The Leicester Balloon Riot, 1864
The city of Leicester has undergone a bit of a renaissance recently, what with Richard III being found under a car park and an upsurge in the fortunes of the local football team. It was also the host for a rather peculiar riot which graphically illustrated the perils of upsetting the paying public.
Henry Coxwell was a pioneering hot air balloonist and went round the country giving displays of his aeronautical prowess. On Monday 11th July 1864 he arrived at Leicester racecourse to show off his new balloon, the Britannia, attracting a crowd of some 50,000. As preparations for the ascent were underway a rumour circulated – “a gross libel”, he wrote in the Times later – that the balloon on display was not his newest or largest but a smaller one altogether.
The mood of the crowd turned ugly – they muttered “he’s taking us for mugs” – and a throng burst into the enclosure. Even those who had paid money to see the event and had tickets for a ride rushed the basket, “in such a rude and unceremonious manner that all operations were stopped”. One man, according to Coxwell, “by his gestures and foul language..excited the mob and induced the belief that there existed on my part a disinclination to ascend”.
Enough was enough and the aviator proceeded with no more ado to let the gas out and before long “the whole structure fell into a shapeless mass on the ground”. And then things really took off. The Leicester Chronicle reported, “the crowd who stood around immediately seized upon the net-work and material of the balloon and tore it into a hundred shreds. The car was next – set fire to and burnt to ashes”. The old bill were too few in number to seize control of the mob and it was all that Sergeant Chapman could do to lead Coxwell away to the sanctuary of the Town Clerk’s house.
As he was led away his clothes were torn and the mob shouted “Rip him up, knock him on the head, finish him”. An innocent bystander, taken to be the balloonist, was attacked and his coat pulled to bits. For some there is always a silver lining to every cloud and for the entrepreneurially minded there was an opportunity to make some extra cash by selling fragments of the balloon as souvenirs. Other forsook the opportunity to make a quick buck and contented themselves with parading what was left through the streets.
As news of the fracas spread the London Review of Politics, Society, Art and Science took a lofty and mildly philosophical and certainly racist view of events. “No man who commits himself to the science of ballooning can tell where or amongst what people it will carry him, as Mr Coxwell has just discovered. It set him down on Monday amongst a horde of savages as fierce and untamed as South Sea islanders and differing very little from them except in their habitat”.
The better classes of Leicester sought to pin the blame on people from out of town but for a while the denizens of the East Midland’s city were known, in one of the Punch magazine’s better jokes, as balloonatics.