By Jon Wyatt – In 1829 the British press reported an unidentified flying object was shot down at Wandsworth, England. Wandsworth is a suburb of London, about 4 miles (6 kms) SW of Big Ben; however, in those days it was still a traditional cloth-making village with many French emigres. Here is the old report as told in the language of the day:
“A very strong sensation was excited a few days ago in the vicinity of Wandsworth, by the appearance of an extraordinary animal, who was observed floating slowly through the air nearly over the village. Its appearance, which was that of a fish of about 20 feet [6 m] in length, and proportionate bulk, excited alarm amongst many, and astonishment amongst all, who beheld it.What it was? and how it came there? were questions very eagerly and naturally asked, but not so easily answered. Conjectures were hazarded, without number, and without result. Nobody could give a satisfactory explanation of the phenomenon, though every body made the attempt.
“It was a fish–it was a serpent,–it was ‘very like a whale’ but something supernatural, portentous of strange and awful events: one or two of the more shrewd looded upon [called out] it is one of the visitations with which the country had been threatened in consequence of the passing of the Catholic Bill [Catholic MPs could sit in the British parliament for the first time since 1728]. But whatever it was, it seemed to be the general wish that it should if possible be removed from the neighbourhood. But then came the question–how? To take a monster of such dimensions alive, was an attempt which might be attented with much danger. It was therefore considered prudent to kill it first, if it could be killed.
“For this purpose some of the best shots in the neighbourhood were put in requisition. Several fowling-pieces were discharged at it, without any other effect than that of adding to the terror of many of the spectators. At last a gentleman brought out a long strand-piece [a gun for waterfowl], loaded with duck-shot, and took his aim, he was successful. Some of the shot pierced the animal’s side, when to the terror of crowds who looked on, it changed its form and sank to the earth….
“For a time no person was hardy enough to approach it; but at last, not seeing it move, the gentleman who brought it down, advanced, and to his surprise, and the great relief of many present from their alarms, found, that it consisted of a quantity of silk made in the shape of a fish inflated with gas. The phenomenon was now explained.”
The Wandsworth “flying monster” was a novelty hydrogen-filled blimp. It’d escaped from the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, a fashionable amusement park in London and drifted a few miles to the village where it met its Waterloo. The press noted “The proprietors, it seemed, had prepared the monster, intending that it should rise from the waters of the Hydro-pyric Temple, and float amidst the fire-works over the heads of spectators. Having been properly inflated, it was slightly fastened to that part of the temple from which it would ascend, but, in the course of the night, the strings became loosened and it escaped!”
The scare was not unique. On August 27, 1783, when the world’s first hydrogen balloon, The Globe, went aloft in Paris, from where the Eiffel Tower now stands, it drifted NE to the small village of Gonesse, today a suburb of Paris, where the farmers took it for a monster and destroyed it with blunderbusses, pitchforks and scythes.
In both instances there was nothing to fear but the insurers.
London Standard 18 June 1829, p4.
Sydney Monitor (NSW) 3 March 1830, p4