If you’ve ever stopped at Finsbury Park station, you may have clocked the mosaic tiles depicting vintage hot air balloons.
They look serene enough, but in truth they recall an age when Londoners were foaming at the mouth over the latest daredevil craze. In September 1784, in Finsbury Fields, Vincenzo Lunardi became the first human to fly in England, accompanied by a confused dog, a puzzled cat and a seen-it-all-before pigeon.
After that, London was hooked.
But if Lunardi’s sounds like a perplexing floating menagerie, London had to wait another 68 years for the bizarrest — and perhaps cruellest — balloon stunt of all. It involved a seasoned French aeronaut, Madame Poitevin, and a bull — and it would put a stop to the frankly demented practice of forcing animals to fly.
By the mid 1850s, the cityscapes of London and Paris had balloons bobbing up and down on a near-daily basis. A newspaper from 1852 writes: “The rage for balloons never manifested itself through such incessant exhibitions as at the present moment.”
Of course, you’ve got to keep the punters coming back for more, which means doing increasingly wacky (stupid) things.
In August 1852, Madame Poitevin took le biscuit, when she announced she would ascend from Chelsea’s Cremorne Gardens — a well-known pleasure garden of the day — riding on the back of a bull, in a depiction of the Greek goddess, Europa.
The heartless stunt had previously been pulled off with horses: Monsieur Poitevin had drifted above the rooftops of Paris on horseback in 1850. But this was the first time the feat had been attempted on a bull. Wonder why
On 30 August, the ill-advised flight went ahead, with Madame Poitevin and the bull ascending above Cremorne Gardens before drifting eastward and eventually landing in a field in Ilford. They were ‘greeted’ by a ‘mob’ who were “astonished at seeing a bull fall from a balloon—a thing not seen every day in Essex.”
Poitevin was unharmed but the bull was (obviously) terrified out of its wits — so much so, it was decided the best cause of action was slaughter the poor creature.
The stunt was a bridge too far, and landed the Poitevins in hot water. Newspaper court reports from the time say that Madame Poitevin and the proprietor of Cremorne Gardens, Mr Simpson, pleaded guilty to “ill-using and ill treating a heifer”, accepted a fine of five pounds each, and agreed not to take any kind of animal up in a balloon again.
This didn’t discourage the Poitevins from flying though; the very next month, an article in the London Evening Standard recounted the couple ascending 5,000 feet above Clapham Common in a balloon, before Monsieur Poitevin leapt out with a parachute. (He survived.)
London’s fascination with hot air balloons continues today, not least because of the Lord Mayor’s Hot Air Balloon Regatta. The only animal up there now is the occasional balloon shaped like an owl or a lion. (Thank god the Poitevins were stopped before they got into lions.)