History and Fiction

Three years ago I wrote about the balloon ascent that started from Wolverton in 1861, featuring the intrepid balloonists of the day – Coxwell and Glashier You can read about it here.

I read in the newspaper the other day that someone is now making a film about these 19th century pioneers, called The Aeronauts. Fine, except that for the film to be commercially successful, two white Victorian Englishmen won’t do. So Henry Cowell has been written out of the script and replaced by a young lady, who presumably will be a young, feisty, take-no-prisoners type, capable of all sorts of derring-do.

I make no further comment.

The Wolverton Balloon Event

After well over 20 years of planning the new Science and Art Institute was finally under construction and due to be completed. It did not actually open until 1864 by on June 21st 1863, to mark the scientific progress that the new institution symbolised, a balloon ascent was organised.

At this date this was the only available form of air travel and naturally this created great excitement. People came from far and wide to witness the event. Special excursion trains made their way to Wolverton from the north and south.The balloon was built by a man named Coxwell, who took part in the ascent. It was capable of holding 90,000 cubic feet of gas.

The Stratford Road was just under development and the site where the Tesco supermarket presently stands was still a field. Accordingly this was chosen to inflate the balloon. It took quite a while to inflate the balloon, presumably from Wolverton’s gas supply and when the balloon held about 66,000 cubic feet, just over two-thirds of its capacity, Cowell gave the signal to the many men holding the ropes to let go. According to a contemporary report the ascent started at two minutes past one and the balloon slowly and gracefully ascended and moved in an easterly direction. After about fifteen minutes it was out of sight and perhaps ten miles away.

After witnessing the VIP’s assembled in the new Victoria Hotel for lunch. The local MPs, local clergy and senior railwaymen like J E McConnell and J Ramsbotham made up the bulk of the party but most prominent were the Duke of Sutherland, who took a strong interest in these events, and Sir Rowland Hill, the founder of the “Penny Post”, John Hanning Speke, who had discovered the source of the Nile, and Michael Faraday, the distinguished scientist.

Professor Faraday, who was then near the end of his life, spoke at the luncheon, and told those present that he had seen a balloon ascent when he was a boy and it was this that excited him to take an interest in science. He had witnessed wonderful progress over the pst 50 years and had not doubt that the next 50 years would bring about remarkable progress in scientific achievement. How right he was.

At four o’clock all and sundry, upwards of 2000 people, moved to one of the workshops which had been prepared for a concert. Various musical talents were assembled including Wolverton’s Barss Band, which opened the proceedings. This was followed by a ball. The proceeds from the concert and dance went to the Northampton infirmary – later Northampton general Hospital.

At about 8 o’clock a telegram arrived to report that the two balloonists, Coxwell and Glashier, had descended at the village of Littleport near Ely at 2:28 pm. The distance travelled in that hour and a half was about 70 miles. Ballooning was a risky business for these intrepid pioneers. On this occasion they passed through snow storm at a height of three miles and on previous occasions, at a height of 5 1/2 miles Glashier had passed out, and at 7 miles, Coxwell’s hands were so numb that he could only release the gas valve with his teeth.

This was a deliberate attempt to achieve the highest altitude ever, and in this they succeeded. Cowell was the experienced balloonist nd had been at it professionally since 1848. his companion Dr Glashier was a Fellow of the Royal Society and had been recruited by Coxwell to undertake the scientific measurements.


Here are the origins of New Bradwell. the railways works at Wolverton Station needed to expand; the Radcliffe Trust were unwilling to part with any more farmland, so the railway company directors turned to the neighbouring parish for a solution. Here is a map of those first streets in 1860 – Bridge Street, Spencer Street and the High street – all built up the hill away from the flood plain. What a difference from today when governments quite happily authorise the building of houses on land subject to flooding, whereas in the 19th century no self-respecting builder would have contemplated such an action – unless he was building a watermill.

The brick for these houseswas a grayish yellow and never looked attractive to my eyes, yet these were the houses which survived the wrecker’s ball due to a campaign by arriviste Milton Keynesers who were keen to preserve the Railway heritage. I would not have shed a tear if they had been destroyed in the 1960s but today I am ambivalent. Had the houses in Ledsam or Creed Streets in Wolverton survived we would have preserved some of the earliest houses from the 1840s, but at the time of the development of Stantonbury somewhat better looking houses were being erected on Church Street and the Stratford Road in Wolverton so there are plenty of examples of 1860s housing but one gfrom the 1840s!
The ancient parish was Stantonbury with a church near the river at Stanton Low. This church was dedicated to St Peter and although long since abandoned, retains its name in the local footall club – New Bradwell St Peter.
The name Stantonbury fell into disuse as the new settlers here liked the name New Bradwell better. The name of Stantonbury was only revived when the new comprehensive school was built on the hill in the 1970s.