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The First Official Aerial Post of the United Kingdom, 1911

Fig 3 One of the postcards flown on the Daily Graphic balloon in October 1907. Purchasers of the cards were encouraged to send a ‘Message from Mid-Air’ in the hope it would be posted back to them

By Derek Connell

 

The first official aerial post of the United Kingdom took place between 9 and 26 September 1911 as part of the celebrations for the Coronation of King George V. Derek Connell provides an illustrated history of the service, beginning this month with the ground-breaking events that inspired it.

 

There had, of course, been many examples of letters being flown through the air before 1911. Balloons, pigeons, even heavier-than-air machines had all been used to convey messages high above the ground, faster than a man could run or a horse could gallop. But not with the official blessing of the General Post Office. Sending off a postcard to goodness knows where, tied to the tail of a small balloon, or even chucking a missive from a large manned balloon in the hope that it may be returned, does not constitute ‘official airmail’; more ‘wing and a prayer’ mail.

In 1784, Dr John Jefferies dropped three cards headed ‘From the Balloon above the Clouds’, having taken off from London’s Grosvenor Square. The Eagle Tavern in City Road (of ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ fame) was a former tea-garden, which was transformed into a music-hall and pleasure gardens in 1825. Mr Charles Green, the first aeronaut to use coal gas, flew balloons from here and caused a sensation by even going up on horseback!

In May 1826 three crooners floated in the air above The Eagle, ‘in a car appended to Mr Green’s Balloon’, singing a parody on the Huntsmen’s Chorus whilst throwing song-sheets to the crowd (Fig 1).

Crystal Palace in South London became a well-known ballooning centre after Mr T Lythgoe, an inspector for the Metropolitan Gas Company, went up from there in 1859. H T Coxwell took up the first Mammoth Balloon in 1862 and the following year managed a flight across London, landing with a bump in Epping Forest. So popular was the site that a gas pipe was laid into the Palace from the gas works at Lower Sydenham specifically for the purpose (perhaps through the good services of Mr Lythgoe?).

Fig 1 One of the song-sheets dropped from ‘Mr Green’s Balloon’ during an airborne concert in London in May 1826

From 1865 Mr C T Brock and his family firm started shooting something completely different into the skies above the Crystal Palace, namely fireworks. And among the spectacular pyrotechnics that enthralled generations down the years, were something called ‘fire’ or ‘magnesium’ balloons. Figure 2 shows a postcard advertising the ‘Brock’s Benefit’, with an artist’s impression of the display clearly showing one of the balloons flying away in the top left quarter.

On 1 October 1870 the Post Office issued the first postcards pre-printed with a ½d. lilac postage stamp. Some of these were attached to the fire balloons and sent off from the displays over the next month. Despite an advertisement in The Times newspaper, very few were returned. In 1903, a Mr Reginald Bray, a well-known autograph collector and exhibitor at the Palace, repeated this experiment with his own specially printed cards, but with the same disappointing results. In fact, there are no more than a handful of known items flown from Crystal Palace dated before 1907.

Fig 2 A postcard featuring an artist’s impression of the ‘Brock’s Benefit’ firework display at Crystal Palace. When the Post Office issued its first postcards in 1870 self-addressed postcards were attached to fire balloons at the event and launched into the air. However, very few were returned (Reduced)

Then, in the autumn of that year, the Daily Graphic illustrated newspaper decided to ‘go large’. They hired a Mammoth Balloon from its owner, J L Tanner, and had it inscribed with their title in giant lettering. Official postcards were printed with an illustration of the balloon soaring over the Thames Valley, whilst the address side was headed ‘CARTE POSTALE’, so clearly they envisaged a continental flight. These cards were available some time in advance (the example in Figure 3 was written on 5 September), encouraging the purchaser to send a ‘Message from MidAir’ in the hope it would be posted back.

Fig 3 One of the postcards flown on the Daily Graphic balloon in October 1907. Purchasers of the cards were encouraged to send a ‘Message from Mid-Air’ in the hope it would be posted back to them

The Mammoth was duly launched from Crystal Palace Park on the evening of 13 October 1907 carrying the owner, the pilot, Auguste Gaudron, and our man from the Graphic, Charles Turner, with a ‘large number’ of the cards. They headed across London, across Suffolk, across the North Sea and, sometime the next day, across the Swedish coast. As they glided sedately over the town of Tosse, perhaps because they thought it apposite, they followed the instruction and tossed a number of the cards over the side. I know. It’s reminiscent of an Ealing Comedy. For the disbelievers amongst you, Figure 4 shows the address side of the card, unstamped (as was the rule) but clearly postmarked ‘Tosse 14-10-1907’. And, of course, our Post Office was quick to charge 2d. on delivery to… Ealing!

Fig 4 The unstamped cards were carried across the Channel and as far as the town of Tosse in Sweden where they were thrown overboard to hopefully begin their journey back to England. This example was sent back to Ealing, but not before receiving a 2d. To Pay handstamp from the Foreign Branch (Reduced)

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