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The first balloon ascent in Exeter - 1786

Page updated 15 June 2009

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Trewman's Exeter Flying Post published this article in October 1879, remembering the first balloon flight in Exeter during 1786. The event was not reported in Exeter's own newspapers at the time. See Balloon ascent 1848 for a description of another balloon flight.

"The Morning Chronicle, London paper of 23rd June, 1786, contains an account, by a correspondent, of a balloon ascent at Exeter, which, notwithstanding the great interest that must have been excited by such an unusual event, passed without notice in the local papers. The communication (dated 20th June) ran thus :- 

"Mr. St Croix yesterday ascended with his balloon (which was a very fine one 75 feet in circumference) precisely at 2 o'clock from the Castle Yard. The ascension was truly grand and beautiful, and afforded pleasure and satisfaction, mixed with terror, to upwards of 50,000 spectators, who placed themselves on all the adjacent hills, which was a fine sight nearly half an hour at an immense height supposed to be not less than three miles perpendicular. Mr. St. Croix descended safely in a corn field about 10 miles distant, and came back to Exeter about 7 o'clock, on horseback and thousands of people following and huzzaing him all the way through the City to the London Inn. The fineness of the weather, the brilliancy of the company, all the nobility and people of fashion in the county being present, the charms of an excellent band of musick, which played 3 hours during the filling of the balloon, together with the novelty and success of the experiment all contributed to render it the grandest spectacle ever beheld in Exeter. Such a display of beauty and elegance of dress appeared on the occasion has not been seen in Exeter for many years, such a numerous collection of fine women appearing in the Castle Yard and Northway (Northernhay) walk (supposed to be upwards of a thousand) fully proved that no city in the kingdom, except London, could exceed it. So greatly was the publick curiosity excited that the shops were close shut up during the time it lasted. Mr. St. Croix has been very handsomely repaid all expenses as he cleared upwards of £150 by showing his balloon previous to his ascension and yesterday about 4,000 persons paid half a crown each for admittance to the Castle Yard. All ranks of people returned home highly gratified and the remainder of the day was spent in joy and festivity. The evening concluded with a publick Ball at the Hotel at which upwards of 450 people of fashion attended" 

This must have been the first ascent of a Balloon in Exeter. It was only ten years after the discovery by Cavendish of the fact that hydrogen is lighter than the atmosphere and only three years after the ascent by M.M. Robert and Charles at Paris in the first balloon filled with this gas. The account leaves it somewhat doubtful whether hydrogen was employed of whether the balloon was inflated with heated air by which the Montgolfier made the first recorded ascent in 1783, only three years before that of St. Croix at Exeter. It is scarcely necessary to remind the reader that this was thirty years before gas was manufactured in Exeter for lighting purposes and that, if hydrogen was used, it must have been produced specially for the occasion. The first ascent in England was by the celebrated aeronaut, Lunardi, at Moorfields, London, on the 15th September 1784, as recorded in the once popular rhyme we have heard recited by the late Sir John Bowring.

Oh what has become of Lunardi!
Gone up in his air balloon.
Is he gone to visit the moon?
Will he come back soon?
Oh what has become of Lunardi?"

Sources - Trewman's Exeter Flying Post

Samuel Poole, an Exeter Dyer wrote in his diary:
"1786 June 19th Mr St Croix went up in an air Balloon from the Castle Yard and floated in the air near one Hour it took its Course away to Cadely (Cadeleigh) where by accident it bursted and fell a distance of about 9 miles"

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