After Blanchard and Jeffries’ first successful cross-channel balloon flight, there was Mrs. Sage, an actress famed for her full figure, who became the “first aerial female” in June 1785.
“The launch was made from Hyde Park and was attended by a huge and raucous crowd. Mrs. Sage, in a low-cut silk dress presumably designed to reduce wind resistance, was to be accompanied by Vincent Lunardi [a famed balloonist]… In his haste to depart, Lunardi failed to do up the lacings of the gondola’s door. As the balloon sailed away over Piccadilly, the crowd was treated to the provoking sight of the beautiful Mrs. Sage on all fours in the open entrance of the gondola. The crowd assumed that she had fainted and was perhaps receiving some kind of intimate first aid from Mr. Biggin. In fact she was coolly re-threading the lacings to make the gondola safe again… In due course the two of them were lunching peacefully off sparkling Italian wine and cold chicken, occasionally calling to people below through a speaking trumpet.”
When the balloon landed near Harrow, the ancient British public school, it smashed through a hedge, and as the gondola dragged across the fields, it plowed a row of uncut hay. The farmer was furious, but the young gentlemen of Harrow saved the day. They rushed across the field to greet the lady and to pacify the farmer with a hastily arranged collection of cash. After that was settled, Mrs. Sage, who had hurt a tendon in her foot in the rough landing, was carried to a local tavern by the boys of Harrow where everyone “got gloriously drunk.”
“Later there was much speculation at Mr. Biggin’s** London Club as to whether Lunardi had been the first man to board a female aeronaut in flight. The members of Brooks’s Club were said to be laying bets on who should first have an amorous encounter in a balloon. The cry “Lunardi, come down” now became a kind of catchphrase with a suggestive double entendre implied.”
Tomorrow – tragedy
*The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, Vintage 2009.
**Mr. Biggin was supposed to travel with Lunardi and Sage, but because Mrs. Sage tipped the scales at over 200 pounds, someone had to go. Lunardi, recognizing the publicity value of the famous actress, kicked Biggin out of the gondola.