Christ Church played a central role in the recent re-creation of the first ever balloon flight by an Englishman, James Sadler, a pastry chef with a connection to Christ Church, when permission was given for a hot air balloon to take off from Christ Church Meadows. The re-creation flight on 18 July 2007 was in support of a good cause: it was a central plank in the celebrations of 1000 years of Oxfordshire’s history, and it also helped to raise money for the Chiltern and Thames Valley Air Ambulance Service. Mr. James Lawrie, Christ Church’s Treasurer flew as a passenger.
James Sadler, the first flying Englishman – a pastry chef with a connection to Christ Church
By Ian Woodmansey, balloon pilot (pictured below)
Christ Church played a central role in the recent re-creation of the first ever balloon flight by an Englishman, James Sadler, a pastry chef with a connection to Christ Church, when permission was given for a hot air balloon to take off from Christ Church Meadows.
The re-creation flight, which took place on 18 July 2007, was in support of a good cause: it was a central plank in the celebrations of 1000 years of Oxfordshire’s history, which the residents of the county are marking throughout 2007, and it also helped to raise money for the Chiltern and Thames Valley Air Ambulance Service. Mr. James Lawrie, Christ Church’s Treasurer was invited to take part in the flight and flew as a passenger.The man being celebrated was a certain James Sadler, who was a University man. In 1784 he became the first ever flying Englishman – a proud achievement in the history of both Christ Church and Oxfordshire.
Sadler (1753–1828) was born in Oxford and was the eldest son of a pastry chef and confectioner with a shop at 84 High Street, and a second in St. Clements. He inherited his father’s business, but his taste was for science, engineering and adventure, not confections, and he found employment working as a laboratory technician in the University’s chemistry laboratory. It was here that he began experimenting with small gas-filled balloons. He became inspired by stories of the first ever manned flight in France in 1783, and was determined that an Englishman should fly at the earliest possibility.
On 4 October 1784 Sadler made the first ascent by any English aeronaut with a 170 foot hot-air balloon he had constructed himself. The balloon was rudimentary, to say the least, the fabric of the balloon being made from silk, lined on the inside with paper, and heated by a fire strung under the canopy on an open grille. In the language of the time if was powered by “rarefied air”. He “ascended into the atmosphere” from Christ Church meadow in Oxford and rose to _ mile high in this basic and unsafe flying contraption, flew for half an hour and landed 6 miles later near Woodeaton to the north of Oxford. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Sadler's ballooning exploits was that he was ‘sole projector, architect, workman and chymist’ in all his flying experiments.
Considering the importance of the occasion, the Oxford Journal appeared rather underwhelmed:
Oxford Journal, October 4, 1784
Early on Monday Morning the 4th instant, Mr. Sadler of this City, tried the Experiment of his Fire Balloon, raised by means of rarefied air.
The Process of filling the Globe began at three o’clock, and about Half past Five as all was complete, and every Part of the Apparatus entirely adjusted, Mr. Sadler, with Firmness and Intrepidity, ascended into the Atmosphere, and the Weather being calm and serene, he rose from the Earth in a vertical direction to a Height of 3,600 Feet. In his elevated Situation he perceived no Inconvenience; and, being disengaged from all terrestrial Things, he contemplated a most charming distant View. After floating for near Half an Hour, the machine descended, and at length came down upon a small Eminence betwixt Islip and Wood Eaton, about six Miles from this City.
The Oxfordshire-based Altitude Balloon Company re-created this flight on 18 July 2007. Ian Woodmansey, the pilot, wore period dress and took off from the exact same spot used by James Sadler 223 years ago - Christ Church Meadows in central Oxford. The lift-off was watched by both television and press journalists who were present to record the occasion. The passengers in the basket enjoyed a fantastic flight, straight over the top of Magdalen College, over the Plain roundabout and South Parks in east Oxford, and on over Shotover House, landing roughly an hour later to the north of Thame. By a wonderful stroke of luck, passengers were also able to see clearly James Sadler's landing point at Woodeaton, to the north of Oxford, after his first ever flight. By 1815 Sadler had achieved his forty-seventh ascent, and he moved back to Oxford to live with his family. Against all odds, he died peacefully in his bed aged 75 on 26 March 1828, in George Lane. He was buried four days later at St Peter-in-the-East, Oxford, where he had been baptized.
James Sadler was an Oxfordshire man of prodigious talent – a man of practical action, not formal education. Sadler is remembered as one of the pioneers of aeronautical exploration in Britain and his daring flights helped make ballooning a national pastime.
As well as being the first Englishman ever to fly, he was a great experimenter and was amongst the first to use coal gas to make light. He experimented with driving wheeled carriages using steam engines, and he patented a steam turbine design. Sadler researched copper sheathing of ships, distillation of sea water, seasoning of timber, gunpowder combustion, and constructed air-pumps, signal lights, and apparatus for disengaging oxygen.
He has been honoured in Oxford by a restored gravestone and a plaque, tributes to his pioneering and brave aerial exploits all over Britain and Ireland.