June 5

1864 The Great Leicester Balloon Riot

Henry Coxwell (1819-1900) was Britain’ pre-eminent aeronaut of the mid-Victorian period, dazzling crowd throughout Europe with his ballooning feats. He and his partner James Glaisher had ascended in 1862 to a height  of 35,000 feet, an altitude at which Glaisher fainted and Coxwell lost feeling in his hands. They would have perished had not Coxwell been able to engage the gas release mechanism with his teeth and land safely.

In 1864 he proposed to ascend in his balloon, dubbed the Britannia, as part of an Order of Foresters celebration at Leicester Racecourse. Because such feats were novel at the time, an estimated crowd of 50,000 people showed up. As Coxwell was making his preparations, a bystander remarked that Coxwell’s balloon seemed rather small. In fact, the man charged, the people of Leicester were being robbed of a chance to see a bigger and better balloon.

Though Coxwell would later dub this a “cruel libel,” the man’s allegations seemed to stir the large crowd into a surly mob that began jockeying for a better look at this disappointing craft. Some had paid to accompany Coxwell into the air, but so many spectators surrounded the balloon that it made take-off impossible. This in turn sparked a rumor that Coxwell was refusing to operate it, which only made them angrier.

People were acting so aggressively that the Britannia began to suffer damage. Coxwell scolded the crowd and insisted they behave, or else he would simply let the gas out. He made good on his threat. The balloon quickly collapsed, ending any hope of a spectacle. The act also reinforced the idea that Coxwell was trying to present them with an inferior balloon.

Already incited, they began tearing the balloon to pieces. The basket was set on fire. Two policemen, Inspector Haynes and Sergeant Chapman, arrived in an attempt to control the scene, but it proved difficult. They soon turned their attention to getting Coxwell away from the area before the crowd—already screaming for his head—began tearing into him.

Coxwell escaped intact, though Leicester’s reputation did not. Maligned by Coxwell as “balloonatics,” the spectators were criticized for their behaviour, though townsfolk blamed visitors. The incident proved embarrassing, but some chose to cash in on the notoriety. Pieces of the trampled balloon were sold as souvenirs.

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