Arthur Nelson was a favourite at the Royal Vauxhall Gardens during the 1850 season. The pleasure gardens, to the south of the river Thames hosted a range of spectacular entertainments including balloon ascents during the summer. One of the most interesting ‘aeronauts’ was Margaret Graham, who since the 1820s had performed ascents in a balloon with her husband. Older than her, by the 1840s Mr. Graham has all but given up and left his wife to perform alone, and sometimes with their children.

Indeed, ballooning was not for the faint-hearted as Mrs. Graham and other aeronauts often discovered. For example, in 1836, while pregnant, a serious accident occurred that knocked her senseless and caused her to mis-carry two days later.

On 26th July 1850, she conducted her first night-time ascent with her daughter Alice from Vauxhall Gardens. The Morning Post carried the advertisement:

“MRS. GRAHAM’S GRAND NIGHT BALLOON ASCENT at VAUXHALL GARDENS THIS EVENING (July 26), — the first night ascent ever attempted by a female. A magnificent display of Fireworks, prepared expressly for the occasion by Darby, will be discharged from the car. Doors open at eight; the balloon ascent at ten. Admission, half-a-crown, which will include the evening’s entertainments. Additional attractions will be given without any additional charge. The Illuminations will be more brilliant, and the Fireworks more gorgeous.” (Morning Post – Friday 26 July 1850 p.1.)

Mrs. Graham: The First Ascent at Night, Ever Attempted by a Female!

Poster: Mrs. Graham: The First Ascent at Night, Ever Attempted by a Female!
Courtesy of, George Glazer Gallery, New York City.

Mrs. Graham was a superb publicist describing herself as the “Only English Female Aeronaut”. She was particularly good at controlling the media by issuing statements to the press following an exploit or mishap. This enabled her to be quoted by journalists who were not present. She wrote following her second night ascent three days later (this time with four of her daughters):

“In conclusion, I cannot omit noticing the extraordinary admiration of my daughter Alice, who accompanied me on Friday night last from Vauxhall gardens, at the astonishing view London, at midnight, being the first and only attempt made by females to conduct the management of a balloon at night, and so much pleased am I with the nerve exhibited by those of my daughters who have hitherto accompanied me (four in number)…”. (The Era – Sunday 04 August 1850 p.11.)

Two weeks later she took off by herself from the Cremorne Gardens in terrible weather:

“Balloning is now decidedly all the rage; the star of aerostation is in the ascendent. Notwithstanding the oft-repeated trips in nubibus that we have had of late, is seems ‘as if increase of appetite had grown by what is fed on,’ and that the public curiosity is not in the smallest degree abated. Of this the countless thousands that assembled last night in these gardens bore ample testimony. The Victoria balloon was fully inflated at the hour of five o’clock at the London Gas-works. Lambeth; but owing to the united hostility of the wind and tide, and the delays necessarily incurred by its transit over the Vauxhall and Battersea bridges, it did not reach its proper place of destination until nearly eight o’clock … Upon reaching the gardens, it was found that old Aquarius was so diffusely dispensing his favours, that for some time it was considered doubtful whether Mrs. Graham would venture on her aerial trip, but nothing daunted by the inclemency of the weather, she started (unaccompanied) at precisely 20 minutes past ten o’clock, when the balloon took a north-easterly direction. Where the fair aeronaut had landed was not ascertained at a late hour.” (London Standard – Thursday 08 August 1850 p.3.)

Mrs. Graham had indeed landed at Booker’s Fields, near Edmonton and it was here that her balloon caught fire.

Mrs Graham's Balloon on fire

Mrs Graham’s Balloon on fire, Illustrated London News, 17 August 1850, P.137.

She described what happened in her own words:

“I still scarcely cleared the trees. Continuing to ascend, I speedily lost trace of the metropolis, although I could distinctly hear the rolling of carriages beneath me, which continued about quarter of an hour, when the sound seemed lost in distance. I now commenced descending, which I gradually did until I heard the signal of railway train and saw some few lights; but the night being extremely dark, it was impossible to form any conjecture as to my whereabouts. I at length touched the ground, and the wind still increasing, was carried over several fields, where the grapnel took firm hold in a ditch; and for half an hour continued shouting as loud as could for help, but to no purpose. Meanwhile, I kept the valve open to its full extent, rolling about all the while, the car at times completely turning over, and giving me plenty of trouble to retain my hold. At length, police constable 305 came over the fields to my assistance, and held on to the car. For at least twenty minutes I had no other help; but, at length additional assistance arrived, and I continued emptying the balloon. Upon walking round to see if the valve was open, a man indiscreetly came behind me with a light, which coming in contact with the escaping gas, instantaneously ignited, giving forth a volume of flame which resembled the dome of St. Paul’s on fire: the effect of the sudden combustion of from 8000 to 10,000 cubic feet of gas was terrific.” (Illustrated London News – 17 August 1850 p.138.)

Her letter written the following day to Robert Wardell, the director of Vauxhall Gardens indicates her spirit:

“Dear Sir, — I regret to say I cannot possibly fulfill my intention of ascending tomorrow night from Vauxhall Gardens for your benefit, in consequence of a misfortune which occurred after my descent at Edmonton last night.

“It being extremely dark, I was for some time without assistance. When this was obtained, and the balloon more than half emptied, a countryman unfortunately came with a light to the aperture; the gas was escaping, and in a moment it ignited, causing myself and those immediately around to fly from the spot.

“The full extent of the injury cannot be ascertained until we receive it from Edmonton; but it will be impossible for to ascend with it yet, and I know no person who would lend me a balloon for the occasion.

“My face is much scorched with the volume of flame.

“Trusting you will make arrangements so that you may receive no injury through the disappointment,

” I remain, dear Sir, yours truly,

“M. Graham”

(London Standard – Friday 09 August 1850 p.1.)

Margaret Graham was to live into her seventies, dying in her own bed.

Written by admatters