Leicester Balloon Riot

On a summer's day in 1864, 50,000 people gathered at Leicester racecourse to see a balloon display of gargantuan proportions. It didn't go as well as hoped...

Come the late 1700s, Balloonomania was in full flow. The French Montgolfier brothers’ inaugural flight in 1783 started the craze, and before long, fierce competition spread throughout France and across the Channel, with people constantly striving to break last week’s record. Some flights ended a little more destructively than planned. Jacques Charles’ attempt to rival the Montgolfiers ended in his balloon crash landing in a small village, where it was torn apart by petrified locals. 

But it wasn’t always fear that induced riotous scenes at ballooning events, as witnessed in Leicester during the flight of Henry Coxwell’s new state-of-the-art flying machine. Coxwell, founder of The Balloon magazine, climbed to an altitude of 35,000 feet in a vessel of his making, named Mammoth. In 1864, Britannia, his largest balloon to date, attracted tens of thousands to witness its ascent. Alas, before it could leave terra firma, an onlooker claimed the balloon was a smaller, older model, and great swathes of disgruntled spectators turned on Coxwell, some even attacking the pilot. Before long, Britannia was reduced to little more than shreds and scraps. From this day, the people of Leicester gained a new moniker: Balloonatics. 

Words by Lewis Coupland

This originally featured in issue 6 of Ernest Journal, on sale now.

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