Reuben Bramhall 1847-1929
1. Reuben Bramhall, who came from very humble beginnings, became very well known during his lifetime as the Bradford Aeronaut. His lifelong passion for ballooning and aerial navigation began in 1862 during his teenage years but it wasn’t until 1892 when he was aged 44 that he had his first balloon ride from Peel Park with aeronaut Mr Beetson of Huddersfield. Five years later in 1897 he had learnt enough to make his first solo trip from Peel Park and went on to make over 200 trips and travelled about 6,000 miles in the air.
Reuben was born at Wyke, to parents William, who was born in Chesterfield, and Bethia born in Wyke. In his early childhood he helped his father on the farm until, at the age of 9, he started work in a pit as a ‘hurrier’ earning 3s 6d a week and working nine hours a day. Driving a pit pony wasn’t enough for him and he began to study at night school discovering an aptitude for engineering. He was offered a position in the boiler and engine room of a dyeworks and was able to leave the pit at the age of 15. Three years later he was in charge of it!
Early in 1868 at the age of 21 Reuben married Mary Ann Armitage at Bradford Parish Church and later that year their first child, Edmund, was born. There followed eight more children, the last one being born in 1887, but only three, Edmund, Bethia and Beatrice May, survived early childhood and outlived their parents.
Reuben remained employed in the boiler and engine room until 1897 when, aged 50, he retired to set up his own business as a consulting engineer and dealer in boiler and engines and his ballooning hobby took off. The zenith of his ambition was reached when he became the proud owner of his first balloon which he named ‘City of Bradford’. He became a familiar figure in his uniform, which includes a cap not unlike a naval captain’s, with the Bradford arms- the boar’s head- placed conspicuously in front.
2. On July 8th 1899 there was an exciting incident at Bradford Moor Park before a crowd of around 10,000. Reuben was preparing his balloon ‘Lord Masham’ for a flight with two friends,
Mr J.J.Schmidt, the manager of the Empress Hotel, and Mr T.Croft, a Bradford Councillor. Everything was in readiness for a start a few minutes before 7 pm. The two passengers were in the basket and Reuben stood on the edge as the words ‘Let Go’ was given. Just then a strong gust of wind carried the balloon almost level with the ground against some laurel bushes in the park and in a moment Reuben was dragged violently from the basket, but alighted unhurt from the bushes. As Reuben weighed around 16 stone the loss of his weight caused the balloon at once to rise with great rapidity. The vast audience in the park on seeing that it had gone up without the skipper, began to panic and made a rush for the gates with large numbers taking to the various roads leading in the direction that the wind was taking the balloon. Soon the balloon attained a height of 6,000 ft and appeared to be travelling fast towards Leeds. Reuben borrowed a fast trotting horse and frantically set off towards Leeds. Mr Croft’s son, who was at the park to watch his father’s pleasure trip, also immediately set off on his bicycle to try and follow the balloon. Meanwhile it must have been the stuff of nightmares for the two men adrift in the balloon, neither of whom had ever been in a balloon before let alone flown one and with no knowledge of how to control it and bring it down safely. They took a swig of brandy which they had found in Reuben’s jacket, to steady their nerves before deciding what to do. Carefully they studied the rigging and made a plan to try and land in a rural area. By now they were travelling at 30mph, approaching Leeds and slightly descending, so Mr Schmidt threw out some ballast and the balloon rose again and sailed on past Leeds until they saw a large rural area ahead. Mr Schmidt took charge of the valve rope and Mr Croft of the grapnel and the balloon began to descend alarmingly quickly. Fortunately, with the balloon now half empty of gas it came down like a parachute into a wheat field to the great relief of the two uninjured passengers. In total they had been flying for 50 minutes and had travelled 27 miles landing at Bramham near Boston Spa. The farmer, whose wheat field they had landed in soon appeared on the scene to complain about their choice of field until the men explained their dire situation and offered to compensate him for any damage to his wheat crop. Eventually, after making enquiries during their journeys, both Reuben, who had changed horses on the way and Mr.Croft’s son arrived to find all was well.
3. Mr J.J. Schmidt was obviously not put off from his solo balloon adventure in 1899 but maybe his trip with his friend Reuben on 12 June 1905 may have altered that. The occasion was the annual Peel Park Gala and together they set off at 6pm in ‘The City of Bradford’ balloon and were quickly carried westwards towards the coast by tremendous winds, travelling one mile a minute at 6,000ft. Reuben became very alarmed when he spotted the coast quickly coming into view and it was imperative that the balloon had to land before they reached the Irish sea. Mr, Schmidt disagreed and wanted to land on the Isle of Man but Reuben refused saying “if we miss the island we are both dead men, for the balloon won’t carry as far as Ireland” Still, his friend was was not satisfied, and at last Reuben remarked that it was all right with him; Mr. Schmidt could go if he wanted to but he(Reuben) must be put down first! The Isle of Man trip was quickly abandoned. Reuben released 1/3rd of the gas which caused the balloon to drop at an alarming rate. Ballast was thrown out to try and slow the descent but the balloon was going at such a speed that it even passed the falling ballast as the balloon continued to fall to earth at an angle of 45 degrees. When the balloon neared the ground it was tearing across the countryside at the speed of an express train and hit some trees. It still continued on and Reuben was being tossed around in the basket while trying to pin down Mr Schmidt to the floor of the basket with his foot. Some 30 or 40 farm hands had noticed the drama and tried to hold onto the trailing rope and were dragged head first across a field, but the speed caused them to have to leave go. The balloon continued on and tore through a hedge and caught the top of a tree heeling over the basket. On it continued across further fields until it was caught by a stout hedge and the pursuing farm hands managed to get hold of the trailing rope and immediately the gas valve was opened and the danger was over. Thus ended the dramatic and terrifying 70 minute journey covering 64 miles.
4. In 1904 during the Bradford Exhibition, Reuben worked a captive balloon for six months and carried 3,350 passengers without any mishap.
5. On 20 July 1907 a Balloon v Car race took place starting from Lister Park. Taking part were 28 cars from various local automobile clubs. The race conditions were that the balloon must not travel more than 50 miles and must have been deflated and packed away before any competitor reached him. Reuben set off in his balloon at 3.30pm in a ENE direction so the cars all set off in that direction too. Once the balloon was at 4,200ft and had disappeared into the clouds the winds then took it in the opposite direction and 80 minutes later it landed at Mirfield where Reuben comfortably packed the deflated balloon with no competing cars to be seen!
6. On May 12th 1913 Reuben decided to retire from ballooning after experiencing another terrifying flight from Peel park with a passenger, J.W.Swithenbank. They were blown across country at 60 miles an hour and on attempting to land in the very strong winds, the basket crashed into moorland stone walls and was dragged along for 4 miles until they finally managed to land, battered and bruised, near Hellifield.
Reuben Bramhall died aged 82 in July 1929 and is buried in Undercliffe cemetery.
- Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer 20 July 1929
- Yorkshire Evening Post 10 July 1899
- Bradford Weekly Telegraph 17 June 1905
- Yorkshire Post 20 July 1929
- Bradford Daily Telegraph 22 July 1907
- Daily Mirror 14 May 1913
Research by Pauline Shieldhouse