lower part of it and swelled it considerably, and he thinks rather disposed the balloon to rise.”

Out to Sea

It was now plain that he was going to be carried out to sea. His main care now was to try to put down in the water while it was still light, thus giving himself the best possible chance of rescue. By now:

. . . he was convinced that he was dropping pretty fast; and this proved true, for about 6 o’clock the boat touched the surface of the sea.

The balloon, when it first touched the water, rebounded several times near forty yards from it, but soon became stationary, and the boat [balloon gondola] filled with water; the Major therefore placed himself with his feet on each edge of the boat, and with his hands over the group he endeavoured to close the lower part of the balloon (which he had before opened), to prevent any air getting out if the balloon tilted, and likewise to prevent any water being admitted; as his only chance of saving his life was preventing the balloon from losing its power of floating, and which evidently must depend on its retaining the air. It was evident however that this was losing, though happily not very quickly; for though the water gained on him, it was eight o’clock before it was above his knees, and 10 o’clock before it was above his waist.

The sea heaved at times very much with large swells, and he was lifted up and depressed again alternately. His most important object was to guard the lower part of the balloon, which required much exertion, and which he had done with tolerable security till past ten o’clock, when being more deeply immerged in the water, he had less command of the balloon, and a large wave suddenly rising, it was thrown quite flat, and the lower part received a large quantity of water. He apprehended this would produce a certain destruction, as it was impossible the balloon could support him much longer if the water were not again discharged; he therefore made an attempt to raise the balloon up, by throwing himself backwards, and pulling it forcibly forwards, and had the satisfaction of seeing the water again discharged; and to prevent the same circumstance occurring a second time, he tore off the lower part of the balloon, and held that part above it tightly with its hands.

Just before he fell into the sea he had the recollection to take his watch out of his pocket, and fix it into his coat buttonhole a little below his chin, so that he could count the melancholy minutes which he passed without moving his hands.

There we must leave poor Major Money again, up to his waist in water and convinced it was only a matter of time before the balloon sank and he was to be drowned. We will take up his story again in the next instalment of this post.


About William Savage

Independent researcher and author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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