Today, hot air balloons are a renowned sight on the Bath skyline, but many onlookers from the ground are unaware just how long these lighter-than-air aircraft have been lifting off from this celebrated city.
The first balloon ascent from Bath took place in 1802 when one launched from Sydney Gardens on September 7. The ascent was performed by the Official Aeronaut of France, André-Jacques Garnerin, who was not only a balloonist but the inventor of the first ever frameless parachute. In his capacity as a national aeronaut, he was able to conduct a tour of England along with his wife, Jeanne, who was also an accomplished balloonist and the first woman to make a parachute jump.
Along with demonstrations of ballooning and parachuting at London addresses, Garnerin also travelled to Bath to make his historic ascent. Many of Bath’s citizens paid a sum of five shillings to enter Sydney Gardens and watch the Frenchman take off, while many more found spots on the city’s surrounding hills to see the spectacle.
Paris-born Garnerin had been present in the capital in 1783, when the first manned balloon ascent was accomplished. The event fired his young mind, leading him to conduct his own small-scale experiments with miniature balloons.
As a young man serving in the Paris National Guard, he was still entranced by aeronautics and convinced a wealthy patron to procure him a full-size balloon in return for ticket takings at the lift-off. When his parents became aware of the event, they informed Garnerin’s commanding officer who issued soldiers to halt the proceedings. Ever the showman, the balloonist slashed out with his sword, severing the ropes that tethered the balloon and arose into the sky on his first epic ascent.
During the war, Garnerin was a prisoner in Hungary for two years but returned to Paris where he aided the French government and received his official title. In 1979, he leapt from a balloon becoming the first parachutist to make successful jump.
When the balloon was filled to capacity, Garnerin paraded his aircraft, towing it around Sydney Gardens before returning it to his chosen launch site. While Garnerin’s wife often joined him on ascents, for the Bath event, the Frenchman was accompanied by Duncan Glassford. Although the exact time of the ascent was not recorded, sightings were made in the skies above Bath by 4:50 pm where the balloon was seen guided by a gentle north-easterly breeze. It was still airborne at 7:00 pm and spotted above the hills lying to the west of Prior Park.
The balloon and its passengers finally landed in a field close to Mells Park, a location approximately 16 miles from Bath. Accounts from the time state that the balloonists were met by “friendly assistance” from “a great concourse of people who were anxiously awaiting their arrival.”
The first ever balloon ascension in Bath was then followed by an extravagant gala within the gardens, complete with orchestral performances and a fireworks display.