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Mrs Letitia Sage - actress.
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birdsedge wrote in little_details

On 29th June 1785 British actress Mrs Letitia Ann Sage  became the first female aerialist, carried aloft in  Lunardi's hydrogen balloon from St George's Fields, London along with Mr George Biggin. The gondola was draped in swags, but the gate had a neat arrangement of lacing so that the watchers on the ground could see the people up in the air.

Mrs Sage was described as Junoesque, and  apparently weighed in at over 200 pounds. On the day she wore a very low cut silk dress, apparently to aid 'wind resistance'. (You can just picture it can't you?). Her fellow passenger was the dashing George Biggin, a young and wealthy Old Etonian.

Unfortunately the balloon was overloaded. (Afterwards Mrs Sage blamed herself because she hadn't told Lunardi her weight and he'd been too polite to ask). Lunardi seemed to have no qualms about stepping out and letting the apparently inexperienced Mr Biggin take to the air with Mrs Sage. Unfortunately in his haste to depart, Lunardi failed to do up the lacings of the gondola door. As the balloon sailed away over Picadilly The beautiful Mrs Sage was on all fours re-threading the lacings to close the door. Apparently the crowd assumed she had fainted pr possibly something far more exciting was going on between her and Mr Biggin.

The flight followed the line of the Thames westwards finally landing heavily in Harrow on the Hill where the balloon damaged a hedge and gouged a strip through the middle of an uncut hayfield, leaving the farmer ranting abuse and threats. The honour of the first female aeronaut was saved by the young gentlemen/boys of Harrow school who had a whip-round to pay off the farmer and then carried Mrs Sage bodily, in triumph, to the local pub.

I got the gist of all this from an item on a BBC Radio4 programme last year and made hurried notes, thinking to use it for a short story sometime. I've done some googling since and found out plenty about Lunardi and his balloon flights, including the fateful voyage of Mrs Sage and Mr Biggin, but I can find very little about Mrs Sage, herself, even though the radio item mentioned that she'd left a vivid account.

I've even looked her up on the 1871, 1881 and 1891 census return but the only Letitia Sages were too young or in the wrong place entirely and married to a blacksmith. Letitia could have been her stage name, of course.

Googling 'Mrs Sage actress' gets me a later (American) one who apparently had her servant slam the door in Andrew Carnegie's face. Googling 'Letitia Ann Sage' just gets me a lot of varied accounts of the balloon incident and a very brief entry that indicates she might at one time have been a humble theatre dresser. Wikipedia's British Stage Actors doesn't list her at all.

I would, however, like to find some information about the lady herself, what theatres she might have played at and what roles she might have taken. I've got some general theatre background for that period and can fudge it if necessary, but I'd like to know how old she was at the time of the balloon ride and what recent productions she might have had some success in (at which theatres).

Any help appreciated.

Try spelling it "Laetitia"; you might get more helpful hits?

Thanks for the tip. Good idea, but Letitia is the only way it's spelled in any of the references in the successful Lunardi googles I've undertaken. 'Laetitia' just gets me mostly the same references as Letitia, though there is one addition and that's an illustration from 'Histoire des ballons et des aeronautes celebres: 1783-1800' (History of balloons and famous aeronauts), by Gaston Tisandier (1843-1899), published in 1887 - over a century after the flight. The painting must be idealised because she certainly doesn't look 200 pounds. It's also difficult to tell her age. (And the illustration has no date on it, so how genuine is it?)

I'm not entirely sure why you'd look her up on the census 90 years after the ascent? The first census was in 1801, I believe, which would be a lot closer, although I rather suspect that you'd be hard pressed to find any data from it.

I can;t help with much information about Letitia - like you I drew a blank. But there's a contemporary painting of the ascent, did you know? See here: A much clearer B&W version here suggests Letitia wasn't that old, but she doesn't look 200lbs either, so it may be more flattering than accurate :

Sorry not to be of more help.

Ooh, ouch I had a blind spot on centuries for a moment. Yes, you're completely right about the censuses - though the first one to show names was 1841. I think the 1801 census was just statistics.

Thanks for the link to the lithographs.

The Times 15th May 1785 describes her as fitter to Mrs Ward of Drury Lane Theatre and as a lady of considerable magnitude.

magnitude here meaning size? i'm just curious.

Interesting. From the several of the Lunardi accounts it seems as though the reson Mrs Sage had been invited to fly was because she was an actress of some repute - but yes I also found a refernce to a Letitia Ann Sage as a dresser.

Unfortunately the Times doesn't go back beyond 1785, but other than her balloon trip there are no other mentions of her. And there are plenty of classified ads for plays at the major theatres which list the cast appearing.

Thanks for that. The only access to Te Times archives seems to be by subscription so I was stuck.

If you're in England (don't know the situation in Scotland) you can probably access through you County Library Service, that's how I do it.

On the library website, mine is Warwickshire, you can find the websites they are subscribed to. Some you can only access on library computers, others from home. All you need is your library card number and possibly a PIN from the library.

I find the Times archive and the OED invaluable.

Thanks. I'll check out Kirklees. I know that the family history websites they are subscribed to can only be accessed from the library computers (which have to be booked in advance at our local branch).

Hmmm... I just tried that. Kirklees does now have some online subscriptions which can be accessed from home by library members. Dictionary of National Biography being one of them. Unfortunately my library card number doesn't seem to work as it should. I need to make a trip to the local branch.

If you're near a county boundary it might be worth your while joining there as well, different libraries, different subscriptions. I'm a member of Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Birmingham and Walsall so that I can get at their various stock.

That's a thought, thanks. I'm not too far from Barnsley (where I used to work many years ago as their children's librarian), but sadly their website doesn't indicate that there's any access to online subscriptions for members.

I found a brief mention in Powder puff derby: petticoat pilots and flying flappers by Mike Walker that " account from the fair hand of Letitia Sage herself, opining that while aloft, she had been 'better pleased than I ever was with any former event in my life.'"

Man in the clouds: the story of Vincenzo Lunardi‎ by Leslie Gardiner describes Letitia as an understudy to Sarah Siddons. Siddons was a well-known actress and a favorite of the Royal Family. Around 1784/5 she was known for playing Zara in Mourning Bride and Constance in King John and had toured Edinburgh and Dublin; Sage presumably accompanied her.

Any idea if that account of Mrs Sage's is published in full anywhere - preferably on the net as this is a story I need to get a move on with. I intend to take it to the Milford week on 24th October and tradition has it that participants circulate stories in advance by email. ( (And in between now and then I have a trip to Canada for a music conference.)

Oops. Last minute as usual.

maybe try this?
a little early for them, but worth checking if you can't get much here?
which i doubt. this community rocks.

this is how it works: you email the address with a description of your question. then you get emails back.

Thanks I'll file that info away for later. Agreed this community rocks. I've answeres several queries but this is the first time I've made one. The response is very encouraging.

Any chance the British Balloon and Airship Club could be of some assistance?

Edited at 2009-10-02 10:45 pm (UTC)

They don't seem to have historical information on their website, but I've bookmarked it for later checking, thanks.

What about emailing them directly?

It's a bit of a long-shot. I'd expect their interest to be in the ballooning aspects of the event not in biographical details, but if all else fails I'll try it.

Science and Society has additional pics as does The Museum of London.

But, she isn't on the 1841 census under that name and I think you'd have to go beyond internet research to find her published account - obviously no one has digitised it yet. The British Library is bound to have a copy and contemporary newspapers will also cover it.

I'd also contact the British Balloon Museum, the Science Museum and Cranfield University Library who hold a special collection.

Edited at 2009-10-03 01:13 am (UTC)

Mrs Sage's account was self-published, but apparently rather popular, since it went into two editions. Here's the catalogue information from the British Library and it is available online here but only if you have a password for the National Library of Australia.

Many thanks. I don't have a password, but I know someone who might.

The Internet Archive has the following two accounts (both apparently taken from scanned old magazines, so words are corrupt):

the mistake made by Tissandier in his admirable His-
toire lies Ballons, 1890, in recording the ascent of tilt-
"three favourite aerial travellers,"is hardly pardonable,
seeing that Mrs. Sage, in a "Letter to a Friend," 1 7S5,
described the whole affair. Collectors who are fortunate
enough to ac-
quire a copy of
the first edition
of this enter-
t a i n i ng ac-
count, by the
"first English
Female Aerial
T r a v e 1 1 e r,"
should endea-
vour also to
secure an im-
pression of the
stipple portrait
of Mrs. Sage, by
Burke, pub-
lished at the
same time.

The Connoisseur An Illustrated Magazine For Collectors Edited by C. Reginald Grundy Vol. LVII. (MAY AUGUST. 1920)

And this (such a bad scan! but sounds worth pursuing?)

hv.i subterraneous tube 25 feet long. About 1 o'clock
Mi Lunardi, accompanied b\ his British friends, a
1 tnd a Lady, seated in a beautiful
magnificent car. will be carried round the artillery
ground in London if the wind is not too violent and

In anticipation, perhaps, of an "over-powerful"
wind, "very safe seats" wen advei ised at 2s. 6d.,
"the best seats, 3s. 6d." The "British lady" who
was tn accompany Lunardi was the beautiful Mr--.
Robinson), sister to Mrs. Ward, the actress
ol Drury Lane Theatre. Her husband was a ha
dasher of Cheapside. She appeared at Covent
[en in " Lady Macbeth," but was not a suo essful
ai tress.

( )n May 1 2th it was found that Lunardi's balloon
was not sufficiently buoyant to lift three people, so,
as usual, the lady was left behind. On the 29th,
irr, in the same year (1785), she accompanied
Lunardi and Beggin from the Royal George Rotunda,
mar the Obelisk in St. George's Fields. Whether
Mrs. Sage was the first aerial traveller in England

oi Miss Sil let, who declared she ascended in

Blanchard's balloon on May 4th from Langhorn's
Repository, Barbican, is a disputed point. At any
rate, these two ladies were the first two to ascend
i ngland, and their quarrels for precedence make
amusing reading in the old chronicles. For some
time alter the descent Mrs. Sage was on view at
the Pantheon, together with the balloon, and would
answer questions relative to the excursion. A band
ol musii was provided, and "a cold supper with all
sorts oi wines." A ball took place later.

Mrs. Sage continued to make capital out ol the
nture, and, to give occa ion lor further para-
graphing, she soon suffered From a contused loot,
"an injun received when quitting the balloon at
Ham However, sin- was prevailed upon to

at constantly at the Pantheon (admittance 5s.),
and later, when interest waned, hei letter containing
an account of the excursion was printed and sold
lor is. Later a print to correspond with that ol
rdi, b) Bartolozzi, was sold foi 2S. '"1. To add
tcitement ol the entertainment, the balloon
as high as the di ime oi ih< building per-
in :he . ar a party ol ladies daily.
"ii impaniei 1 1 in a li mr-

llil h Is 111 ihe possession

not be ci >n-
Bartoloz/i In mi the
. (] I ' Is one ol die :
cin 'i ol
an extract from 1
;, I .unardi
i ' li n. Miss
i him, bui
her seat ow mi; to the balloon not having power to
raise both.
The Connoisseur An Illustrated Magazine For Collectors

Other than that... there were a lot of prints and ballooning descriptions:

prints (Museum of London commemorative print 1785)

'Mr Lunardi's New Balloon', 29 June 1785. Watercolour sketch by I Cordy, a spectator, showing Lunardi's second balloon carrying George Biggin and Mrs Sage away from the Royal George Rotunda in St George's Fields, London.

Lovely portrait of Madame Letitia Anne Sage

name variants: 'Madame Sage', 'Leticia Ann', 'Letitia Anne'
Wonderful Balloon Ascents, by Fulgence Marion (Lunardy and Madame Sage)

possible print sources:
Histoire de l'Aeronautique. History of Aeronautics in GB. Romance of Ballooning. Icare 105. The story of Vincenzo Lunardi. Five aerial voyages

reference to her weight (I think: my Portuguese is really bad!)
A primeira mulher que subiu abordo de um balão foi a Senhora Thible em 4 de julho de 1784 um observador disse que demonstrou mais coragem que seu companheiro o pintor apelidado de Fleurant.
A senhora Letitia Sage foi a primeira dama que voou de balão em 29 de junho de 1785 diz-se que era uma dama belíssima mas seus 90 kg impediram que o vôo fosse efetuado com três a bordo e o galante Vicenzo Lunardi cedeu seu lugar para os companheiros Miss Sage e George Biggin (

Not what you're looking for, but this is a good description of the balloon flight

Thanks for all that. I'd found the portrait of Mrs Sage. but the account of her living off the 'glory' of it is quite interesting and adds a little more. Sadly my Portugese completely absent but having read the account many times I can recognise parallels wuith English versions. Many thanks.

Sage seems to have been the name of several haberdashers in Cheapside, such as Sage, Rawdon, & Atkinson Wholesale Linen-drapers at 19 Cheapside Street (Kent's Directory for the Year 1794. Cities of London and Westminster, & Borough of Southwark.)

Her A Letter Addressed to a Female Friend isn't online AFAIK. There's a copy
in the National Library of Australia....

Edited at 2009-10-03 10:54 pm (UTC)

Re Sage's status: it makes sense that an understudy would also be a dresser - no 18th-century theatre could afford to employ an understudy to sit around and do nothing unless a star fell ill. But it makes sense that she would hope to become a full-time actress and a star eventually, and describe herself as such. (I bet they do today.)

A balloon ascent was a very dangerous stunt, so why would an established actress risk it? It makes sense that the person Lunardi recruited for it would be a wannabe desperate for the chance of fame - but also that in his PR material he would describe her as an actress. No publicist describes the people in his stunts as "young wannabe" or "old has-been" - they're always sparkling celebs.

True. Doing it for the publicity probably worked well for her financially - with the exhibitions and the pamphlets probably making her some money. It looks like the acting career never really 'got off the ground' though.

Mrs. Sage


2010-08-29 01:30 am (UTC)

Richard Holmes, author of "The Age of Wonder" has a section of his book dedicated to the early balloonists, i.e. Pilatre, Montgolfier and Lunardi's balloon exploits. The book is well researched and relates Mrs. Sage's ascent with Mr. Biggins. I suspect that if you contact him, he might be able to provide resource material for you. He lives in England. Vintage Books, a division of Random House, published this work and it was on the New York Times Best Seller List. Random House is headquartered in NYC. Hope this proves helpful.

Letitia Sage


2011-02-08 10:39 pm (UTC)

Have you asked the V and A museum in London. They have a FANTASTIC collection of old theatre posters....


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