Vincent Lunardi, an Italian diplomat, became Britain’s first aeronaut on 15 Sept 1784. The painting of his spectacular ascent above comes from Fiddlers Green, which offers a paper model of his balloon. The poles are part of the launching apparatus.
Two years later Lunardi prepared his twelfth balloon ascension in Newcastle, but it didn’t go so well. Here’s the report from the Annual Register for 1786, the publication co-founded by Edmund Burke to collect Parliamentary records and notable news in the British Empire.
Newcastle upon Tyne, Sept. 20.According to the Monthly Chronicle of North-Country Lore and Legend, published in 1887 based on period sources, Lunardi issued a broadside lamenting the death and reminding the public how he had warned people that everything would be safe if everyone held tight to the balloon’s ropes. The Newcastle Chronicle agreed that he was blameless, and later criticized London newspapers for implying that the provincial crowd had chased the balloonist away.
Lunardi’s attempt to ascend yesterday from the Spital ground was productive of a very melancholy accident. The balloon was about one-third full, and a great many gentlemen were holding it by the netting, when Lunardi went to pour into the cistern the rest of the oil of vitriol destined for the purpose.
This having caused a strong effervescence, generated inflammable air [i.e., hydrogen] with such rapidity, that some of it escaped from two different parts, of the lower end of the apparatus, and spread among the feet of several gentlemen who were holding the balloon, and who were so alarmed, that leaving it at liberty, they ran from the spot.
The balloon now rose with great velocity, carrying up with it Mr. Ralph Heron, a gentleman of this town, about twenty-two years of age, son of Mr. Heron, under-sheriff of Northumberland.
This unhappy victim held a strong rope which was fastened to the crown of the balloon, twisted about his hand, and could not disengage himself when the other gentlemen fled; he was of course elevated about the height of St. Paul’s cupola, when the balloon turned downward, the crown divided from it, and the unfortunate gentleman fell to the ground.
He did not expire immediately, having fallen upon very soft ground; he spoke for some time to his unhappy parents, and to the surgeons who came to assist him; but his internal vessels being broken, he died about an hour and a half after the fall.
There are conflicting accounts of Heron’s injuries. Richard Holmes’s Age of Wonder, a recent book, says, “The impact drove his legs into a flowerbed as far as his knees, and ruptured his internal organs, which burst out onto the ground.” The latter detail seems to be mistaken because Robert Robinson, who knew eyewitnesses and Heron’s younger sisters, said he was “found to have sustained no external injury from the fall,” but died of internal injuries.
Another detail that seems suspicious: By 1838, authors were saying that Ralph Heron’s fiancée had been standing beside him when he was lifted away, and the couple was due to be married the next day—details which escaped mention fifty years before.