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The Great Balloon Riot of 1864

I first heard of this story by Jeremy Clay on the BBC here.

The English aeronaut Henry Tracey Coxwell became a minor celebrity in 1862 from a feat of derring-do. He and the meteorologist Dr James Glashier decided to carry out an experiment on behalf of the British Association for the Advancement of Science to investigate conditions of the upper atmosphere.

In short, they were going to take a hot air balloon (which, technically, at that time was not full of hot air--they used hydrogen at this period) up as high as they could go, just to see what happened. Coxwell and Glashier reached the highest point anyone had ever flown by this point--they were estimated to have reached somewhere between 35,000 and 37,000 feet.

[caption id="attachment_2940" align="alignnone" width="300"] Coxwell and Glashier before their record-breaking flight.[/caption]

Unsurprisingly, Glashier lost consciousness and Coxwell lost all sensation in his hands. Coxwell was only able to save them both by pulling the valve cord with his teeth. The balloon dropped rapidly, but they landed safely. Coxwell was lauded as a hero.

Two years later, Leicester held a fete in which 50,000 people showed up to take a ride in Coxwell's new balloon (and his largest one to date), Britannia. Someone in the crowd, for motives unknown, decided to spread the rumor that Coxwell's balloon wasn't his newest or largest, but an old and small one.

Coxwell later reported to the Times that this was "a cruel libel", but the damage had been done. The crowd started to turn on him, thinking he was trying to fool them and eke money out of them for rides in a sub-par balloon.

As there was little police presence at the event, the crowd soon turned ugly and they broke into his enclosure where he was preparing his balloon for flight. They demanded their rides immediately, and those who had paid for their tickets jumped into the basket. Coxwell tried to tell them that he wasn't done preparations, and they were delaying their own departure.

Members of the crowd then started damaging the balloon by hanging off various cords and ropes. Seeing how dangerous this was about to become, Coxwell threatened that if they didn't stop damaging his preparations, he'd be forced to let the air out of the balloon. When they didn't obey, he followed through on his threat.

As the balloon deflated, the crowd went wild, tore the fabric to shreds, and set the basket on fire. They also beat up Coxwell and left him bleeding and with torn clothes. Coxwell fled to the safety of a nearby pub, while members of the crowd began gathering up shreds of the balloon to sell off to spectators as souvenirs.

As far as I'm aware, they were never able to locate the person who started the rumor. The press was ruthless in their classification of the town as a brutish, and this led to a short-lived nickname for people from Leicester in the 1860s: Balloonatics.

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Sad story. Came here from Strange Company Blogspot.

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