On June 12th 1889 the Chatham & Rochester News  reported that "the inhabitants of the little town of  Rainham were aroused from their usual quietude by  the appearance of a monster balloon  to the delight  of numerous onlookers a descent was made, both old  and young seemed quite amazed at the novel sight". As early as 1880 a successful balloon flight had  carried three passengers all the way from Ashford to  Crediton in Devon. 

Balloons, however, were not altogether unknown in  this area, for one of the pioneers of military  ballooning, Major James Templer, had bought Abbey Court Farm (then apparently known as Lidsey Farm)  at Lidsing in 1883. Templer, together with Captain  C.M.Watson, had started an army ballooning school  at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich in I878, using his  own balloon ‘Crusader’ and a grant of £150 from the  military authorities. The whole operation was  transferred to Chatham a year later, and it was from  the RE Barracks that cylinders of hydrogen were  carried by wagon to Lidsing, where in accordance  with Templer’s orders a deep pit had been excavated  near The Harrow, from which a balloon could be  inflated and launched. A separate wagon carried the  balloon itself, together with a drum on which was  coiled the wire rope (incorporating a telephone wire)  which would anchor the inflated balloon to the  wagon. 

The use of balloons for military reconnaissance was  already well-established - the French employed them  during the Napoleonic Wars, and they had also  proved useful during the American Civil War. When  British Forces were fighting in the eastern Sudan in  i885 a detachment of balloonists from the Royal  Engineers under Major Templer took part. A  contemporary report related that on the 25th March ‘a  balloon accompanied the convoy to the zeriba [a  fortified camp], and probably frightened the natives,  as no attack was made’. Unfortunately high winds  generally made it impossible to employ the balloon,  The Chatham & Rochester News had carried an item  about Major Templer in April 1888, when the soldier  had been court-martialled at Brompton Barracks  charged with ‘disclosing secrets of military  ballooning to persons unknown’ (believed to be  connected with the ltalian Government). But he was  honourably acquitted, and obviously no stigma was  attached to his name, for he married the following  year.  Templer’s men were unkindly referred to as  ‘Balloonatics’, and certainly flights were not  without risk.

ln December 1881 Templer and two  others (Mr.A.Gardner and Mr Walter Powell) were  carrying out meteorological observations: air  temperature at different heights and amount of snow  in the air. They set out from Bath and travelled over  Somerset and Dorset, but as their vessel approached  Bridport the wind threatened to carry it out to sea.  They attempted to land and Templer jumped out,  holding the valve line, and tried to release the valve.  The reduction in weight lifted the balloon several  feet off the ground so that when Gardner jumped, he  broke his leg and the balloon rose still higher,  Templer, desperately trying to maintain hold of the  line, urged Powell to climb down, but the rope was  torn from his hands, and Powell, himself a keen  balloonist with his own balloon and a private  gasworks to inflate it, was carried away, never to be  seen again. 

Despite such incidents many flights were very  successful. as the Rainham occurrence  demonstrates, and the British Army continued to  experiment with both balloons and giant kites. An  article in Bygone Kent (Vol.l6 No.8) has several  excellent photographs showing army wagons and  balloons, and remarks that it was not unusual to see  these over Lydd, ‘with one, two, or even three men  suspended from them in light baskets’. Ballooning  at Lidsing, though, had ended by the close of the  nineteenth century. 


 More information about James Templer here

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