The Georgian Mile High Club, or Love in a Balloon

Who started the Mile High Club? Maybe you think that this is a twentieth century idea. Until recently, so did I. Aeroplanes were invented in the early twentieth century and quite soon after they were invented somebody came up with the idea of the Mile High Club. Sex in the stratosphere sounded like an original idea for adventurous people and so much more exciting than just a hotel bedroom. Of course that was before seat belts were made compulsory.

But it seems the Mile High Club was invented in Georgian times by the 4th Earl of Cholmondeley (pronounced Chum-ley) one of the most notorious rakes and libertines of Elizabeth Craven's time. She undoubtedly knew him - she mentioned him in her Memoirs - and he mixed in the circles of the supreme rake, Georgie-Porgie the Prince of Wales.

Elizabeth Craven knew Lord Cholmondeley from her girlhood, when he was one of the eligible young men who were invited to her home to meet her and her elder sister, Georgiana, along with Lords Tyrconnel and Egremont. She tells us that from time to time they would become rather "boisterous" which is easy to believe, in the light of their later careers.

Good-looking, clever and immensely wealthy, the young Lord Cholmondeley became notorious for womanizing and at one time was the lover of one of the most remarkable - and talked-about -  women of the era, Grace Dalrymple Elliott, courtesan, secret agent and author of Memoirs of her own. She figured largely in the gossip columns of the 1780s along with Mary Robinson, mistress of the Prince of Wales.

Grace Dalrymple Elliott by Gainsborough.

In the 1780s, the invention of the hot-air balloon was the latest craze, and pioneers such as the English James Sadler and the French Montgolfier brothers were causing a sensation with their public demonstrations of the amazing flying machine. In her Memoirs, Elizabeth Craven describes watching a hot-air balloon flight by the French pioneer Jean-Pierre Blanchard. She was very eager to meet the daring aeronaut and women found the new heroes rather glamorous, a fact that satirists seized on.

The idea that balloon flights were sexy is reflected in many contemporary cartoons, some of them extremely ribald.

In this cartoon from The Rambler's Magazine 1784, the aeronaut is saying to his lady passenger, "Madam, it rises majestically," and she is replying, "I feel it does, Signor!"

The same periodical reports earlier in the year, "Last week at Brookes Club, Lord Ch------y offered to bet five thousand guineas that he would ascend with Mrs E---t in an Air Balloon, to the height of six thousand feet, and perform in the aerial regions, the usual Ceremonial rites paid at the shrine of the laughter-loving queen [ i.e. Venus].  The Earl of D---- and several others accepted of the wager, thinking the experiment impracticable." It was an enormous amount to bet, and we don't know who won  - we don't even know what Grace Eliot thought about it - but Lord Cholmondeley certainly deserves credit as the founder of the Mile High Club.

How well did Elizabeth Craven know Lord Cholmondeley? They mixed in the same circles in London in her youth in the 1770s, and they seem to have renewed their acquaintance in later life. By 1809 Elizabeth was living in Hammersmith, in Brandenburgh House overlooking the Thames, not far from where she had once had her little hideaway, Craven Cottage. Lord Cholmondeley agreed that it was a very pleasant spot, so much so that he built a house for himself very close by. Elizabeth wrote in a letter of February 16th 1809 that a "very particular friend of hers, a man of great rank" wanted to buy a plot of land adjacent to hers, so that he could have a view over the Thames. In a second letter dated August 20th 1809, she says that she is still talking to neighbours to try to clinch a deal on behalf of her friend, "Lord Cholm" who is "begging and praying most devoutly to be near me, and his feet in the Thames."  [1]

Was it just "location, location, location" that was his main motive, or was he keen to renew old acquaintance and perhaps rekindle an old flame? Hard to tell, but certainly in 1809-1810 the Earl (who was now a Marquess) did build a pleasure house near this spot on the south side of the river. It was called Rosebank Villa and it was reckoned to be "once perhaps the most delightful of the old riverside homes of Fulham". [2]

To find out more about Elizabeth Craven and her circle, read
Elizabeth Craven: Writer, Feminist and European

Now available in paperback.

[1] Margravine of Anspach to Rev, Mr Cotton, February 16th 1809 and August 20th 1809,
Autograph Letters and Historical Documents formed by Alfred Morrison, second Series, volume 1,
page 60.



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