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Friday, 7 August 2009

The Aerostatic Academy

It has been suggested that experimental work on balloons filled with coal gas was undertaken at the Aerostatic Academy. This, very shortlived enterprise, was on the corner of the South Lambeth Road and Stockwell Road, the site of the Vauxhall Turnpike. It had been opened by the balloonist, Charles Blanchard, with his prize money received for a balloon ascent from Dover in 1785. It is reasonable to assume that the gases intended for use in balloons were investigated there. A counter argument to this - and something which is against all suggestions that there were attempts to use coal gas for ballooning - is a letter from Charles Green, perhaps the best known British balloonist. In this letter Green wrote that coal gas was first used for the Coronation Balloon on 19th July 1821.

There has also been some speculation on another balloonist with a possible interest in coal gas - James Sadler. Born in Oxford, Sadler was a scientist who had been involved in the production of ‘fireworks’ and held an appointment at Woolwich as Chemist to the Naval Board of Works. He had previously worked in Bristol for William Beddowes at his Hotwells establishment - where a machine, designed by James Watt, which made gas from coal was used. Sadler was also to become involved in the design and manufacture of steam engines.

Biographers of Sadler have speculated that he erected an early gas lighting plant at the Beaufoy Vinegar Works. If the Aerostatic Academy was sited at Vauxhall Cross then it was very close to the Beaufoy Vinegar Distillery.

In 1745 Mark Beaufoy had opened his vinegar distillery at Cupers Gardens near Waterloo Bridge. In 1810 the works was moved to the site of Caroun House, slightly to the south of Vauxhall Cross in South Lambeth. The firm also had a wharf east of Vauxhall Bridge. In 1827 they had acquired the Pays Bas Farm in Battersea and this appears to have been managed as an acetic acid factory by a John Sadler (conjecturally James Sadler’s son). Members of the Beaufoy family were prominent in London scientific and industrial circles during the nineteenth century. Mark Beaufoy was also an astronomer who founded the Society of for the Improvement of Naval Architecture, and was the first Englishman to climb Mont Blanc.

A connection between Sadler and the Beaufoys is conjectural and rests largely on the 1811 balloon flight organised by Sadler in which Mark Beaufoy took part. The Aerostatic Academy was in existence thirty years before the Beaufoys moved to Lambeth - but there was a possible link between them through Sadler’s son.

Gas making for balloons was to be become part of the London gas companies’ nineteenth century - but it was only a sideline. These early experiments are interesting but only relevant in so far as they show some of the activities of these early years.

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