The following article is a faithful reproduction of one published by the Daily Telegraph online, 21st January 2017
Christopher de Hamel's grandfather may have taken the first ever photo from a manned height - at just 6 years old Credit: Wesley Merritt
I once gave a lecture which involved manuscripts formerly in the library of Lord Middleton. For a change of slide at one point, I showed an early aerial photograph we have at home of Middleton Hall, near Tamworth, and I remarked conversationally that this picture had been taken in the 1890s by my grandfather, then aged six, tied to a kite.
Afterwards people told me that this was not believable and they expressed outrage that a child could ever have been sent up on such a mission. With a little enquiry I found that the photograph had been reproduced in a book about the atmosphere published in 1897, simply describing it as having been recently taken from a kite flown at 400ft above the ground. I wrote to my father, then still alive, to ask for confirmation of the family legend.
The story is that the improbably-named Egbert de Hamel (1844-1925), my great-grandfather, had the tenancy at Middleton. He was a keen amateur photographer. Through membership of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, he came into the acquaintance of Baden Baden-Powell (1860-1937), younger brother of the scouting pioneer. Captain Powell, as he was at the time, had served with the camel regiment of the Scots Guards in Egypt and the Sudan. He had been experimenting with the use of kites for military aerial reconnaissance, to be safer and less visible to an enemy than gas-filled balloons, which were then the only possible alternative.
Christopher de Hamel on Channel 4's Sunday Brunch Credit: Rex/Shutterstock/Channel 4
In 1895 Powell brought his prototype across to the Middleton estate for trials. It was called the “Levitor”. It was a vast hexagonal leaf-shaped webbed kite with a basket attached beneath, into which the photographer was to insert himself. In the event, the contraption was found to be unable to lift a man off the ground, for it already weighed over 100 lbs and the camera was heavy.
At first my great-aunt Kathleen, then aged 10, was delegated for the task, but she also proved too large, an affront she was never allowed to forget (I knew her too). Finally, little Alex de Hamel, a small child with a slight stammer, who had been watching from the sideline, was instructed to climb aboard.
The practical difficulty, as recalled in later life by Kathleen, was getting up enough speed to lift the kite. The rope was attached to a carthorse, which was goaded to trot briskly across the park, but, as the wind caught the kite, the horse too was for a moment quite unexpectedly dragged up backwards into the air. As reported, this sight alarmed my great-grandmother watching from the house far more than any danger to her own son clinging beneath the kite. Two more horses were attached and then the Middleton farm dray, to provide weight, and the team again set forth and the kite and its juvenile passenger finally rose unsteadily over Middleton Hall, to applause from the bystanders.
Ghostly image: Alex de Hamel’s photograph of Middleton Hall from 400ft up
To judge from the photograph (above), the estimated height of at least 400ft is credible; it actually looks higher. My grandfather, as he recounted later, was more frightened of dropping his father’s camera than of falling himself. It was presumably a glass plate camera, and he would have had to lift the cover from the lens when he judged that the view below was appropriately positioned.
The earliest aerial photographs from balloons were made in the late 1850s. Pictures taken from kites were originally pioneered in 1888 by Arthur Batut in France but they had made use of cameras with shutters triggered by slow-burning fuses. We were always told in the family that the ghostly image of Middleton Hall and its outbuildings from far above in 1895 was the first aerial photograph taken by any person who had actually been flown with the kite itself. Pictures from aeroplanes were not attempted until 1909.
Christopher de Hamel is a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. His latest book, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, is published by Allen Lane. To order your copy, visit books.telegraph.co.uk