The Balloonatics of Leicester, or The Monghol Hordes of the Khan

In 1864, Henry Coxwell, pioneer in aviation, announced a demonstration of one of his scientific achievements in Leicester. He planned on releasing into the sky a massive hot air balloon he had created. As is predictable, such a demonstration drew an enormous crowd from multiple sections of Victorian society. Knowing that the Victorian Era was characterised by science, rationality and technological advances, however, may be only half of the story. Students of Presidency University have attempted to narrate what is known of the events of the demonstration – which quickly developed into violence and mayhem – the opposite of everything that was thought of as “Enlightened”.
Victorian society’s definition of self was one depending almost entirely on the differences it claimed between itself and other civilisations. This semi-fictional piece tries to question those differences, and by extension, the Victorian self-definition.

July 10th, 1864
from the scientific notes of Henry Coxwell.

The science of ballooning is an increasingly burgeoning one in Europe
in today’s times, in the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and sixty
four. It is only last year that Monsieur Jules Verne published his
novel Cinq semaines en ballon (Five Weeks in a Balloon) as part of the
Les Voyages Extraordinaires series. Public interest in this science is
ever growing, and has experienced a huge leap since the publication of
that book.

Of course, our balloons do not really use “hot air” in them, as the
common expression has it. Air is a mixture of many elements. What we
use is concentrated hydrogen. I should know, for I am something of a
pioneer in the field of aviation, if I do say so myself.

The story of Monsieur Verne speaks of a mechanism that eliminates the
need to release the hydrogen gas or throw ballast overboard to control
the altitude. We have not yet invented any such mechanism.
Consequently, we cannot yet undertake a trip to the dark continent of
Africa like the heroes in the story of Monsieur Verne. However, there
are other regions of a similarly unexplored nature that we may attempt
to investigate. Though we cannot yet cover as long a distance over
oceans as to reach Africa, we can move upwards! And this precisely is
what I, Henry Coxwell, did only two years ago with the meteorological
scientist Dr James Glaisher- the two of us soared upward to the
stratosphere in a balloon. We flew as high as we could go; in fact we
reached the highest anyone has ever flown up till this time- somewhere
between 35000 and 37000 feet. We were both curious and excited to see
what would happen next.

Unfortunately what did happen next was that Glaisher went temporarily
blind, and then he lost consciousness. I myself lost all consciousness
in my hands, for I had worn no gloves. I was only able to save us both
by pulling the valve cord with my bared teeth. The balloon lost
altitude rapidly, but somehow we landed safely. I have never before
appreciated the proverb ‘escaping death by the skin of one’s teeth’ as
much as I did at that moment.

To-morrow, two years on from that memorable date, I intend to appear
at the Order of Forester’s Fete in Leicester, where a record breaking
50000 people are scheduled to show up to take a ride in my newest and
largest and most improved balloon to date, the Britannia. I look
greatly forward to tomorrow. May God be with me!

July 11th, 1864
as narrated in a pub by a construction worker.

Lord love me, but it’s a sorry pass when a man spends his earnings of
a day’s hard work on a promise of a ride in what was supposed to be
the newest and largest balloon of Mr Coxwell, and then gets taken for
a very different kind of ride instead! It’s swindling pure and simple,
and that’s what I can tell you fair and square!

There we was, all of us, excited and all of a bedazzlement, everyone
pushing and jostling at each other to be the one to get first ride or
even to catch a sight of the famous Mr Coxwell, when blow me down if
we aren’t told (who by I don’t remember rightly right now) that that
slinking devil hasn’t brought his newest and largest balloon at all,
but an old and wee one- much smaller than most of the other balloons
these here balloonists go gallivanting around in.

Well of course we were furious! Wouldn’t you be furious? At first one
of us told him (that’s to say Mr Coxwell) “You’re a fraud and a liar,
you know, that’s what you are!” but he wasn’t confessing! He just
stood there as bold as brass, taking us all for mugs. Well we weren’t
having none of it, I can tell you. We’re Leicester folk.

And then he wasn’t even lifting off, and then one of us understood
what it was, and he said “This here man, I do believe he don’t even
intend to lift off, it’s a cheat and a sham!” So then someone threw a
bottle at him, and he tried to distract us by letting all the air out
of that balloon of his in a whooshing gasp so the balloon was
careening about left and right and centre. But we weren’t having none
of it as I said. We’re Leiceister folk.

We ripped up and burnt down that shammy balloon of his, and we gave
him the right old chase down the streets of Leicester around and about
until the wily fox managed to give us the slip (It’s my private belief
he must have gone and hidden either in the town bar or in the office
of the town clerk). And now we have the newspapers all telling us what
horrible people we are. Who’s going to give me my money back, is what
I want to know. We’re not horrible folk, we just won’t stand for being
mugged. We’ll have none of that, I tell you. We’re Leicestrians, we

July 12th, 1864
letter to a local newspaper from a schoolteacher visiting Leicester.

Ballooning is an activity that can make a man be brought down in many
distasteful and disgusting places, but I never in my life saw a man in
a balloon be treated in a distasteful and disgusting manner without
him having even lifted off until yesterday. The natives who
perpetrated this outrage were not of Africa, nor indeed of India, but
were indeed of absolutely the same fierce and untamed nature and
differed in no great particular from such people except that that
their habitation was much more local- in Leicester, to be precise.
Instead of going on an adventure abroad to find wild and unruly
savages, Mr Coxwell found wild and unruly savages aplenty on a venture
he tried much closer to home.

In their screeching and shouting, these people resembled nothing so
much as the Monghol hordes of the Khan of whom we read. It was really
a most undignified and disgraceful spectacle. Projectiles such as
bottles were launched. A respected and cultured gentleman had to run
for his life with people baying like hounds for his blood. His
balloon, with that honoured name of Britannia that encapsulates our
grand spirit of which his scientific enterprise was a part, had its
net-work and material ripped to a hundred shreds and the car burnt.
Then the remains were paraded around the town.

It seems to me that no matter how much we try to educate and civilize
them, these working class people will always have something of the
primordial characteristics of the savage in them- something swinish
and brutish, something bestial. In a word, they are degenerate. Their
actions yesterday were an affront and an insult to our Tradition- a
tradition that has produced (one might even say, invented) such great
and glorious things as the playing fields of Eton, afternoon tea, and
the mythos of the British Empire.
Leicestrians? No! Better to call them Balloonatics!

July 13th, 1864
snippet of conversation overheard near the Leicester racecourse.

…so if you want to learn good business, boy, you pick yourself up and come on over to your old uncle, you hear me? Nobody knows good business like I do, and I’ll teach it too, for the right price. Near an ocean of people going animal crazy and what does I do? I gathers the scrappy bits of the old fool’s balloon that people done torn and thrown around. Here’s what I think, see, they might have thrown these away, but they’re going to remember today. And what better to remember the balloon riot by than a piece of balloon? I sold ‘em, boy! A penny a scrap, and it’ll buy my liquor for a week! Now, about that good business I could teach you…

July 12th, 1864
from the local newspaper.

Now, whether the deception Mr. Coxwell has been accused of (and indeed, executed for) was one he truly did attempt, is a matter of great mystery. It would indeed be unhappy if our hero of the literal gritted teeth head amongst the clouds were found to be a petty double-dealer.
And yet, perhaps we may also ask the opportune question, that of whether Coxwell truly deserved to be punished in this manner, had even the tales about him been true. Are our town’s respected and well-to-do merely ruffians in costume?
This much I may dare to assert – the next time hearsay requests you to turn savage, wait until the papers print it.

July 11th, 1864
overheard from the window of a house.

Mother! It’s the Coxwell balloon! It’s all burnt and they’re marching it all over the place, oh what could have happened?



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