Benjamin O’Neale Stratford (1808 – 1875)
A man needs a hobby but some take their enthusiasm to extremes. One such was Stratford, the sixth and last Earl of Aldborough – as we will see, he didn’t have time to sire an heir. His passion, nay obsession, was ballooning and his ambition was to build the biggest balloon the world had ever seen.
The starting point was to build somewhere to house it and in the 1830s he had a hangar built in the grounds of his family seat, Stratford Lodge, in Baltinglass in County Wicklow. It was no tin or wooden affair. Standing some 60 feet high and fifty feet wide, it was chiselled out of the Wicklow granite. And it had doors, because Stratford was paranoid that someone would see what he was doing and steal his ideas.
For the next twenty years or so he worked away, designing, building, adjusting, and modifying his meisterwerk. Throughout the time Stratford lived as a recluse, attended by only one servant. He refused to compromise the secrecy of his project by hiring a cook. Instead, he had his meals sent down to him from Dublin on the Baltinglass Royal Mail coach.
Eventually, by the early 1850s our Benjamin believed he had cracked it and started to make plans for its inaugural flight. His intention was to fly initially to England and then transport the balloon to the south coast where he would fly to the ballooning capital of the world, Paris. He had even bought a piece of land by the Seine as a landing strip – a triumph of optimism over reality if there ever was one.
By this time, England was embroiled in the Crimean War and in a fit of patriotic fervour Stratford offered his machine to a doubtless bemused military. There is also evidence that he sought to protect his invention with a patent. Patent number 224, filed in 1854, records “this inventor proposed a man-powered aircraft, either aided in flight by an elongated balloon, or by wings. The wings are intended to act in a manner similar to birds, based on theories of bird flight put forward by the inventor. A tail is described, which may act as a rudder, striking downward when the vessel is rising, thus compressing the air beneath, as the inventor believed birds do, especially pigeons.”
The patent went on; “any number of persons on board may aid propulsion, each having a separate wheel.” Stratford continued modifying his design, filing another patent (no 2062) in 1856, in which “he appears now to suggest an engine to provide propulsive power. There are also improvements to the passenger accommodation and other minor features.” For all his efforts, there still had been no public unveiling.
And then one Sunday morning in 1856, tragedy struck. Fire broke out at Stratford Lodge. Stratford’s only concern was to save his balloon. He organised a human chain from the many onlookers to carry buckets of water to the hanger but to no avail. The balloon went up in flames.
Stratford was devastated, his purpose in life destroyed. He initially moved into what remained of the hangar and, when the family fortune had been all but spent, he moved to Alicante in Spain where he eked out a living breeding dogs and selling patent medicines. When he got bored with that, he became even more reclusive, shutting himself up in hotel rooms, having meals delivered to his door but refusing to allow anyone to collect the dirty crockery. When his room became uninhabitable, he simply moved into another one.
But some good did come of his balloon. Struts from the structure kept the locals in fishing rods for many years and some of the stones from the hangar were used in the Baltinglass’ new catholic church.