“Such a Phenomenon as was never before beheld in the Hemisphere of Oxford!” proclaimed the weekly newspaper Jackson’s Oxford Journal, when reporting on the achievements of James Sadler (1753–1828), a local pastry cook and confectioner, who, in 1784, became the unlikely first Englishman ever to fly.
Though he was poorly educated, Sadler resisted the easy choice of a comfortable, if mundane, life as a shopkeeper, to pursue his dream: flying hot air balloons. Not content merely with exploring the heavens, ascending into what Jackson’s Oxford Journal called “those Regions almost beyond human Thought”, Sadler’s irrepressible mind also saw him develop pioneering designs in the fields of engineering, chemistry, armaments, and manufacturing.
“There is not a better chemist or mechanic in the Universe, yet he can hardly speak a word of Grammar”, a contemporary wrote of Sadler. How was it that a cook (and son of a cook, and grandson of a cook) mastered not only the mechanics of constructing complicated, innovative equipment, but also comprehended a science understood by only a handful of individuals at this time – that of generating, capturing and using hot air and hydrogen? History remains silent on the matter, unfortunately – because so too did Sadler, a man of very few words, virtually no letters, and absolutely no memoirs. One can only assume that he possessed some instinctive, innate ability to fathom the principles of the physics involved.
A view of James Sadler's balloon over London in 1811. Below are small figures watching the balloon high up in the sky from a wall. (Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
The first Englishman to fly
Although the university in Sadler’s hometown of Oxford was notoriously slow to embrace the sciences, it was due to the patronage of one or two key university alumni that Sadler was able to develop and test out his ideas. Without this support, the finance needed to construct and trial the new notion of the hot air balloon, first demonstrated by the French Montgolfier brothers in June 1783, would have been well beyond the means of a mere vendor of pies and cakes.
The first person known to have offered Sadler help was Dr John Sibthorp, an Oxford University professor of botany. In February 1784, Sibthorp permitted Sadler to launch his first experimental (unmanned) hydrogen balloon from his family’s substantial home on the outskirts of Oxford. This was only a matter of weeks after the first Britons accomplished such a feat in December 1783: firstly, Scotsman James Dinwiddie in London, and then polymath Erasmus Darwin in Derby. It can only have been on Sibthorp’s authority that Sadler’s next two launches took place in the Physick (Botanic) Garden, one of the university’s precious educational jewels, full of rare and valuable medicinal plants.
Reassured by the safe return of the animals he sent up in the balloons on these two occasions, in May 1784 Sadler judged the time ready to attempt the feat himself. Most early balloonists depended on attracting sufficient paying observers to cover the very considerable costs involved, and Sadler advertised his intention “to render the Performance the most perfect one of its Kind that has ever been exhibited in Publick”. That was all very well, but out of term time in Oxford, that “publick” tended to be rather thin on the ground. Sadler decided to postpone until the new term in October. This delay denied him the accolade of being the first man ever to fly in England: by the time that Sadler made his first launch, the Italian Vincenzo Lunardi had already made a much-lauded ascent from London.
His journey of six miles did, nonetheless, make Sadler the first Englishman to fly and arguably the first Briton (although Scotland’s James Tytler had made a flight of sorts in Edinburgh – a “leap”, as he himself described it – in August).
The only problem was that no one actually saw Sadler’s flight. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he was not a showman or an extrovert who thrived on the attention. As the advertised day approached, Sadler felt that the prospect of performing in front of thousands of people was simply too daunting. Finding that the weather conditions in the early morning of 4 October were ideal for flying, he went on a practice run.
Despite the lack of witnesses to his six-mile journey, the veracity of Sadler’s account is clear from the candour of his admissions of having left his thermometer too close to the fire and dropping his poker. More convincing still was the fact that the account was published in Jackson’s Oxford Journal. A pioneer of the British provincial press, William Jackson was a shrewd, dispassionate individual who was highly unlikely to have allowed any spurious account to appear in the pages of the newspaper that proudly carried his name, and therefore his reputation, for more than 30 years.
But if this first flight had been understandably secretive, Sadler’s second journey, on 12 November, was anything but. “A surprising Concourse of People of all Ranks” witnessed his ascent from Oxford’s Botanic Garden. This time he reached Aylesbury, a distance of a little more than 20 miles, in an astonishing 17 minutes. On his return home the same day, Sadler was hailed as a local hero.
A coloured print of Sadler in a balloon. (SSPL/Getty Images)
Buoyed by this success, the following December found Sadler in Dover, poised to attempt to become the first person ever to fly across the English Channel. When his newly constructed balloon arrived in Dover from London however, he made a devastating discovery: the varnish used to seal the seams had set in such a way that it ripped the silk when it was unpacked.
This unfortunate setback saw the Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American John Jeffries beat Sadler to the milestone. The two men managed to clear the cliffs at Calais only by ejecting every possible item of ballast – including even their own clothes. One thing that Jeffries did retain, however, tucked into his undergarments, was a letter addressed to Temple Franklin (grandson of Benjamin Franklin, who had witnessed the first manned ascent in Paris in September 1783), making it the first ever example of airmail – a letter which still exists.
Sadler’s failure was a cue for the English press to direct class-driven bile at him, in the hope that it would “remove his balloon frenzy, and restore his cheese-cakes and apple-puffs to that degree of unrivalled excellence they were once so famed for”. Yet he never did revert to vending food, at least, not full-time. Over the next 10 months he made another six flights, including the first ever ascents seen in Manchester (Balloon Street is named accordingly), Worcester, and Stroud.
Over the next 25 years, influenced by the prevailing economic and political climate, Sadler concentrated on more terrestrial matters. While he retained primary responsibility for his family catering business, and had a family of five young children to provide for, he nonetheless diverted himself with displays of “philosophical fireworks” in Oxford Town Hall and by designing steam engines of a quality that caused James Watt and Matthew Boulton to take a keen interest.
He also fabricated equipment for Oxford University’s chemistry laboratory. However, on finding little support from within the university itself – indeed, an informed opinion was that he was being “oppressed, to the disgrace of the university ... from pique and jealousy of his superior science”, – he decided to accompany a third main Oxford ally, the chemist Dr Thomas Beddoes, to Bristol in 1793.
After helping Beddoes to initiate an experimental institute based on the medical uses of gases, Sadler was then recruited as a chemist by the navy. With little guidance or supervision, he concentrated mainly on improvements to cannons and handguns. He also designed a horse-drawn prototype armoured car known as ‘Sadler’s Flying Artillery’. All this was ultimately considered by the Admiralty “wholly inapplicable to the purpose”, and despite receiving praise from Nelson, among many others, Sadler was dismissed, “uncompensated, unnoticed, friendless, nay absolutely ruined”.
Windham Sadler’s hot air balloon launching from London’s Burlington House in 1814, depicted in an image by James Gillray. (Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
“The king of all balloons”
It was partly in order to redress his dire financial situation that Sadler returned to professional ballooning in 1810 at the age of 57. He chose Oxford for this “resurrection”, making a high-profile public ascent with his eldest son, which earned him the sobriquet ‘king of all balloons’.
Sadler passed on his love of ballooning to his youngest son, Windham, who was, as one newspaper put it, “the most undoubted heir to his father’s talents”. Although they ascended together only once, the father and son made a total of some 50 flights from more than 30 towns and cities in England, Scotland, and Ireland over a period of 40 years. The Sadlers’ careers saw ballooning speed, height, distance and age records broken, the first aerial crossing of the Irish Sea and the Bristol Channel, two rescues from dangerous seas, and countless precarious, audacious, or glorious escapades. However, Windham’s fruitful aeronautical career ended in tragedy. On a journey from Bolton in a strong wind, he was thrown out of the basket after colliding with a house, suspended by a rope for some time as the balloon was propelled into more buildings, and then plummeted to the ground. This was only the second such tragedy in 40 years of British ballooning.
In his day, James Sadler’s name was widely known, and he even enjoyed personal audiences with the royal family. Yet he ended his days back in Oxford, in impoverished obscurity. A friend of John Constable wrote to the artist of Sadler’s fate: “How scheming beggars a man!” Sadler’s misfortune was that, while he was from Oxford, he was not from Oxford University. Had he been, as a contemporary novel observed, “probably he had made his fortune” and “we should have had him among the Stars”. As it is, despite his eventful and adventurous life, his name remains largely unknown and forgotten.