Aeronauts in Forest Gate

Friday 29 March 2024

In conjunction with local historians, Mark Gorman (@Flatshistorian) and Peter Williams, we examine how Wanstead Flats have been used for various kinds of flying and look at some of the early aeronauts who have lived in the Forest Gate area.


There are big skies over Wanstead Flats, and people have been flying through them for nearly two centuries.

The earliest recorded landing on the Flats was in September 1838, when a party of balloonists who had set out from Vauxhall, south of the Thames, came down on what they described as “a lone heath”. The locals soon provided them with company, offering to “look after” the balloon overnight. When this was refused they threatened to shred the balloon, but eventually drifted off home. The intrepid balloon party retired to a local pub (the old “Eagle & Child” in Woodgrange Road.)

More balloons were to appear over the Flats in the following years, and some well-known balloonists lived in the area. Among them was Thomas Wright, an East End photographer who ended up living in Forest Gate. He was an early pioneer of ballooning.

While running his photography business in East India Dock Road in the early 1870s, he came across Henry Croxwell and struck up a ballooning partnership with him.

The Illustrated London News of January 1900 described Croxwell, a one-time dentist, as “the foremost balloonist of the last half of the nineteenth century”. Croxwell made his first balloon flight, aged 25, in 1844 and within four years was described as a professional balloonist.

In his 1889 autobiography, My Life and Balloon Experiences, Croxwell mentions Wright as an important ally in the rapidly developing art of ballooning:

Mr. Thomas Wright, the well-known Crystal Palace aeronaut, became my deputy, and acquitted himself in first-rate style. That gentleman had kindly and efficiently assisted me on some previous occasions, taking charge of my balloon, and commending himself … by his straightforward conduct; he has since become a regular yearly attendant with balloons of his own … and is ably supported by his friends Mr. Dale ... who have both had considerable experience in ballooning; so that with their united efforts this feature of the entertainment is not likely to fall into the hands of those who are incompetent, or who have not deserved to succeed as Mr. Wright has done.

A post-retirement photo of Henry Croxwell

Croxwell’s reference to the “Crystal Palace aeronaut” is illuminating. In 1859 the Crystal Palace, built for the Great Exhibition in central London of 1851, was moved to the south-east London area that now bears its name. The site is on a hill, dominating the local area, which, because of its elevated position, later became a key aerial for early BBC radio transmissions. Its lofty position also made it an ideal spot for balloonist trips, which became expensive tourist attractions in their own right.

The tourist attraction of the Crystal Palace in south London. Photo taken soon after Wright and Dale used it as a base for their aeronautics.
Wright flew balloons from Crystal Palace and in and around London on an almost daily basis, at heights of up to 15,000 ft. Like other pioneers of ballooning he, along with Croxwell and Dale (see below), offered pleasure flights at £5 per passenger (about £500 today, using the Bank of England inflation calculator).

When Croxwell retired from the balloonist scene in the 1880s Wright took over as the main operator, trading with upto 4 balloons at a time. He moved from Poplar to Plaistow in the early 1880s, where his soon-to-be assistant William Dale also lived. 

Dale was born in Merton, Surrey in 1845 and had moved to Plaistow by 1881, when the census described him as a watchmaker. Ballooning soon became more than a hobby for him, so by 1891 he described himself to the census enumerator as an "aeronaut".

William Dale (left), preparing for a flight at Crystal Palace

He became known as Captain William Dale (it was a tradition that aeronauts called themselves Captain) and he soon took over Wright's balloon operations. Dale entertained crowds at the funfairs with balloon ascents and attracted international attention. GM Bacon, in The Record of an Aeronaut, published in 1907, described him thus: "Captain Dale was a short, powerfully built man ... full of life and energy, with a keen grey eye and a jovial manner."

Dale died in a well-publicised balloon accident at the Crystal Palace in 1892, when a tear in the fabric caused the balloon to plunge into the ground. Major Baden FS Baden-Powell (brother of Boy Scouts' founder, Robert) was a significant aeronaut, being associated with the Aeronautic Society for 57 years, until his death in 1937. He described the circumstances surrounding Dale's death, in his 1907 book, Ballooning as a Sport.

He recalled how he - Baden-Powell - had sold an old worn out and defective balloon to a dealer, who in turn sold it on to Dale, who attempted to patch it up and sell it on: "emulating the magician in Aladdin, (he) had the great invention of converting old balloons into new ones". Unfortunately, that balloon, The Eclipse, crashed on its first ascent in India, having only reached a height of 2-300 feet, killing its aeronaut.

Dale was clearly not deterred. Baden-Powell continued:

Meanwhile poor Dale doubtless thought he had found the elixir of life for balloons, and prepared a second old balloon in the same way, and what proves that he did not realise the danger or intentionally commit so awful a blunder, made an ascent himself in it, accompanied by his son and others. This balloon acted in just the same way as the first, bursting ere it was clear of the Crystal Palace grounds, and dashing to earth its human freight - Dale and one of his companions being killed, the others dreadfully injured.

The inquest, at which Thomas Wright spoke,  found that the fabric of Dale's balloon was old and weak, and patched from several balloons. Below is a press report recording Dale's fatal fall and a drawing accompanying his obituary in an Australian newspaper. Below these is a photograph of his grave in the East Ham parish church graveyard.

Chelmsford Chronicle 8 Jul 1892

A drawing of Dale,from an Australian obituary
Grave of Captain Dale – St Mary Magdalen East Ham parish church     


57 Cecil Road, Plaistow - Dale's final home - today

Wright, meanwhile, survived, and following the death of his wife, moved to 15, Margery Park Road, in Forest Gate, between Romford Road and West Ham Park, where he was resident at the time of the 1891 census.

Thomas Wright (left) ascending in one of his balloon voyages

In August 1897 he told the Forest Gate Weekly News (see accompanying photo below) that his ballooning had not exactly been profitable :

"I do not think I have lost money over it, but I do not think I have made very much. I suppose I should average £20 per journey and I have had all my balloons ... going up on different parts of the country on one day. But then I have had to pay as much as £100 damages at one time and the return journeys by road and the hotel charges are very expensive."

A photograph of Thomas Wright from 1897

Wright was possibly a bit economical with the truth when he declared “I don’t think I have made very much”. He was from a modest background and would not have earned a great deal as a photographer, before becoming a prominent balloonist. But by the 1890s was living in a rather splendid house (see below) and the Lloyds Weekly Newspaper of 12 May 1901 shows him advertising eight, six-roomed houses for sale, presumably as a developer/landlord.

He died in Margery Park Road on 5 September 1912, aged 79. Probate records show that he left £19,515 in his will - a huge amount for the time for a one-time jobbing photographer - representing 122 times the average national salary of contemporary lower middle-class worker.

Wright's death is widely regarded as marking the end of the golden age of ballooning.

15 Margery Park Road today

Unfortunately there is no record that Wright, Dale or other local balloonists flew from Wanstead Flats and it wasn’t until the early 20th century that an attempt was made to launch a flying machine.

 Powered kites

In November 1901 Col. Samuel Cody (not related to "Buffalo Bill" Cody), an American inventor, showman and part-time actor demonstrated his military reconnaissance kite on the Flats. Sadly for Cody (who was appearing in a Wild West drama at the Theatre Royal Stratford at the time) a windless day meant that the kite failed to take off properly. This amused the crowd of small boys present, but not the British military, who didn’t adopt Cody’s invention.

A Cody man-lifting kite (source:here)

Here are extracts from his diary....


1 November: Experiment to take place on Wanstead Flats. Wrote to War Office (WO) saying he "was about to attempt some kite experiments using a kite of my own invention called the Viva kite similar to the American Blue Hill Box Kite i.e. flown on that principle with certain additions which I claim are an advantage over any kites yet flown". He also claimed to be the maker of the largest kite in the world. Length 27ft. Width 13 ft. Height 5 1/2 ft. with a spread of 657 sq ft.

14 November: Cody and assistants dressed as cowboys and riding horses tried unsuccessfully to give kite exhibition at Wanstead Flats. Cody told the crowd that his kites, so far, lifted only bags of sand.

20 November: Filed a provisional application for patent no. 23566 - Improvements in Kites and apparatus for the same. Cody residing at 38 Grove Crescent Road, Stratford. (now council flats, just behind Golden Grove pub).

26 November: Received letter from WO saying that they had been unable to attend his kite trials at Wanstead Flats but hoped to attend any further trials (source:here).

Model aero club

Probably the first flight of any form of aircraft from the Flats was in about 1909, by members of the Leyton and District Model Aero Club. The club which initially met by the Model Yacht Pond (now Jubilee Pond) at the Dames Road end of the Flats, flew very basic model aircraft and gliders. To this day, Wanstead Model Flying Club has a licence from the City of London, managers of Epping Forest, to fly radio-controlled aircraft on the Flats. They now have a landing ground just off Centre Road, between Forest Gate and Wanstead.


The club in the 70s/80s. Source Newham council archives

In more recent times paragliders, launched by being towed across the Flats at speed by a Land Rover, were for a brief period in the 1990s a Sunday afternoon feature.

Space exploration

The Flats has also played a part in UK space exploration. In 1965 the Daily Mirror reported on the British Interplanetary Travel Society, which had launched more than 30 rockets from the Flats over the previous decade. One launch achieved a height of 100 feet (30 metres). Edward Harris, the society's chairman explained that the group's main aim was: "to beat the Americans. By 1970 we should be really going places". That worked, then!

Footnote: Special thanks to David Webb of East London History Society Newsletter, Winter 2014-15, for the information on Thomas Wright. Full article: here

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