A Kentish scrapbook

PUBLISHED: 16:14 29 December 2013 | UPDATED: 16:14 29 December 2013

Hot air balloon flight from Dover to Calais, January 1785

Hot air balloon flight from Dover to Calais, January 1785


Kent Life looks at some of the lesser-known stories behind the county’s rich heritage and its people that took place in January

A daring adventure

© Dover Museum and Bronze Age Boat Gallery [credit for both ballon pics – just use one]

For three weeks Jean-Pierre Blanchard and Dr John Jeffries waited in Dover for the perfect wind to carry their hot air balloon across the Channel. The flight had never been attempted before and a world record, and as far as Blanchard was concerned, his future fame, depended upon their success.

Air travel was only just beginning but the idea that man could fly through the air attached to nothing more than a balloon filled with gas, had captured the public’s imagination.

The first manned, untethered flight had taken place in Paris in 1783 and lasted just 20 minutes. Now, as ‘balloon mania’ started to spread, the race was on to be the first to cross the Channel.

Inexperience combined with early technology made these hydrogen gas flights extremely dangerous and hundreds of thousands of spectators gathered to watch in awe. Blanchard, a born showman, was in his element. Selling tickets to fund demonstrations, he put on increasingly daring, and sometimes disastrous, shows to capture attention.

Despite the risks, however, there was no shortage of people wishing to take part and one of Blanchard’s spectators was so desperate to fly that he slashed at the balloon’s moorings and silk-covered oars when refused a place on board.

Seeking further celebrity, Blanchard travelled to England in 1784 where he met an American enthusiast, Dr John Jeffries. Their first flight together took place on 30 November 1784 when Jeffries funded a demonstration in front of the Prince of Wales in return for a place in the basket. They travelled from Mayfair to Ingress in Kent and their success quickly led to the plan to cross the Channel just a few weeks later.

On the 7 January 1785 the weather conditions turned in their favour but Blanchard was determined to keep the record for himself and tried to prevent Dr Jeffries from going with him.

Having instructed his tailor to sew weights into his vest, Blanchard claimed that Jeffries’s weight would make the balloon too heavy and put the attempt at risk. His ruse was discovered, however, and Dr Jeffries, who had financed the £700 trip, insisted on claiming his right to accompany him.

The journey was just as eventful and upon discovering that neither the silk-covered oars, flapping wings nor the rudder helped their progress, these items were quickly thrown overboard when the balloon started losing altitude.

Everything else inside the balloon soon followed and by the time they landed at Guines, just outside Calais two and a half hours later, the pair were naked apart from their underclothes and cork life jackets.

Blanchard was awarded a substantial pension by Louis XVI for his efforts and went on to claim records in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and America. Jeffries, who became one of the earliest scientific observers of the weather, did not fly with him.

A song to raise the spirits

©Kent Cider Co [credit for all 3 cider wassail pics]

With a raucous song and the clashing of pots and pans, the torch-led procession enters the cider orchard. It’s Old Twelfth Night and time to waken the tree spirits.

Flames dance as the crowd encircle the chosen ‘King Tree’, the noise increasing to drive away the bad spirits who might be planning to blight the apples in the months ahead.

With a sip of spiced cider and a rising of their drinking vessels, those gathered toast the health of the tree before raising their voices in a traditional blessing for the forthcoming crop.

Stand fast twig, bear well top,

God send thee a yowling crop,

Every twig, apples big, every bough, apples enow.

Hats full! Caps full!

Half bushel bags full!

And my pockets full too! Huzzah!

With the blessing complete the revellers pour cider over the tree roots and leave small pieces of cider-soaked wheat cakes or burnt toast in the branches as an enticement for the robins, who symbolise the orchards’ good spirits.

The custom of ‘wassailing’ or ‘yowling’ as it is known in Kent, dates from pre-Christian times, when people believed that gods and spirits controlled everything from the setting of the sun to the outcome of war.

The first Kentish ceremony is recorded at Fordwich in 1585 but the rite was, and still is in some parts, popular throughout Britain. Although the date of the ceremony varies, it was traditional held between Christmas Eve and Old Twelfth Night, which was 17 January before the conversion to the Gregorian calendar.

The actual term of ‘Wassail’ meaning ‘Be Thou of Good Health’ was also commonly used as a verbal toast and the legend of its beginnings are also entwined with Kent’s history.

Dating back to a great feast given by the British King Vortigern for his Saxon allies in AD 450, the medieval historian, Geoffrey of Monmouth, reports that when Renwein, or Rowena as she is called in later legends, the beautiful daughter of the Saxon leader Hengist held up a large goblet of spiced drink and drank to King Vortigern saying ‘Louerd King, waes Hael’ – Lord King, be of Health’, he replied ‘Drink, hael!’

The toast subsequently gained popularity and over time ‘Was hael became ‘wassail’. There is a little more to the tale, however, as having returned the toast, King Vortigern then kissed Renwein passionately and being so enthralled by her, began bargaining for her hand in marriage.

A deal was subsequently struck in which Hengist got the province of Kent in exchange for Vortigern’s daughter and the pair were married the same evening.

Three Cheers for Sir John Lubbock

© The Lubbock Family

There aren’t many MPs who can please a whole community at once, but in 1871 John Lubbock, the Liberal MP for Maidstone, managed it when he introduced a bill into parliament ensuring that everyone, including those of the lower working classes, be given four official days off a year.

Historically, there were many religious holidays, but over time these were phased out, until it was only on Christmas Day and Good Friday that employees were allowed to take leave.

The Bank Holiday Act changed that and ensured that workers could also have Boxing Day, Easter Monday, Whit Monday and the first Monday in August as days of rest. They were initially known as St Lubbock’s Day’s after Sir John and it wasn’t until 1971 that the date of the August Bank holiday was moved to the last Monday of the month.

The first August Bank Holiday on 7 August 1871 proved very popular and Sir John is reported to have said: ‘the day was splendid and the holiday very generally was kept. Every seaside place near London, every railway and place of amusement was chock-full. Eight excursion trains went to Margate alone. The South Eastern Railway had only prepared for two. Indeed the railways and hotelkeepers were all together taken by surprise.’

Sir John also successfully campaigned for reduced shop working hours but his bill for yet another bank holiday was unsuccessful.

In addition to his work as a social reformer and politician, Sir John was highly respected in the fields of biology, botany, science and archaeology. Belonging to a wealthy banking family he lived at High Elms from 1842 to 1938 and, as a close friend and neighbour of Charles Darwin, spent many hours at Down House.

His studies in the local area echoed Darwin’s theories and led to the discoveries of several types of insects. He also studied prehistoric cultures and when the Neolithic stone circle at Avebury was threatened with demolition in 1871, he purchased the land to protect it. A year later he introduced the Ancient Monuments Protection Act.

In January 1900 Sir John was promoted to Baron Avebury in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list. It was a popular choice and you can see part of his archaeology and ethnographic collection on display at the Bromley Museum in Orpington.

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