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Mr Green and his Green Balloon - A Tale of Old North Shields

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

Mr Charles Green was a famous ‘Aeronaut’, born in 1785 in London, son of a Fruiterer. His first ‘ascent’ was in Green Park, London in 1821 as part of the celebrations for the Coronation of George IV. It ended in him drifting off and having to be rescued, the first of many lucky escapes. He made a name for himself staging amazing stunts, such as ascending on the back of a pony and carrying a monkey, which was thrown out of the Balloon on a parachute. The monkey survived, but a later repeat by his friend Robert Cocking resulted in him dying on impact in a field in Kent. He experimented with Coal Gas instead of Carburetted Hydrogen, and performed many flights at extreme altitudes. He planned to fly the Atlantic in the 1840s, but nothing came of it. He retired, and died in 1870 and is buried in Highgate Cemetery. His tombstone has a hot air balloon on it.

The British Balloon and Airship Club still awards the Charles Green Salver to balloonists who perform great feats.

Portrait of balloonist Charles Green, from 1835
Portrait of Charles Green by Hilaire Ledru, 1835

Working from home during ‘Lock Down……”

…..I had been researching various aspects of North Shields history for one or two ongoing projects which had ground to a halt due to Covid 19. I’d waded through the 1831 Cholera statistics, diversity statistics in the fish quay and dock areas in the 1841 to 1911 censuses, so on and so on. I was starting to develop a big case of ‘Cabin Fever’.

I was clicking through the back copies of the local papers online when I came across a tiny article entitled ‘Mr Green and his Gas Balloon’. This was not a headline article, it was tucked away as an also ran, amongst pigs and cows for auction, rooms to let and intelligent boys seeking employment, but the incongruity of it drew my eye . This was 1834, and I had never come across any references to Balloonists in North Shields at all, let alone at such an early date.

“….November 10th. Mr Green ascended with his Balloon from Tyne Street, North Shields. It was announced that Mr Brown, from Sunderland, would accompany him: but in consequence of a deficiency of gas, Mr Green durst not attach his car to the Balloon, and being determined to ascend, though disuaded from it, he went up astride a rope in a beautiful and majestic manner, and in about four minutes alighted in the river near Howdon, from which situation he was rescued by some Scullermen.”

Now, I am an unapologetic Terry Pratchett fanatic, and I immediately had visions of Mr Green, aka Moist von Lipwig, pulling off some dodgy scam in Ankh Morpork, probably at the instigation of Havelock Vetinari - possibly starting up a new airmail to Sto’Lat (…fellow Pratchett fans will understand that one perfectly!), so I read up on Mr Green, and truth far outstretched anything that Mr.Pratchett could come up with.

I found a more detailed version of the article, originally in the Sunderland Herald, and reprinted in the Newcastle Courant of November 17th 1834: Perilous Balloon Ascent.-

On Monday last Mr Green commenced inflating his Stupendous Balloon in North Shields, for the purpose of making an ascent. About three o’clock the gas ceased to flow entirely, at which time the Balloon was not sufficiently inflated to raise the Aeronaut and his car. The intrepid voyager, however, rather than disappoint the numerous body of spectators who had assembled to witness his ascent, immediately slung himself in a chord, and, without either car, ballast or grappling irons, essayed to ascend.. But even then the buoyant power of the machine preponderated so little over the weight of the voyager, that it was incapable of rising more than a few yards, and it remained hovering over the heads of the spectators. In this predicament he was obliged to throw off his hat, when, with even that inconsiderable diminution of his weight, the Balloon rose majestically above the Town, to the altitude of above a mile. After remaining at this elevation for a short time, the Balloon was observed to descend with such alarming rapidity as to excite great apprehensions for the personal safety of the Aeronaut. - It eventually came down in a very deep part of the river Tyne, near Jarrow Slake - and such was the incredible velocity with which Mr. Green struck the water, that he was forced to the bottom (about 9 and a half feet), ad stuck in the mud. Fortunately, however, he had in this perilous emergency, the presence of mind to retain his hold, and, on the Balloon re-ascending, he was again brought to the surface. In this novel situation he was dragged through the water for about 15 minutes, when he was picked up by a boat, and safely brought to land, at Howden. Had Mr Green alighted upon the land, he would, from the celerity of the descent, have inevitably been killed. - Mr Green is the only Aeronaut who ever attempted to ascend without a car, and this is the third time he has dispensed with that appendage to the aerial machine.”

- The Sunderland Herald

Illustration of Charles Green's balloon voyage at Weilburg, Germany, 1836

Tyne Street is roughly where the tall white building (the High Light) is on the top of the bank at North Shields. Jarrow Slake and Howdon are away around the bend of the river on the far left, about 4 miles away. To reach that point and land in the river 4 minutes later, as stated in the first article, Mr Green would have shot straight up into the air and then descended rapidly, travelling across the whole of the Lowtown and along the river at 60 miles an hour. This sight, in 1834 would, to put it politely, have scared the bejeesus out of anyone who saw it, since only sea gulls and pigeons would be flying at that time! He was lucky not to land ON a ship.

Quite how this incident has not become part of the folk legend of Shields can only be attributed to the fact that weird things were a common part of life in the Town.

Another point to ponder is - Why? What brought a famous Aeronaut to Tyneside? Did he visit Newcastle?

More research to while away the time…..

Sandra Barlow is a native of North Shields, previously living in London but now residing at her birthplace. She is a research volunteer at the Old Low Light Heritage Centre, and her research is currently presented in its gallery.


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