Peter Seddon recalls the fascinating life of pioneer aviator Emanuel Jackson (1818-1883)

Great British Life: Frenchman Jacques Charles in his December 1783 hydrogen-balloon ascent near Paris. In May 1784 an exact replica was launched from Chesterfield Market Place for Derbyshire's first ever balloon flightFrenchman Jacques Charles in his December 1783 hydrogen-balloon ascent near Paris. In May 1784 an exact replica was launched from Chesterfield Market Place for Derbyshire's first ever balloon flight (Image: as submitted)

Through the illustrious reputation of Rolls Royce, Derby’s role in aviation history is universally recognised. But the miracle of flight did not begin with aeroplanes – long before engine-powered craft, gas and hot air balloons had soared aloft in wondrous defiance of gravity.

And Derby was at the forefront of that intrepid pastime. Its townsman Emanuel Jackson (1818-1883) – the famed ‘Midland Aeronaut’ – made close to 400 public ascents at fairs and gatherings throughout the land. He even took his talents to Australia – before a tragic end back in Derby.

Ballooning first emerged in France well before Jackson’s birth. On 4th June 1783 at Annonay near Lyons, celebrated brothers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier demonstrated to a startled public their unmanned hot-air balloon. Two months later the French physicist Jacques Charles sent up the world’s first hydrogen-filled craft from Paris.

Events rapidly unfolded to the first ‘manned’ endeavour. In September 1783 a sheep, duck and rooster sent aloft at Versailles survived the adventure unscathed, encouraging Francois Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes to make the first untethered manned hot-air balloon flight on 21st November 1783 from Paris. Only 11 days later, Jacques Charles and his colleague Noel Robert made the first manned hydrogen-balloon ascent to complete the foundations for the grand age of ballooning that followed.

Great British Life: Festival Day at Derby Arboretum in the Victorian age - the obligatory balloon already well aloftFestival Day at Derby Arboretum in the Victorian age - the obligatory balloon already well aloft (Image: as submitted)

The rest of Europe quickly embraced ‘balloonomania’, both educated society and the masses clamouring to ‘see for themselves’ the phenomenon then considered beyond belief. Derbyshire people were among the first in England to witness a flight, when from Chesterfield Market Place on Tuesday 18th May 1784 an unmanned replica of the Charles and Robert balloon was launched by German showman Sieur Boaz. After the craft landed near Rotherham the shepherd who stumbled across it ‘ran away much frightened’. Such wariness was common among country folk – another balloon landing in Yorkshire was ‘ambushed by a wild tribe of reapers who tore at it with pitchforks in a savage fashion.’

Records suggest Derbyshire waited almost 30 years to attempt a manned flight – but the much-vaunted spectacle proved an almighty flop. In 1813 William and Joseph Strutt – under the auspices of the Derby Philosophical Society – promoted with great flourish a grand launch from The Siddals in Derby close to what is now Pride Park. The balloon with its suspended ‘car’ – to be manned by a Mr Wilkes – was displayed in the town to mounting anticipation. Led as it was by eminent intellects, the mission’s success was all but guaranteed – but a rip in the canvas sustained in the launching process proved disastrous. The balloon failed to leave the ground.

The crowd too were deflated – angry scenes developing – and the ‘Great Balloon Hoax’ was commemorated in several ballads and poems, copies of which survive. A throng had even mustered in Belper hoping the craft would drift into view, but a boy runner was dispatched from Derby to splutter the bad tidings with breathless and immortal bluntness – ‘bloons bosted’.

Prospective aviators may have been cowed by such a public failure, for it was another 10 years before Derby witnessed its first manned flight, this time the successful feat creating a great sensation.

Great British Life: William Windham Sadler waves from on high. On 28 October 1823 he became the first person to get a true bird's-eye view of Derby and district as he accomplished the first ever manned balloon flight from the townWilliam Windham Sadler waves from on high. On 28 October 1823 he became the first person to get a true bird's-eye view of Derby and district as he accomplished the first ever manned balloon flight from the town (Image: as submitted)

The balloon was first displayed at the Old George Inn yard, Corn Market, and local bigwigs paid up to 5 shillings for seats at the launch. On 28th October 1823 the ‘aerostatic flight’ began from land behind the newly-established Gas, Light and Coke Company between Friargate and Bold Lane. Coal gas was by then being used in flights very effectively, and the craft piloted by Mr William Windham Sadler was filled directly from the gasworks pipeline.

Once aloft thousands saw the spectacle free of charge, some securing rooftop vantage points as the balloon flew freely to complete 22 miles in 45 minutes before landing near Kirkby close to Mansfield. Similar flights were echoed in other towns, and from this time onwards balloonists became ever more itinerant entertainers, appearing at fetes and festivals wherever a fee beckoned.

So began the annual ballooning demonstrations at Derby Arboretum festival, held every summer from the park’s opening ceremony in 1840 right through to 1891. A fascinated onlooker at the inaugural event was 23-year-old Derbeian Emanuel Jackson, destined to become a celebrated ‘aeronaut’ in his own right.

By trade a throwster at Derby Silk Mill, Jackson cultivated a keen interest in the fabric technology crucial to balloon construction. After marrying Derby milliner Hannah Poyser in 1845 he set up his own fabric factory in the town. Experimenting with a material known as gimp, and painting it with a rubberised solution, Jackson developed the perfect ballooning fabric and began to construct and experiment with his own models.

Jackson’s factory prospered, in time enabling him to retire to become a professional balloonist self-styled the ‘Midland Aeronaut’. After his first major performance in 1860, he rapidly gained local celebrity and secured an annual contract at the Arboretum Festival. His fame widened, and from his home at 102 Burton Road he travelled the country giving demonstrations and pleasure rides – he also appeared in Europe and even Australia, where on New Year’s Day 1875 in Ballarat, Victoria, he delivered what the Illustrated Australian News considered ‘the most successful balloon ascent ever made in this state.’

The publicity propelled Jackson to new heights of fame and daring, rendering his Arboretum stunts a true highlight of the Derby calendar. Not that everyone agreed. One critic labelled him ‘an irresponsible balloonatic’, and after a botched take-off caused mayhem at the Ilkeston Flower Show in 1879 the Derby Daily Telegraph voiced their caution: ‘Some say the Midland Aeronaut is bold and courageous, but the partition between bravery and bravado is narrow, and what Jackson calls mere pluck some would term sheer recklessness. Perhaps he considers he has a charmed life.’

But Jackson did become increasingly aware of the dangers. By Festival Day 1883 – Monday 25th June – he was 65 years of age, a veritable veteran for a ‘sport’ in which hazardous buffeting and rough landings were commonplace.

A confident individualist but highly-strung, he had recently shown signs of strain, and confided in friends that his financial stake in a shop-building scheme in St Peter’s Street was troubling him. His demeanour appeared less buoyant than usual – and as he left Burton Road for the 1883 Arboretum flight he told his wife ‘it will be my last.’

That enigmatic pronouncement proved correct. At 6pm after a scorching June day – accompanied by 22-year-old daughter Maria – he rose in his balloon ‘Evening Star’ for his 394th flight. But even at take-off the Derby skies had delivered a violent electric storm – some of the crowd implored Jackson not to be foolish. It proved a portent to disaster, but not an accident, for the balloon and its occupants landed perfectly safely at Rough Heanor Farm close to Chain Lane in Littleover... another mission accomplished.

Yet the next day’s Derby Daily Telegraph carried shocking news. After returning home Jackson had retired to bed in fine spirits and on pleasant terms with his wife Hannah. This mood appeared to prevail next morning – Tuesday 26th June 1883 – until shortly after breakfast a tragic scene unfolded. The ‘Midland Aeronaut’ had inexplicably shot his 59-year-old wife through the temple before turning the ‘British Bulldog’ pistol on himself.

Hannah died instantly and Emanuel Jackson perished early next day without regaining consciousness. The gruesome acts took place in the front parlour of their Burton Road home, daughter Maria making the chilling discovery after hearing shots. The affair shocked the town – immediate inquests returned verdicts of ‘wilful murder’ and ‘suicide whilst in a temporary state of insanity’.

Both bodies were laid in coffins at the Burton Road house, the public allowed on Thursday to pay their last respects – or satisfy morbid curiosity – by being freely admitted to view the corpses. The following day crowds lined the streets for the funeral cortege, and an ‘unusually large gathering’ attended the burial at Nottingham Road Cemetery – the joint grave marked by a slender obelisk reaching symbolically skywards.

Such was the sensational finale to a remarkable life. But the Jackson ballooning dynasty yet continued. His sons Frederick and Emanuel junior – both Derby jewellers – each continued the tradition, Fredrick adding parachuting to his repertoire. He brought down the curtain with a final balloon ascent from Chellaston shortly before the First World War.

Balloons soaring over Derbyshire are a regular sight today – a wonderfully serene way to view the county – but Emanuel Jackson’s exploits are a reminder that ballooning once conquered new frontiers in an age when ‘aeronauts’ were granted the celebrity latterly bestowed on ‘astronauts’ and sports stars.

It may seem ‘another era’ – but an indelible link remains, for Jackson’s property on Burton Road still fronts the busy pavement. Countless Derbeians pass unknowingly by the parlour window which in 1883 bore witness to a terrible scene. And at its side the silent sentinel which shares the macabre secret... the very doorway through which the Midland Aeronaut and his poor murdered wife made their final tragic exit.

Peter Seddon is the author of ‘The Law’s Strangest Cases’ published by Portico available at