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Up and away! Celebrating Newbury's famous father and daughter aeronauts 132 years on

John and Gertrude Bacon Cold Ash's own intrepid ballooning pioneers

Trish Lee

trish lee


01635 886663

Up and away! Newbury's famous father and daughter aeronauts

Bacon, Gertrude. The record of an aeronaut. London: J. Long. Image retrieved from 39088001143403

Highlights of the West Berkshire Museum Collection
The Newbury Aeronauts – Celebrating 132 years since John Bacon’s first flight

Researched and written by Mike Wilson, museum volunteer

John Mackenzie Bacon and his daughter Gertrude were an adventurous pair and became famous for their ballooning
expeditions which took them far from their home in Cold Ash.

At first, it was a sense of fun that resulted in John’s first flight with the famous balloonist Captain Dale on August 20, 1888. This started from Crystal Palace and ended up north of London in Hatfield. But from then on, ballooning became a serious interest and an important tool for carrying out scientific research. John financed his ballooning and research by means of lecture tours and by writing articles for the press.

Gertrude was his most ardent collaborator in all his aeronautical and scientific researches and became the first woman in England to make a balloon ascent. This she did at the age of 24 with her father in 1898.

A more eventful flight took place in November 1899. At that time there was great excitement throughout the country because the Leonid meteor showers were due and these hadn’t been seen for 33 years. Unfortunately, the skies clouded over so The Times financed an ascent so that John and Gertrude could view them. They set off from Newbury Gas Works after midnight and stayed aloft for a record-breaking 10 hours. Unfortunately, they saw only a dozen meteors and landed dangerously in an oak tree in Neath, South Wales, narrowly avoiding a fatal accident.

They were both very keen astronomers and went on expeditions to film total solar eclipses in Lapland (1896), India (1897-1898) and the US (1900). In November 1902, John crossed the Irish Channel in a balloon, a feat that had been accomplished only once before. On the voyage he took photographs to prove that the sea bottom was visible and these were exhibited at the Royal Society’s soirée at Burlington House in 1903. Not to be outdone, in 1904 Gertrude became the first woman to fly in an airship, accompanying the famous aeronaut Stanley Spencer who had designed and built the craft.

John Bacon and others prior to balloon ascent from Newbury gasworks, November 1899.
A copy photograph. NEBYM:1983.272.4.

In addition to aeronautics, John and Gertrude had wide-ranging scientific interests among which were astronomy, cinematography, the causes and cure of London fog, telegraphy and sound transmission. John patented a portable hot air balloon for military photography, but perhaps his most significant contribution to ballooning was his idea of using a burner to create warm air for a hot air balloon. He died in 1904 and is buried at Swallowfield, near Reading, the grave marked with a plain granite cross and the text ‘The Heavens declare the Glory of God’.

Following the death of her father, Gertrude developed a strong interest in botany and married a fellow botanist in 1929. She was a great populariser of ballooning and, before her death in 1949, wrote four books about her aeronautical escapades.

Guildhall Club outing, shows the group outside ‘Sunnyside’ in Cold Ash, West Berkshire, the residence of John Bacon. NEBYM:1979.72.11

Photographs courtesy of West Berkshire Museum

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