A new American film about the pioneering exploits of the first Crystal Palace balloon captain Henry Coxwell has turned him into a woman.

The film includes scenes involving the historic flight made by Croydon resident James Glaisher – played by Eddie Redmayne – and Coxwell when they attempted to break the altitude record for a hot air balloon, both almost dying in the attempt.

But in the Amazon Studios film Coxwell is replaced by a fictitious woman called Amelia Wren played by Felicity Jones.

The flight takes place on 5th September 1862 from Wolverhampton’s Stafford Road gasworks, where there was a plentiful supply of town gas for the balloon, greatly increasing our knowledge of the atmosphere and helps to lead the way to modern weather forecasting. The balloon climbs to more than 29,000 feet.

Glaisher recalled: “Mr Coxwell told me that hoar frost was all around the neck of the balloon, and that he found his hands frozen. He had, therefore, to place his arms on the ring and drop down. “He became anxious to open the valve. “But in consequence of having lost the use of his hands he could not do this.

“Ultimately he succeeded by seizing the cord with his teeth and dipping his head two or three times until the balloon took a decided turn downwards.

“Mr Coxwell told me he had lost the use of his hands, which were blacked, and I poured brandy over them.”

In 1898 Glaisher was living in retirement in Croydon. Coxwell Road off Westow Street is named after the balloonist.

News From Crystal Palace have emailed the Los Angeles, California-based Amazon Studios which is making The Aeronauts with the following:

I understand you have started production of a film called ‘The Aeronauts’ about James Glaisher and Henry Coxwell but newspaper reports here say you have airbrushed Coxwell from the movie and replaced him with a woman who appears to be fictitious.

Coxwell was the first balloon captain  at the Palace, hence our interest (The Palace was a major spot for balloons taking off and landing).

Variety magazine reports producer Todd Lieberman as saying authenticity is the priority. How can this be the case when you have changed Henry Coxwell’s gender?

Please could you confirm and justify your reasoning for what appears to be, on this side of the pond, political correctness gone mad?

We got a reply – asking us to respond again…….


The first balloon flight made from Crystal Palace was by Thomas Lithgoe in 1859.

Coxwell and Glaisher make many more ascents together until 1864 when their balloon is torn to shreds by crowds in Leicester – and for a time the people of Leicester are known as ‘balloonatics.’

Meanwhile there are other balloon flights. Many of the thousands of balloon ascents made from the Crystal Palace pass without incident – but many of the greater populace have never seen a balloon – or even heard of them.

The Bromley Record of August 1st 1863 records how shouts of ‘a balloon’ by youngsters in Bromley brought the ‘oldsters’ out to see what was up.

A balloon piloted by Henry Coxwell and another gentleman had ascended from the Crystal Palace in the presence of the Prince of Wales. The descent, which takes place in a field near Bickley, is described in the Record as follows:

In the short space of a quarter of of an hour there could not have been fewer than 500 people present, the fair sex being fairly represented. Of course among such a motley group every variety of fashion was exhibited, the most remarkable being a sunshade of brown paper worn on a black silk bonnet.
Very few of them had any bonnet at all, and as most of them had run away from their wash tubs without stopping to dress for company, they were not over-burdened with drapery. The remarks made about the balloon were no doubt highly amusing to the experienced owner, although some of them were not very flattering.
“Drat the critter and them what’s in it” said one lady. “They aint no business to go bringen a thing like that here, frightnen people. “I’m sure what with the fright and the runnen together I shan’t get over it for a week.”
Another old lady, who was pointed out to us as the oldest inhabitant having lived nearly 90 years in this world without ever seeing a balloon, or having the slightest idea to its resemblance, was
naturally very much horrified when the monster plumped down almost at her door.
But finding that when it was down it was perfectly quiet and harmless, she plucked up sufficient courage to go near and examine it, exclaiming: “Dear lawk, dear lawk whatever will they do with it?”
(What they did with it was pack the balloon up in a van belonging to the field’s owner, a Mr Pawley, and take it back to the Crystal Palace.)

Further reading: Balloons and Aeroplanes at the Crystal Palace – three articles in the Norwood Review, magazine of the Norwood Society numbers 209, 210, 211. (Recent Editions – The Norwood Society

Victorian Strangeness: The great balloon riot of 1864 by Jeremy Clay, BBC News 9 August 2014

My Life and Balloon Experiences by Henry Coxwell


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