Henry Tracey Coxwell
Henry Tracey Coxwell
|Died||5 January 1900 (aged 80)|
He was the youngest son of Commander Joseph Coxwell of the Royal Navy, and grandson of the Rev. Charles Coxwell of Ablington House, Gloucestershire, and was born at the parsonage at Wouldham on 2 March 1819. He went to school at Chatham, where his family moved in 1822, and in 1836 he was apprenticed to a surgeon dentist.
As a boy he became interested in balloons, and he spared no efforts to witness as many ascents as possible; among the aeronauts he admired and envied as a boy were Mrs Graham, Charles Green, Robert Cocking and the parachutist John Hampton. The successful voyage of Green's balloon from Vauxhall Gardens to Germany stimulated his enthusiasm, but it was not until 19 August 1844, at Pentonville, that he had an opportunity of making an ascent.
In the autumn of 1845 he founded and edited The Balloon, or Aerostatic Magazine, of which about twelve numbers appeared at irregular intervals. In 1847 he made a night flight from Vauxhall Gardens with Albert Smith during a storm: a 16 ft (4.9 m) rent appeared in the envelope, and the balloon fell rapidly to earth, the occupants being saved by the balloon catching on some scaffolding before hitting the ground. Undeterred, Coxwell made another flight the following week.
He became a professional balloonist in 1848, when he was entrusted with the management of a balloon, the Sylph, in Brussels, and subsequently made ascents at Antwerp, Elberfeld, Cologne, and Johannisberg in Prussia; in 1849 he exhibited his balloon at Kroll's Gardens, Berlin, and demonstrated the ease with which petards could be discharged in the air; in September he made excursions to Stettin, Breslau, and Hamburg. At Hanover, in the summer of 1850, he had a narrow escape, owing to the proximity of lofty trees, and during this year and the next he took up many passengers at Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Leipzig, and elsewhere. In 1852 he returned to London and made ascents from Cremorne Gardens, the New Globe Gardens in the Mile End Road and the Pavilion Gardens in Woolwich.  In September 1854 he made some demonstrations in signalling from a balloon at Surrey Gardens.
In 1862 the British Association for the Advancement of Science determined to make investigations of the upper atmosphere using balloons. Dr James Glaisher, FRS. was chosen to carry out the experiments, and at the suggestion of Charles Green, Coxwell was employed to fly the balloons. Coxwell constructed a 93,000 cu ft (2,600 m3) capacity balloon named the Mammoth, and on 5 September 1862, taking off from Wolverhampton, Coxwell and Glaisher reached the greatest height achieved to date. Glaisher lost consciousness during the ascent, his last barometer reading indicating an altitude of 29,000 ft (8,800 m) and Coxwell lost all sensation in his hands, but managed just in time to pull the valve-cord with his teeth before losing consciousness. The balloon dropped nineteen thousand feet in fifteen minutes, landing safely made near Ludlow. Later calculations estimated their maximum altitude at 35,000 to 37,000 ft (10,700 to 11,300 m)
In 1863 Coxwell made a demonstration of ballooning to the Army at Aldershot. These had little practical outcome, although later the War Office did order a balloon from Coxwell with the intention of shipping it to Ghana for use in the Third Anglo-Ashanti War. However, the practicalities of supplying hydrogen under field conditions resulted in the cancellation of the project. In 1863, in company with Henry Negretti, he made the first aerial trip in England for purposes of photography. In 1864-5, in the Research, he made some very successful ascents in Ireland, and gave some lectures upon aerostation. When the Franco-Prussian war broke out in 1870 he went to manage some war-balloons for the Germans. He formed two companies, two officers, and forty-two men, at Cologne, and his assistant went on to Strasbourg, but the town surrendered before much service was rendered.
On 17 June 1885, he made his last ascent in a large balloon, the City of York. He had made an annual display at York for several years, and there he bade farewell to a profession of which he had been one of the most daring exponents for over forty years. His immunity from serious accidents was due to his instinctive prudence, but still more to his thorough knowledge of ballooning tackle.
Coxwell had a balloon factory in Richmond Road Seaford, Sussex and has a memorial at St Peter's Church, East Blatchington, Seaford. After his retirement he lived for a time at Tottenham, but later moved to Seaford, East Sussex, where he died on 5 January 1900.
During 1887-9 Coxwell collected together in two volumes a number of interesting but ill-arranged and confusing chapters upon his career as an aeronaut, to which he gave the title My Life and Balloon Experiences; to vol. i. is added a supplementary chapter on military ballooning. As a frontispiece is a photographic portrait, reproduced in the Illustrated London News (13 January 1900) as that of the foremost balloonist of the last half-century.
- I had hammered away in The Times for little less than a decade before there was a real military trial of ballooning for military purposes at Aldershot.
In popular culture
The Aeronauts, released in 2019, includes a fictionalized account of the 5 September 1862 flight, but omits Coxwell entirely. The movie replaces him with a female co-star, played by Felicity Jones; Amelia Wren is a fictional composite character, based on several real-life balloonists and adventurers. A report in The Daily Telegraph quotes Keith Moore, Head of Library at the Royal Society (Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge), as saying, "It’s a great shame that Henry isn’t portrayed because he performed very well and saved the life of a leading scientist".
- "Mr. Henry Coxwell". Obituaries. The Times (36032). London. 6 January 1900. col E, p. 6.
- Seccombe 1901.
- Coxwell 1887, p. 151
- Holmes (2013), p. 199
- Holmes (2013), p. 213
- "Army Aeronautics". Flight: 375. 26 June 1909.
- Malvern, Jack (16 August 2018). "Ballooning hero becomes a woman for new Eddie Redmayne film The Aeronauts". The Times. ISSN 0140-0460. Retrieved 14 August 2019.
- https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/08/15/ballooning-hero-airbrushed-history-reunite-eddie-redmayne-felicity/, Ballooning hero 'airbrushed' from history to make way for female character in Eddie Redmayne film
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Seccombe, Thomas (1901). "Coxwell, Henry". Dictionary of National Biography (1st supplement). London: Smith, Elder & Co.
- Coxwell, Henrt (1887). My life and balloon experiences. London: W. H. Allen.
- Holmes, Richard (2013). Falling Upwards. London: Collins. ISBN 978-0-00-738692-5.
- Jennifer Tucker, “Voyages of Discovery on Oceans of Air: The Image of Science in an Age of ‘Balloonacy,’” Osiris (1996): 144-176. Available in open access: https://wesscholar.wesleyan.edu/div2facpubs/26/