A Day in History: 28th June 1826

Colour print: Destruction of the "Victoria and Albert" balloon on Monday evening, June 16th, 1851, severely injuring Mr. and Mrs. Graham the aeronauts, and doing damage to the house of Colonel North,16 Arlington Street, Piccadilly, to the extent of upwards of 300 pounds. Published 18 June 1851, Ackermann & Co., 96 Strand, [London] overall: 21.5x29.5cm

On the evening of Wednesday 28th June 1826, the residents of Newington Green were met with the surprise emergency landing of Margaret Graham – a twenty-two-year-old aeronaut who had just completed her first solo flight, making her the first British woman to fly unaccompanied. The ascent from White Conduit House in Islington had been planned by her husband, George Graham, for Margaret and fellow female aeronaut Sophia Stocks. Upon Stocks’ entry into the car, it became apparent that the balloon was not sufficiently inflated to carry two passengers. Margaret Graham seized this as an opportunity to go ahead and pilot her first solo flight. 

In an interview for The Times, Margaret recalls the flight events, which led to her unexpected landing just 1.8 miles away on Newington Green. 

“The balloon floated horizontally about 20 minutes, neither rising nor falling, but going gradually on an equilibrium. I passed over the New River, on the banks of which were a great number of persons, who huzzaed as I passed over their heads. The evening being very clear, I could see St.Pauls and every other church in the metropolis perfectly well; and the scenery before me was delightful; when I got near Mr. Barr’s nursery, a gust of wind passed over the top of the balloon, which caused in instantly to descend, and in a very short time I touched the earth.”

Following her unexpected landing, she was taken in by Mr and Mrs Bawtree, who lived on Newington Green. She reports being treated with the greatest politeness and kindness before venturing back to White Conduit House.  

Margaret Graham’s career started alongside her established husband, George Graham. However, she soon became the better known of the two of them for her daredevil stunts and nonchalant attitude towards the perilous situations she got into. She was a pioneering Victorian woman who understood the importance of public image and self-promotion for a healthy career as an aeronaut. Graham regularly gave interviews to newspapers following flying accidents. She recognised that it was a way of controlling public perceptions of her, compelling them to watch her next ascent. She was determined to show that women were competent pilots and could have careers in their own right.

In the 1851 census, Graham and her two eldest daughters, Alice and Lydia, listed aeronaut as their profession. A mother of seven, Graham was dissatisfied with a life solely dedicated to domestic duty and succeeded in making a name for herself through both her triumphs and mishaps. One of her later stunts was a nighttime flight from Vauxhall gardens, during which she set off fireworks, a stunt which had caused the untimely death of French aeronaut Sophie Blanchard in 1819. She was also invited to fly at events such as the Coronation of Queen Victoria and the Great Exhibition, neither of which was without incident. 

Although not a resident of Newington Green, Margaret Graham frequented the local fields regularly throughout her flying career. In 1864, after a long and successful career, she was laid to rest in Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington.

Further Reading: 

  • Mark Davies, King of All Balloons (Stroud, Amberley, 2015).
  • Charles Paul May, Women in Aeronautics (Nelson, 1962).
  • S.L. Kotar and J.E. Gessler, Ballooning: A History, 1782-1900 (McFarland, 2010). 

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