Greenwich’s Phileas Fogg

I am currently reading a new book about Ruth Belville, the Greenwich Time Lady we talked about last year – review to follow as soon as I’ve finished it, but once again I’m entertained by the way that everything in Greenwich history seems to intertwine. Stories don’t just stand alone, they work with (and against) others, characters in one tale knew characters in a totally different one.

It must be great to live in a house with a blue plaque, and I’m really rather jealous of number 20, Dartmouth Hill who have a splendid one, and clearly, when Benedict took this picture, felt they needed to bring the rest of the house up to the standard of the plaque – which explains the scaffolding.

James Glaisher FRS (1809 – 1903) was a meteorologist who worked up at the Observatory for much of his life, with coming up with ways to measure humidity and co-founding the Meteorological Society all in a day’s work. But what he’s best known for is his Great Balloon Ascent in 1862, where he flew higher than anyone had ever flown, conducted animal experiments which may or may not upset you, depending on your attitude to pigeons – and fainted before he could do his final measurement that would prove he actually went up seven miles.

Balloons had been around for just under 100 years – and not just as scientific experimental equipment, but for fun, too. The Prince Regent wrote a general letter for Edward Hawke Locker, a commissioner of Greenwich Hospital (and, incidentally, the guy who turned the Painted Hall into an art gallery) for a balloon flight he took in 1805, which requested that they were ‘well-entertained’ by the local toffs wherever they landed.

But back to Glaisher, who was very serious about this particular flight. He and his mate Henry Coxwell travelled up to Wolverhampton to get the best wind. They got more than they bargained for and at first they thought they might not go up. But as soon as they did, Glaisher busied himself with taking measurements and conducting experiments.

They’d brought a basket of six pigeons up, and he chucked the first one out of the basket at three miles high. It staggered about a bit, then “endeavoured to fly.” A second, released at four miles, flew vigorously.” The next one, between four and five “dropped like a stone.”
In the meanwhile, Glaisher was having a few problems of his own. At first he couldn’t read his instruments properly, next he noticed that “I seemed to have no limbs.” His head fell onto his shoulder and he couldn’t make any of his body work. As he slipped into unconsciousness, he started to hallucinate, although, ever the scientist, he was trying to make observations about his condition. “The perfect stillness and silence of the regions six miles from the earth…is such that no sound reaches the ear.”
By calculations they did later, they almost certainly reached seven miles, but by this time the pair of them were out of their heads – and bodies. Hoar frost had formed all over the balloon and they were beginning to get frost bite. They decided they’d probably had enough Science for one day.
They released another pigeon between four and five miles. This one flew in a circle, looked down, came to the sensible conclusion that it was a very long way down and hitched a ride on the top of the balloon. They didn’t bother with the other two. One was dead on landing; the other very dazed. When it came-to, it flew back to its loft in Wolverhampton as fast as its wings could take it, set up with seed-party conversation for life.
There’s a great account of the whole affair in the New York Times of the trip, and what I love about it is that Glaisher doesn’t try to brazen-out the fact that he passed out, but deals with it in the same detached manner as the rest of the experiment.
It certainly didn’t put him off trying again. He and Coxwell made numerous ascents, and founded the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain in 1866 – very Jules Verne, don’t you think…
So what’s all this got to do with Ruth Belville? Well, according to the book I’m reading, the dashing aeronaut also had an eye for the ladies. He went to John Belville, Ruth’s father, who was also working at the Observatory and asked for the day off. When Belville asked the reason, he was told it was so the 34 year-old could marry Belville’s daughter (and Ruth’s’ sister) Cecilia, who was 15. Naturally, the father wasn’t’ best-pleased and the whole thing ended in tears. But that’s all for another day…
In the meanwhile, if you’re gagging to see what Greenwich would have looked like from a balloon, Stanfords do a curious map of London as seen from a balloon in 1851. Enjoy.

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