Those of us who have lived in or visited the Bristol area south of Gloucestershire will no doubt have taken pleasure at the sight of the multitude of hot air balloons that from time to time float gracefully across our landscape. Bristol is the home of Cameron Balloons famous for their ingenious creations many of which take part in the superb Balloon Fiesta held annually at Ashton Court. I suppose that without thought we take ballooning for granted as a relatively modern pastime. However, it seems that a little over 200 years ago WILLIAM FISHER SHRAPNELL, one of our more illustrious ancestors was involved as a young man in a ballooning debacle the memory of which in later life probably caused him much embarrassment. I am indebted to the Fishponds Local History Society for the following text:

 

"By March 1784 ballooning activity had shifted north into Gloucestershire where at Cirencester two ingenious citizens had constructed a 112 cu.ft. air balloon which they launched at midday on Thursday, March 18th from Earl Bathurst's Home Park. These two local worthies must have been well pleased with their efforts for in just 45 minutes it covered the 32 miles to touch down in the sea near the Black Rock lying just off the Monmouthshire Coast, near Portskewett.

 

Not all of the advertised demonstrations, however, actually took place, even though the price of failure could be high, for it was not unknown for a luckless experimenter to be fortunate to escape with his life should his attempts prove to be in vain. A frustrated eighteenth century crowd was inclined to display little mercy, and on a number of occasions it proved expedient to release a balloon even before the inflation process had actually been completed. At Dursley we can find a good example of two over enthusiastic experimenters who were indeed lucky to escape physical injury.

 

Messrs. Sharpnell and Dyer it appears proposed to launch a balloon from Stinchcombe Hill at midday on August 3rd, and as details of the event had been carried in the "Gloucester Journal" it was not surprising that a large crowd had gathered in anticipation. They were, however, to be disappointed and as "Felix Farley's Bristol Journal" subsequently reported "after waiting many hours in anticipation behold nothing but a child's paper kite was exhibited. After some altercation with the company assembled, the artists thought proper to take to their heels, and so escape the lashes of the spectators whips". The exact identity of Sharpnell and Dyer is not stated, but it is most likely that one of them was William Fisher Shrapnell, surgeon to the South Gloucestershire Militia who was a close friend of the famous Edward Jenner M.D. L.L.D. F.R.S. of Berkeley (1749 - 1823), remembered with affection the world over for his discovery of vaccination as a preventative of smallpox.

 

Nevertheless, this fiasco at Dursley did nothing to dampen enthusiasm for ballooning in the southern part of Gloucestershire, for the very next month Dr. Jenner himself carried out his first aeronautical experiment, although he was careful to keep the details from the public, fearing the result of another local failure. Caution, it appears, prevailed for on Thursday September 2nd 1784, and in private, he finally launched his hydrogen filled balloon from the Inner Court of Berkeley Castle. It was released at two o'clock in the afternoon, and later that day was seen to descend into a meadow at Symond's Hall only a short distance from Kingscote Park, at that time the residence of Anthony Kingscote Esq., father of three most eligible daughters. The balloon's arrival in the parish caused a great deal of excitement and, "the reapers were so much terrified that they could not for some time be prevailed to approached it".

 

Jenner's ride over to retrieve his little aerostat resulted in his first meeting with Catherine Kingscote, a lady he subsequently married on March 6th, 1788, so there must have been little difficulty in persuading him to re-launch the balloon from Kingscote Park, for the benefit of the family and their friends. This was soon accomplished and in the best romantic traditions the balloon rose into the air carrying a poem, specially written by Jenner's friend Edward Gardner, and dedicated to Catherine, his new found love. No details have come to light regarding the balloon's fate, but it is just possible that it came to earth a little over 20 miles away on high ground near Birdlip Hill, where there still exists a public house bearing the title "Air Balloon Inn".

 

As noted elsewhere, William Fisher Shrapnell, a lifetime friend of Jenner, was the father of Doctor Henry Jones Shrapnell. Henry was a working colleague of Jenner in his experiments achieving notoriety of his own with the naming of the 'Shrapnell Membrane', part of the ear.

 

A complete transcript of the above text enlarging on the History of Ballooning can be found on the following URL <http://fishponds.org.uk/balloon.html> courtesy of John Penny of the Fishponds Local History Society.

WILLIAM SHRAPNELL ESCAPES WITH HIS LIFE -

BALLOONING FIASCO AT STINCHCOMBE HILL!!