Monsieur Garnerin and his maiden balloon flight in England

I came across a story to share with you from the Star, 29 June 1802 which described Monsieur Garnerin’s first flight in England ,although I had read that his first flight didn’t take place until 21 September 1802, but perhaps it was, that on that occasion he made the first parachute jump.


A group of people/party-goers known as the Pic Nics made the news on a regular basis around this time. The group included the likes of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, Duchesses of Manchester and Gordon, Leeds amongst many others, all carefully named by the newspaper, in order of their social status.

Weather-wise, June would usually be regarded as an ideal time to meet up and enjoy an outdoor party and so at about two o’clock in the afternoon, the Regatta began with about forty of them began their party along the Thames from Whitehall stairs in large pleasure barges sailing to Ranelagh pleasure gardens. Accompanying the party goers was another boat with a very large band of wind instruments and other pleasure barges filled with ‘people of distinction’.

The Pic-Nic Orchestra Gillray MetMuseum

The Pic-Nic Orchestra Gillray. MetMuseum

Sadly, the weather was not quite as good as it could have been, but poor weather wasn’t going to spoil their fun. They reached Ranelagh stairs about an hour later, after encountering a very strong ebb tide and a very strong breeze from the South West and  were saluted on landing, with a volley from the soldiers on duty in the gardens.

The Interior of the Rotunda, Ranelagh, London; Canaletto
The Interior of the Rotunda, Ranelagh, London; Canaletto; Compton Verney

The breakfast, as it was described, consisted of all the delicacies of the season. The wines were not only abundant but of the best quality. Those who came with guinea tickets were admitted to the gallery of the rotunda below, at tables equally well supplied. But the principal attraction was the ascension of Monsieur Jacques Garnerin in his small balloon. This was to be his first flight in this country, and he later went on to make several more during his visit.

About four o’clock the company left the breakfast tables and retired to the garden to watch the event. The Pic Nics contracted Garnerin to take to the air by paying him 500 guineas. Captain Snowden, a member of the group, agreed to accompany him and it was said that he had a wager with someone of 200 guineas to take part in this. Sadly, the article omits to tell us who the other party was.

André Jacques Garnerin descending from a balloon by parachute in a field near St Pancras Church British Museum

A later image of André Jacques Garnerin descending from a balloon by parachute in a field near St Pancras Church British Museum

This proved to be quite a spectacle. The figure and proportions of the balloon was described as:

grand and beautiful, it’s colours were alternate sections of dark green and yellow, The vessel that contained the materials from which the gas was generated the tubes by which it was conveyed to the balloon, the most minute part of the instruments, and the process were examined with the most particular attention that wonder and curiosity could excite.  

Whilst the audience were waiting in the garden for the ascent, they were entertained with several excellent pieces of music by the band who had attended on the river. The balloon had been filling since about nine in the morning, and a few minutes before five it was deemed sufficiently filled and ready to ascend. Monsieur Garnerin stepped into the car under the balloon. A lady of the party tried to persuade Captain Snowden not to go, but her please fell on deaf ears. After a brief period making final adjustments, the balloon was ready. Initially, it wouldn’t lift as Garnerin had hope, so he threw out some of the extra ballast, which immediately solved the problem.

Three signal guns were fired for his ascent and just as the balloon was rising Captain Snowden sat down, but Garnerin insisted he stood otherwise it could prove fatal. The balloon ascended in the most majestic manner, amidst the onlookers numbering by now about a thousand who were assembled in the garden. The car was richly decorated with flags of different nations in honour of the Peace of Amiens.

Immense crowds were assembled in Battersea fields, the upper part of Millbank, Tothill Fields, Chelsea and Pimlico; every window, every house top, every tree was filled. Chelsea gardens were crowded, the river was covered with boats, while on the banks on both side, an every avenue from town towards Ranelagh were thronged. The great road from Buckingham gate was absolutely impassable, or at least the carriages which formed an unbroken chain from the Turnpike to Ranelagh door, could only advance so slowly that many preferred to get out and struggle through the amassed crowd.

The newspaper assured its readers that:

No balloon that ever before went up, took a course so directly over London from West to East. It passed over the Five Fields, part of the Park, Pall-Mall, Charing Cross, the Strand, Fleet Street, Ludgate Hill, St Paul’s churchyard and could be distinctly seen above every street.

Every shop was totally deserted as everyone had taken to the streets to watch. Monsieur Garnerin could be distinctly seen waving the flags, and at one time he came down very low and threw out yet more ballast, rapidly ascended and disappeared behind a cloud. Soon after this it began to rain, but this did not deter Garnerin and his fellow passenger and thy travelled on to Colchester, Essex, 51 miles from London, in just a few hours, where they landed without any accident.

Those left at Ranelagh were refreshed with tea, coffee and an excellent cold meal, most leaving Ranelagh sometime around seven in the evening. A large party of the light horse and foot guards were stationed in all directions leading to Ranelagh to keep the peace and watch out for pickpockets.

A humorous scene at the regatta, 1775

The first Thames Regatta, 23rd June 1775

A proposal was made in April of 1775 to hold a Regatta or Water Ridotto on the Thames. It was scheduled to run on a day between the 20th and 24th June, weather dependent. An event to see and to be seen at although, according to the Morning Chronicle of 20th June 1775, the Duchess of Devonshire expressed concerns about ‘being mixed with the mob and asked the Duke why he couldn’t hire the Thames for the day’. True or not, said in jest or not, we’ve no idea!

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Thomas Gainsborough, 1787
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Thomas Gainsborough, 1787; Chatsworth House

Nonetheless, plans were made for the event and they went as follows:

Between twelve and thirteen hundred tickets were to be issued and the parties were to supply their own boat or barge and were to congregate under Westminster Bridge early evening.

The centre arch to be left open for the race boats manned by watermen, twelve of which, with rowers each were to start to fix-row against the tide to London Bridge and back again; the three boats which first clear the centre arch of Westminster bridge on their return to claim the prize which would be proportioned accordingly as they came in.

First prize was 10 guineas each, with coats and badges

Second prize seven guineas each, with coats and badges of inferior value

Third prize – five guineas each with coats and badges

Also, every successful waterman would be given an ensign to wear for one year on the Thames, with the word REGATTA, in gold characters inscribed and the figures 1,2, or 3 according to the order in which he arrived at the end of the race.

After the race, the whole procession in order would move on to Chelsea and land at the platform of Chelsea Hospital and from there proceed to the Rotunda at Ranelagh in which an excellent band of vocal and instrumental music would be ready to perform as the company arrived. Boats with musical performers would also be stationed at Westminster bridge and attend the procession on the Thames.

Westminster Bridge by Antonio Joli
Westminster Bridge by Antonio Joli; Parliamentary Art Collection

Applications had to be made to the manager of the Regatta for seats in the public barges which were being loaned for the event by city companies.

The rowers of the private barges were to be uniformly dressed and in such a manner as to accord with someone of the three marine colours, chosen by the marshals of the Regatta – the white, the blue or the red. The blue division was to take the four northern arches of Westminster bridge; the red division to take the four arches next to the Surrey shore and St George’s division, the two arches on each side of the centre.

Ticket for the Regatta Ball at Ranelagh, 1775. Francesco Bartolozzi.
Ticket for the Regatta Ball at Ranelagh, 1775. Francesco Bartolozzi. Yale Centre for British Art

The whole procession to move up the river, from Westminster bridge at seven o’clock in the evening with the marshal’s division rowing ahead about three minutes before the second division; and the same interval of times before the second and third divisions.

The company would embark, using the several sets of stairs adjacent to Westminster bridge, as well on the Lambeth side between five and six o’clock, ready to begin at seven o’clock. The marshal’s barge of twelve cars, carrying St George’s ensign (white field, with red cross) would be to the west of centre.

The Interior of the Rotunda, Ranelagh, London; Canaletto; Compton Verney
The Interior of the Rotunda, Ranelagh, London; Canaletto; Compton Verney

A circular arrangement of tables, with proper intervals, would be placed around the Rotunda at Ranelagh on which supper would be prepared in the afternoon, and the doors were to be thrown open at eleven o’clock. The several recesses on the ground floor to serve as sideboards for the waiters and for a variety of refreshments.

A band of music consisting of one hundred and twenty vocal and instrumental performers would play in the centre of the rotunda during supper time. The garden of Ranelagh was to be lit up and a temporary bower erected and decorated around the canal for dancing. The platform of Chelsea hospital to be open for the great convenience of those disembarking.

The Royal Hospital, Chelsea by Daniel Turner
The Royal Hospital, Chelsea by Daniel Turner; Kensington and Chelsea Local Studies

The plan at this stage was that the event should take place on the 20th June, but a signal would be given by the committee to confirm the weather was suitable for it to go ahead. A red flag would be displayed at ten o’clock over the centre arch of Westminster bridge and the bells of St Margaret’s would ring from ten o’clock until one o’clock. Without such notification, it was to be understood that due to inclement weather it would not take place and would be postponed until the 21st of June. If the weather continued to be unsuitable then it would be postponed until the following day, i.e. 22nd June.

A humorous scene at the regatta, 1775
A humorous scene at the regatta, 1775. Lewis Walpole Library

Despite the inclement weather, the event took place on Friday 23rd June 1775, with the flag being finally raised at 10 o’clock and yes, despite the earlier report, the Duchess of Devonshire did attend.