In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, balloons were all the rage. In November 1783, the Montgolfier brothers had amazed the world with their sensational first flights, sparking a wave of ‘balloonomania’ through France and England. Huge crowds gathered to watch balloonists – 400,000 are said to have watched a flight in Paris – who became famous stars in their own rights.
The Montgolfiers used hot-air balloons, but hydrogen balloons were being developed in tandem by rival balloon pioneers. And it was in such a balloon that Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries made the first manned crossing of the English Channel by air.
Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard was a professional balloonist and one of the stars of the scene. Jeffries was an American doctor with an interest in making observations of the weather. It was he who stumped up the £700 for the flight in return for a place in the basket.
The two hung about in Dover for three weeks, waiting for suitable conditions. And at 1PM on 7 January, they took off from the grounds of Dover Castle.
Their balloon was equipped with a rudder, a propeller – which didn’t work – and oars, by which they hoped to row themselves through the air in the absence of a favourable wind. It also carried anchors. All this extra weight almost did for the aviators, as half way across the Channel, the balloon dropped perilously close to the waves. Anything that could be thrown over the side was, including the aeronauts’ trousers.
It worked. The balloon gained altitude, and made it safely across to France, where the two landed as heroes in the forêt de Guînes, near Calais, clad only in their underwear.
Blanchard went on to make the first manned balloon flight in America some ten years later. His wife, Sophie Blanchard, became a hugely successful balloonist in her own right.