Episode 59 - Welcome to the Mile High Club (Daredevil Week)

Updated: Apr 17

Sam's Episode Notes: Hot Air Balloon Pioneer and Italian Stallion Vincenzo Lunardi (and the invention of the Mile High club)


Today, I'm talking about one of those magnificent men in their flying machines, with a look at one of the earliest and funniest hot air balloonists.


Now, you might be thinking 'boring'. Floating around in the serene and peaceful skies is no match for jumping your horse across a pile of burning witches, or escaping from a coffin full of plague rats dunked into an open sewer rife with cholera, but you'd be wrong, Tom. It's just as dangerous as either of those two made up things.


Because this is the late 1700s, and if there's one thing people don't understand, it's the basic physics of flight and how wind works. These were, by and large, charismatic showmen who went up into the skies with oars to steer, no way to land, and no warm clothing. These, Tom, were idiots.


Now I don't know how much you know about hot air balloons so I'll give a very quick background. The rumoured first hot air balloon flight was made in 1709 by a Portugese priest called Bartolomeu de Gusmão, who developed a system of coloured balloons for military signalling which could apparently also carry him. But the first proven manned hot air balloon was launched in October 15th 1783. It was made out of paper filled with hydrogen and manufactured by the famous montgolfier brothers of France. A guy called Francois Pilatre de Rozier became the first (or second) man ever to fly, at a lofty height of 10m from the ground on a tether, but pretty quickly the brothers and de Rozier got an itch to send people soaring free. Initially, King Louis 16th ordered that condemned criminals would be the first people up – it was considered so dangerous he was planning on using it as a form of execution. But de Rozier argued it should be an honour, not a punishment, and volunteered himself as the pilot, and took off successfully on November 21, 1783.


And pretty quickly the bored and wealthy young men of Europe worked out that this was both fantastically exciting, and a great way to find fame with ever more audacious stunts and, inevitably, meet girls.


Chief among these, was a young Neapolitan nobleman called Vincenzo Lunardi. He'd been working in England with the diplomatic service when he heard about this amazing new invention from France, but was frustrated to see the English thought it was just a silly toy. And so he decided to put on a show. He wouldn't be the first Brit to fly – a Scotsman called James Tytler had managed a tiny flight in August 1874 in Edinburgh, but it really was just a hop. Vincenzo was going to do it properly. And by properly, I mean not very properly at all. In summer 1784 he bought a balloon, put it on display in London, and started to promote his grand show. And sure enough, on September 1784, he filled up his balloon at London's Royal Artillery grounds, and took to the skies.


Now, at this point, the story mostly comes from Lunardi's self-penned pamphlet about the voyage, so take it with a grain of salt.


150,000 people turned up to watch the voyage, including thousands who thought they were about to witness the first high altitude death, the Prince of Wales, and, quote, “as great a display of female beauties as ever”. Unfortunately, the balloon wasn't quite as strong as hoped, and so a decision had to be made about what cargo to take. Lunadri's assistant, a guy called George Biggins, was tossed overboard in favour of taking two pigeons, a cat, a dog, and an enormous amount of wine. Somewhat unfair considering Biggins had actually financed the flight.


And sure enough, as he stepped out the balloon drifted up into the sky, scraping the roofs of nearby buildings as it went and causing him to lose one of his steering oars in panic.

Unfortunately, he had literally no control whatsoever over his altitude, since he didn't know how to fly the damn thing. He got so high that icicles formed on his face and clothes and the cat froze. To which his only solution was to get riotously drunk and cuddle the dog, who was busy being violently travel sick.


Eventually, the balloon did get low enough for him to be able to shout instructions to his assistants through a megaphone, and threw the frozen cat at one of them. I've no idea if it made it, but he landed three hours later in a field some 20 miles out of London, quote: “very cold, and the dog was very wet.”


He became an immediate sex symbol, with women even wearing Lunardi style bonnets, big round things puffed up in the style of a hot air balloon.


In fact, it was Lunardi's symbol as a sex status that created the first ever woman aeronaut, and inadvertently got him the title of the world's first dating wingman to boot. A year later, in August 1785, he arranged another high profile flight with a London-based actress, costume designer and noted beauty, Letitia Ann Sage.


Of course, there were some issues here. The first was modesty – no one wanted to see a women having to vault the side of the basket, so a gate was installed. The second was an issue of weight. You'll remember in the first flight, George Biggins had been turfed out in favour of the catsickle and a puking dog. Well, now there were three in the basket – Lunardi, Biggins, and Letitia, who when asked her weight, proudly proclaimed that she was 200lbs or 90kg. So not exactly petite.


This massively threw out the weight balance of the basket, and as they tried to take off the basket swung to one side and Lunardi essentially fell out, lightening the load quite significantly and sending Biggins and Letitia off into the sky all on their own.


Now, the official account is that at this point and wanting to preserve her modesty and safety, Letitia knelt down to re-fasten the gate across the basket, whilst Biggins put his hand on her head to, quote, steady her. However, what this looked like to the people on the ground was less securing the basket, and more, erm, supporting the sack.


This obviously made every front page in London, and made Letitia and Biggins both celebrities, and a running joke for the rest of their lives. As well as the first members of the mile high club, unofficially.


Whilst up their, as was standard with these hot air balloon rides, the pair got pretty hammered, throwing empty bottles of wine over the side in an act of enormous social responsibility. Presumably they also had a cigarette.


But there was one final bit of drama: When they finally landed after about 90 minutes, the balloon dragged across a load of fields, destroying quite a lot of crops and injuring Letitia, who sprained her ankle. A load of farmers started chasing the pair across the fields and hunting them down, and they had to be rescued and carried to safety by a load of schoolboys from the nearby and very famous Harrow school, who managed to get them back to London in safety.


Unfortunately it turns out ballooning was pretty dangerous – who would have thought. In December Lunardi took off for a flight from Edinburgh but was blown out over the coast and crash landed in the North sea, where he was stranded for several hours before being rescued. In fairness, after the incident he designed a new kind of life boat.


And finally in 1786, in a flight from Newcastle, he accidentally dropped some incredibly strong acid for an experiment onto the ground. By which I mean he spilled some acid, not he took copious amounts of hallucinogenic drugs. The assistants holding the balloon down ran away – all but one, a young boy who got tangled and was fatally injured. As a result, Lunardi fled the UK to Europe.


But there you go. A story of two big balloons, a frigid pussy (sorry) and the mile high club.


Tom's notes:


Medieval mob football

I was struggling for inspiration this week with my research.

· I didn’t want to actually do a ‘daredevil’ because they’re all fairly well known, and also fairly modern.

· My research into older daredevils didn’t really come up with anything particularly exciting, apart from a slightly related fantastic primary source that I have stored in my back pocket for a future week.

o By older daredevils I don’t mean pensioners going to supermarkets. Coronavirus joke there.

o Although I did come across the video of Karl Wallender, a famous tight rope walker, falling to his death at the age of 78, you guessed it. He was tightrope walking.

Then I had a break through!

I thought I’d look into dangerous sports with an interesting origin. I began with pole-vaulting.

· For anyone who doesn’t know, this sport evolved out of a way of negotiating marshy areas around the North Sea (namely in the Friesland area of the Netherlands and the Fens in Eastern England; not far from me). These areas were drained by man long ago by creating channels of water.

o The dykes in the Netherlands are particularly big, imposing and wet.

· Competitions started in the 1800s and a more traditional type of pole-vaulting, called Fierljeppen, still takes place in Friesland to this day. Rather fun to watch.

This got me thinking about other stupid old games, where participants put their live at risk, that have survived until today.

· I looked at greasy pole climbing

o A sport (I’m using this word loosely, as in the phrase, “snooker is a fantastic sport”) that was sufficiently prevalent in the past to have led to a well-known phrase; “climbing the greasy pole” (meaning to pursue promotions at work to get to the top of the pile, where you can shit liberally on everyone else trying to get there; that’s a direct quote from Marx).

§ In fact, Benjamin Disraeli used the phrase when he became Prime Minister in 1868.

o I liked this greasy pole competition in particular:

§ The Queen’s University at Kingston, Canada, have a greasy pole that was stolen from Toronto University in 1955 (a football pole). The pole sits in a quote, “grease pit”.

§ Traditionally, the grease pit was filled with all sorts of revolting things and spectators could throw things at participants who were trying to climb the pole to reach a tam nailed to the top

· By revolting, I mean horseshit and animal parts, as well as axle grease.

· Cooper’s Hill cheese rolling; quite a well-known one here in the UK

o This takes place every spring on Cooper’s Hill in Gloucestershire

o A double Gloucester cheese is rolled from the top of a very steep hill (1 in 3) and competitors volunteer to chase it to the bottom.

o First written evidence is from 1826 and this evidence strongly suggests that the event had been taking place for a long time

· There were a few others too that I came across

o Ottery St Mary flaming tar barrel run

o Wife carrying

· But I thought I’d settle on medieval English mob football; supposedly the origins of modern day football.

o These games of football were brilliantly crude and simple, basically two teams of who-cares-how-many (so often in the hundreds) attempted to get a ball (an inflated pigs bladder) to a marker at either end of a town (or something similar).

§ The rules? No killing or manslaughter allowed. Everything else is fair game!

§ These games basically turned into a massive maul to use a rugby term.

· Balls games are as old as the hills right?

o There are plenty of historical references to people playing some form of football

§ Matthew Paris (the famous English chronicler) from the 13th century: “Four and twenty bonny boys, were playing at the ball... he kicked the ball with his right foot"

· Ron Manager impression

§ In 1314 the mayor of London banned football in the streets; "[f]orasmuch as there is great noise in the city caused by hustling over large foot balls in the fields of the public from which many evils might arise which God forbid: we command and forbid on behalf of the king, on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city in the future."

· He clearly was the equivalent to the grumpy old man who lived at the bottom of the street who used to knife footballs that were kicked into his beautifully manicured garden and thrown them back over the fence, with a dead hedgehog.

§ Here’s a 1321 dispensation from the pope: "To William de Spalding… During the game at ball as he kicked the ball, a lay friend of his, also called William, ran against him and wounded himself on a sheathed knife carried by the canon, so severely that he died within six days.”

· It’s a bit like playing a game of 5-aside in London today then.

· Did you diss me mate?

§ There are lots and lots of references to football in the 15th century onwards.

· Henry VIII even owned a pair of football boots! Adidas Predators in fact.

§ In 1835, playing football on the street was actually banned on public highways.

· Do you know the best bit about all this Sam? Wonderfully, many of these games of mob football are still played today and they are totally bonkers!

o There are a number of them; some are rather tame:

§ “Scoring the Hales” has been taking place in Northumberland since at least 1762

§ Cornish hurling is a variation of mob football still played today, apparently it is considered by many to be the Cornish national sport, many other people disagree, because Cornwall isn’t a nation, so it can’t have a national sport.

· There are records of this as far back as the late 17th century.

· Cornish people will try to tell you that Cornish hurling is subtly different to mob football, with different rules, but as far as I can see, that’s a load of old bollocks (farmers voice).

· What I do think is weird is that the ball in Cornish hurling is basically a cricket ball but made out of sterling silver with an Applewood centre. So basically bloody hard!

· I also liked this fact, there is a set of three neolithic stone circles in Cornwall called the ‘hurlers’. According to local myth, these stones are men who were turned to stone for playing a game of hurling on a Sunday; the day of our lord!

o There are also some medieval mob matches that are still played in their original form! And yes, they’re violent, mob affairs!

§ The Atherstone Ball game takes place in Atherstone, Warwickshire.

· This has apparently been going on since 1199!

· It’s so raucous that the local businesses board up their windows in preparation.

· There are plenty of videos of this online and it looks like a great day out if you’re a yokel juice head, a rugby lad who loves a fight or a chav looking for to kick someone who’s not looking.

§ Lastly, there’s the Royal Shrovetide football match in Ashbourne, Derbyshire.

· The exact origins of this game are unclear, but it is likely to be 12th century again.

· This is played between the Up’ards and the Down’ards

· Both teams have, like in a game of rubgy, fat blokes fighting, and fast small blokes waiting to run. If the fat blokes get possession of the ball in a ‘hug’, they pass it to their runners and they try to run the ball to the goal. If one team is ahead, they’ll just sit on the ball to stop the opposite team scoring. Literally. So not to dissimilar to a game of school rugby.

o Incidentally, many of these games were played on public holidays for obvious reasons (people weren’t working). The majority appear to have been played on Shrove Tuesday, or pancake day, the first day of Lent, we’re people traditionally pigged out before giving something up for Lent.

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