Balloon vs. stone wall

Henry Coxwell’s high-speed crash landing

le geant
Like Coxwell’s balloon two years earlier, in 1863 the French balloon Le Geant had a wild landing in a high wind. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-34605

Writing of an August 1861 flight, English balloonist Henry Tracey Coxwell illustrates two of the dangers of his profession: strong winds and impatient crowds. Wind didn’t bother a balloon when it was in the air. The balloon would just ride the wind, and the passengers wouldn’t even feel it.

Until they came back down. Then they could be blown along the ground, slamming into houses, trees… or the stone walls that line the English countryside.

This is why impatient crowds were a problem. Spectators sometimes demanded that balloonists go up in dangerous weather. A disappointed crowd could be dangerous.

Coxwell included both his own account and a newspaper article in Volume 2 of My Life and Balloon Experiences (1889), starting on p. 74.

A bit of explanation: balloons in that day carried an anchor, or “grapnel” as Coxwell calls it, for windy landings. Also, although he refers to his “air-ship,” he means a balloon and not a powered dirigible.

Here is Coxwell’s account:


A first visit was made to this town under what were supposed by the inhabitants to be favourable auspices.

The weather was certainly bright and cloudless, but there blew, throughout the day, a very strong wind, so that it was doubtful whether the good air-ship “Mars,” which had so luckily come out of the Crystal Palace and Camden Town disasters, would now bear the brunt of a gale which came upon us with a direct force, unbroken by trees or buildings, and which, from the first moment of the inflation, found out our open and weak points. Efforts had been made to shut off the wind with large lengths of canvas, but to little effect, as the saucy war balloon flapped and tossed about, and the spot was too small for a public gathering, especially when the last rolling process, preparatory to starting, commenced.

To add to my troubles there was an old man present, connected probably with influential parties in the town, who would have his say, and was constantly loud and noisy in proclaiming his opinions, first, that the day was of the “right sort,” and, secondly, that ” he could tell people, who was going up.”

Well, all this sort of thing would have been amusing, if anxiety had not been increased by the rough wind, for one never knows in ballooning how soon a slit may occur and put an end to all anticipations as to the ascent.

“I tell you,” persistently cried the old gentleman, “that three besides the master are going up, and a nice rattling breeze they’ll have too, and what more can the balloon-man himself want—though he looks rather down about it—I suppose one may get too much of a good thing sometimes.”

“My good fellow,” I said,” pray close your mouth. What do you know about affairs of this kind, or how can you, of all men here assembled, be aware whether I intend to ascend alone, or take anybody with me?”

“That be blowed! If the three I mean don’t go, there’ll be a jolly row I can tell thee.”

“Who are they, pray?”

“Well, as to that, Mister, here comes the Secretary, you’d best see to it.”

“Have you,” I asked, “any applications as to passengers? I hope not, as I would rather go alone a day like this.”

“Ha ! would you indeed, then I have done amiss in not mentioning before that three of the Pearsons of Lawton Hall, are booked.”

“I regret that, as your gas in Congleton is heavy; and then you see how it blows.”

“Oh, never mind that, they want to see something.”

“Yes, but not to feel something—I mean a rough landing.”

“They are quite ready for anything of that sort, and I would not have them disappointed on any account.”

One will have to be disappointed for certain, I can only take two besides myself, and if you had not exercised pressure as to these young gentlemen going, I should have declined all companionship and fees to-day; in fact, I would rather have plenty of sand. I have so often found ballast to be of much greater value than cash, that I do not always consider it for the best to take passengers in boisterous weather.”

“You will not, Mr. C. find it so easy to shake off these daring young fellows.”

This estimate of their undoubted pluck was found to be correct; in fact, while I was on one side of the balloon, they jumped in on the other, when I was not looking; but they were politely asked to get out, and in the end only two were allowed to re-seat themselves. A rapid ascent was then made, the nearest buildings being cleared at a bound.

As it is not customary either with the captain of a ship or the master of a balloon to allude much to danger, I was discreetly reticent on that point, and engaged their attention with the fine views which surrounded us on all sides, but we moved so fast that on asking whether they knew the country on the other side of a range of hills we were approaching, they said, “Oh yes, very well, those are the Buxton Hills, we go rabbit shooting in that direction.”

“Do you? Then I may take it that you are well acquainted with this neighbourhood?”

“We know every inch of the ground,” was the reply.

“Altogether then,” I continued, “we may look upon the valley beyond as a good place for landing.”

“Decidedly so.”

“Then I must ask the favour of your unshipping those seats, and of placing them just where I show you; and on nearing the earth, gentlemen, we must keep well down in the basket, and you must hold on by these cross lines, and do not think of jumping out until I tell you. The wind is so strong that if the grapnel does not find a good hedge, bank, or tree to bring us up by, we may have some rough work, so do not feel unprepared.”

“All right, never fear us, Mr. Coxwell.”

“I perceive,” said the elder Pearson, “that you are letting off gas, we are not going down, surely.”

“Yes, I want to just clear that hill you see on the left, but I fear we draw away rather south of it; how straight your hedgerows appear.”

“Oh, they are not hedgerows but stone walls,” replied the younger brother.

“Dear, dear, I am sorry for that, however, we must take them now, unless we catch beforehand. Look out, I shall soon slip the grapnel; there, we get the first jerk, hold fast, the wind is stronger than I thought, and we are going down hill—by jingo, there are rocks and a fearful gorge ahead.”

“We dare not get among them, Mr. Coxwell, I ought to have told you.”

“Too late now, look out, we must try the holding power of those stone walls.”

“They go down one after another.”

“I see they do, but hold fast! the car will pass through the next.”

It did, and through one or two more, but the last one slit up the balloon from bottom to top. Of course we stopped, and the rest I must permit a Buxton newspaper to relate.


“Mr. Coxwell, and the Messrs. Pearson, jun., of Lawton Hall, near Congleton, are now progressing, we are happy to say, towards complete recovery. It will be remembered that on August 19th a descent took place during a violent wind, on the stone-walled and rocky locality near Brierlow toll-gate, about two-and-a-half miles from Buxton.

“A valley favourable for alighting had been missed, owing to the force of the wind, and the car not being over-stocked with ballast, the voyagers found themselves skimming over the ‘back-bone of England,’ the wild rugged surface of which is in every way objectionable for a balloon.

“Mr. Coxwell, seeing no possible mode of evading a rough landing, prepared for the worst, and placed his passengers in the safest possible position, viz, at the bottom of either side of the basket, where hand-ropes are placed, by which to hold on in emergencies like this.

“As the grapnel (a large powerful instrument, forty two pounds weight) trailed along the ground, it glided over the soil and tore down stone walls, as if there was no holding ground or material for it to take effect in. The consequence was that the car was brought down in contact with the walls, and the only remedy was to exhaust the gas as quickly as possible, and lessen the number of concussions. It was here manifestly that the experienced aeronaut was equal to the occasion, as he peremptorily kept his companions well down in the basket, and told them that if they attempted to move or get out, they would be killed on the spot. Fortunately, the Messrs. Pearson are remarkably endowed with what is styled pluck, and they stuck to the ship and obeyed Mr. Coxwell’s orders to the letter.

“It was now the critical moment—two or three severe bumps were inevitable, the wind blowing in angry gusts, and the car dashed through one wall of about eighteen inches in thickness, making a clear breach, and hurling the stones forward as if they had been pounded by the largest Armstrong missile at present in use. Mr. Coxwell was full strain on the upper valve, which is thirty inches in diameter, but still the mass bore onwards, and a second clean breach was repeated in the next wall.

“Away again with renewed vigour, and down for the third time, and once again through another wall, and now the cry was raised by astounded lookers-on, that two fields further lay the Deep Dale or gorge which would surely prove fatal.

“Happily, the fourth wall having been dashed down, and a considerable quantity of gas lost—the balloon itself caught some of the stones and tore from bottom to top— several countrymen, especially the sons of the toll-bar keeper, now rushed to the rescue.

“Mr. Coxwell and Messrs. T. and A. Pearson were at the bottom of the car, covered with stones. All three voyagers presented a sorry aspect, their faces were covered with blood; but the aeronaut himself retained his senses and directed that they might be taken out of the basket and placed on the grass, and furnished with water.

“This done, Mr. Coxwell enquired if there was any house near, and finding that the toll-bar was close at hand, directions were given for them to be carried there. Mr. Coxwell then despatched a messenger for a conveyance to take them to the Royal Hotel, at Buxton, where they arrived in due time, and received the best medical attention that could be procured.

“The injuries sustained were: Mr. T. Pearson, fracture of the skull; Mr. A. Pearson, injury to the head and broken fore-arm; and Mr. Coxwell, bruised and cut from head to foot, with a bad contused wound on the right thigh. The injuries Mr. Coxwell had met with were not considered, at first, dangerous; but those sustained by the other gentlemen extremely so. Dr. Bennett of Buxton, in company with Dr. Bullock, an eminent practitioner of Congleton, took the cases in hand, and succeeded in saving the arm of Mr. A. Pearson, and in reducing the skull fracture of the brother; Mr. Coxwell’s case presented symptoms which showed deeper injuries than were suspected to exist, the thigh was bruised and lacerated by an immense stone, so that the medical gentlemen could scarcely comprehend how the bone escaped fracture; erysipelas set in, and the case assumed dangerous appearances, but Dr. Bennett skilfully made a long deep incision which had the desired effect, and the healing process is now rapidly progressing, and ail three sufferers are doing well and leave their beds.

“This, we believe, is the first personal accident that has ever befallen Mr. Coxwell out of nearly 400 ascents, had it occurred to a novice, some outcry might be raised as to the perils of ballooning, but since this mishap we have had two terrific railway smashes, three or four dreadful fires, and an omnibus accident near Whaley Bridge; all these considered, we can only fairly and reasonably come to the conclusion that balloons are like ships, coaches, railway trains, and other vehicles, liable to accident and subject to occasionable wreck.”

* * *

Coxwell was badly injured in this flight, and promised his wife he would never fly again. But that was before scientist James Glaisher approached Coxwell about a series of  high-altitude research flights. Coxwell and Glaisher’s record-setting (and nearly fatal) 1862 flight is the subject of a chapter in my book Sky Sailors.

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