Oxford Inscriptions: James Sadler’s balloon flight

Plaque to Sadler in Christ Church Meadow

James Sadler
First English Aeronaut
who in a fire balloon
made a successful
ascent from near this
place — 4th October 1784
to land near Woodeaton

This plaque is on the wall of Merton College in Deadman’s Walk (on the north side of Christ Church Meadow), and was put up in October 1984.

James Sadler was the son of James Sadler senior, an Oxford pastry cook, and his wife Elizabeth. He was baptised at St Peter-in-the-East Church on 27 February 1753, as was his younger brother Thomas in July 1756.

James Sadler began experimenting with small gas-filled balloons while still pursuing his father's trade as a cook. On 4 October 1784 he “ascended into the atmosphere” in a balloon powered only by the hot air generated from a stove, probably from the Botanic Garden, adjacent to Christ Church Meadow.

The next month, on 12 November 1784, Sadler’s second flight (this time from the Botanic Garden, in a hydrogen balloon) reached Aylesbury after about twenty minutes.

There are three other plaques to Sadler in the UK (in Manchester, London, and Nottingham). For more information about Sadler, see Mark Davies, King of all Balloons: The Adventurous Life of James Sadler, the First English Aeronaut (Amberley, 2015)

Sadler's balloon ascending

Right: Sadler’s balloon ascending
from Merton Field

G. V. Cox in Recollections of Oxford wrote:

“In this year [1789] and in several following years, an ingenious native of Oxford, Mr. Sadler (afterwards known as “the Aëronaut”), gave lectures on what he called “philosophic fire-works”…. Mr. Sadler was a clever, practical, and experimental manipulator in chemistry, and as such was patronised by the University, or rather by the few scientific men then in the University; what the University, as such, did or even professed to do in scientific matters at that period it were hard to say.”


Ian Woodmansey
Ian Woodmansey of Altitude Balloons recreates Sadler’s flight from Christ Church Meadow in July 2007 as part of the celebrations of 1000 years of Oxfordshire

James Sadler (balloonist)

Two of Sadler’s sons predeceased him: Captain James Sadler died in India in 1818, and Windham Sadler died in a ballooning accident in 1824. James Sadler himself died at George Lane (now George Street) at the age of 75 in 1828 (on 26 March according to his obituary, or 27 March according to his gravestone). He was buried in St Peter-in-the-East churchyard on 30 March.

His obituary in Jackson's Oxford Journal on 29 March 1828, which gets his age wrong, read:

On Wednesday last died in this city, in the 73d year of his age, Mr. James Sadler, the celebrated aeronaut. Mr. Sadler was the first person in that hazardous profession who might be said to be his own architect, engineer, chemist and projector. His first ascent was from this city, on the 4th October in the year 1784, in a fire-balloon, raised by means of rarified air, when after remaining in the atmospheric regions for half an hour, he descended in safety between Islip and Woodeaton, six miles from hence. To enumerate the many hair-breadth escapes Mr. S. has met with in his various excursions would far exceed our limits; but it is allowed by all that the most splendid ascent ever witnessed was the one from this university in the year 1810, on the Installation of Lord Grenville. On that occasion Mr. Sadler and his son ascended in a magnificent balloon from Merton Fields, and after remaining in sight for two hours and a half came down in perfect safety in a field at North Crawley, Bucks.

Sadler's grave

Sadler plaque inside church
Above: Plaque inside the former Church of
St Peter-in-the-East (now St Edmund Hall Library)

Left: Sadler’s grave in St Peter in the East
churchyard (now part of St Edmund Hall)

Oxford Mail: “Honouring a pioneer of British aviation history

BBC News: “James Sadler: The Oxford balloon man history forgot

Stephanie Jenkins