The Wolverhampton to Shropshire balloon trip at centre of Eddie Redmayne film controversy

He was one of the bravest pioneers of the Victorian age – but now Henry Coxwell is being airbrushed from history in favour of a woman who never existed.

Henry Coxwell and James Glaisher during their balloon flight
Henry Coxwell and James Glaisher during their balloon flight

A new film aims to tell the incredible story of an 1862 balloon trip from Wolverhampton that sent two explorers five miles into the air before a death-defying plunge to earth.

Coxwell and early meteorologist James Glaisher climbed to an incredible 29,000 feet after setting off from the Stafford Road gas works site in Wolverhampton – but their journey to the skies almost ended in disaster.

Now a film called The Aeronauts is being made about their amazing feat, starring Oscar-winning actor Eddie Redmayne as Glaisher.

However, the choice of co-star has raised eyebrows among historians.

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in The Aeronauts

Star Wars actress Felicity Jones, who starred alongside Redmayne in smash-hit film The Theory of Everything, was chosen to reunite with him and take her place in the air balloon basket, leaving academics disappointed.

A Mammoth flight

Coxwell and Glaisher were breaking new frontiers when they set off for the skies on September 5, 1862 in their balloon, the Mammoth.

They wanted to find out what happened to the water vapour as it rose into the atmosphere. Their work helped the Victorians’ understanding of rain.

However, they put their lives in danger as the balloon continued to climb higher and higher.

The pair estimated they reached an unthinkable 37,000 feet without oxygen, higher than the cruising altitude of jumbo jets.

Henry Coxwell

However, without modern oxygen equipment, experts say both men would have been dead within seconds at that height and put their altitude at a maximum of 29,000 feet – still a world record at the time.

Glaisher recorded the atmospheric variables from the temperature to the wind speed before passing out.

But still the balloon rose and showed little signs of stopping its ascent into the heavens. By this time Glaisher was unconscious and pilot Coxwell had lost the use of his hands to the cold.

With growing dizziness, he was on the verge of passing out when he climbed onto the side of the balloon’s rigging in a last-ditch bid to open a valve to release some gas.

Unable to use his limbs he had to grab the vital cord in his teeth and release it by rocking his head back and forth several times.

The life-saving action came with just seconds to spare and the balloon began to descend. But the drama wasn’t over.

Descent

The balloon began to fall at 1,000 feet a minute but this soon rose to 2,000 feet a minute.

Eventually, the craft slowed and came under control and they landed in a field near Brown Clee Hill in Shropshire – some 25 miles away from their starting point.

They landed safely in a Shropshire field and, as the story goes, promptly headed straight to a nearby pub for a pint.

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones

Acknowledgement of the pair’s scarcely-believable exploits remains in the city today, with roads named after both men – Glaisher Drive and Coxwell Avenue at Wolverhampton Science Park, close to where they took off.

Their trip in the Mammoth, which was 55ft in diameter and 80ft high, has gone down as one of the greatest missions of Victorian exploration.

Coxwell died in Sussex in 1900, aged 80. Glaisher died aged 93 in 1903.

Instead of Coxwell, however, Jones plays the fictional Amelia Wren in the film being made by Amazon Studios.

Keith Moore of scientific academy the Royal Society, said: “It’s a great shame Henry isn’t portrayed because he performed very well and saved the life of a leading scientist. It was exceptionally brave climbing up into the shrouds.

“There were so many deserving female scientists of that period who haven’t had films made about them. Why not do that instead?”

The Aeronauts film will feature scenes shot by Redmayne and Jones at 2,000 feet in the air, captured by helicopter.

Producer Todd Liberman brushed off the row and claimed: “A top priority for us on the The Aeronauts is authenticity.”

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