A new phenomenon was seen above the skies of Britain in the 1780s. One summer day in 1785 the celebrated naturalist and writer Gilbert White roused the locals to view a balloon as it floated above Shelbourne Church in Hampshire. It was all a new and wondrous development. The first manned flight took place in June 1783 when the Montgolfier brothers launched a hot air balloon from Paris. In the early days unmanned craft were launched. In February 1784 one such unmanned craft launched in Birmingham landed in Cheadle. The locals were unaware of the explosive nature of hydrogen gas which soon became apparent. The Bristol Journal takes up the story
“The farmers took it into a two pair of stairs room, and attempted to blow it up by use of bellows, during which one of the company approached too closely with a lighted candle. The remaining inflammable air tore off the wainscot, broke all the furniture and drove the casement to a considerable distance, but did no damage to the bystanders, except singeing their hair.”
The first successful manned flight in Britain took place the following September. A large crowd , including the Prince of Wales, gathered at Chelsea to see an Italian Vincenzo Lunardi set off along with a dog, cat and pigeon. The flight took him to Hertfordshire where he landed near to what is now South Mimms service station.
Closer to home a daring aeronaut named Harper took off from Birmingham rising to over 4,000 feet. He flew over Trentham Hall descending to ask a farm labourer where he was, talking to the startled man by way of a speaking trumpet. Eventually he crashed at Newcastle and was rescued by a blacksmith as his basket crashed through bushes.
Fairly soon records were being established in terms of altitude and distance by balloonist. In 1784 the first balloon to cross the Channel landed in France piloted by Blanchard and an American Jeffries
One of the first uses of the new form of transport was military. The French used balloons as platforms to observe troop deployment at the Battle of Fleurus in 1794. Among the troops present that day was Jean Baptiste Brunet who much later as General Brunet would become the most senior officer imprisoned in Leek during the Napoleonic War.
One myth probably needs questioning and concerns a balloon that is supposed to have landed at Gun Hill in the 1820s frightening the locals who took it for a devil I am sure that people of Leek would have been very familiar with balloons from the earliest days of flight.