Biographies: George Cayley (England, 1773-1857)

Figure 1.--Here is one illustrator's concept of Cayley's glider. I'm not sure who the illustrator was or how accurately it depicts Cayley's actual glider.

The facts are simple enough. Sir George Cayley was born in Scarborough, Yorkshire in 1773. Apart from a few years in London he lived most of his life in nearby Brompton Hall. He was an inventor and worked on the problems of flight. He did pioneering work on gliders and used a boy on his estate to test them. He died in 1857. A closer investigation revealed a very talented person who had an unusual childhood. It is Cayley’s boyhood that will be of interest to HBC readers. For George Cayley boyhood and life there is truth in the idea that behind every great man is a woman. Sir George Cayley is included in the International Aerospace Hall of Fame at San Diego, California, U.S.A

Cayley Family

The Cayleys were an important Yorkshire family, although we do not yet have much information about them. Sir George Cayley discussed here is perhaps the most notable family member. Another notable Cayley was English mathematcian, Arthur Cayley, of Cambridge University. One Cayley, Hugh Cayley, was the subject of a lovely portrait by Sir John Everett Millais. I'm not sure of the family relationships.


Mrs. Isabella Cayley was George Cayley’s mother. She was descended from the Seftons of Parbroath. She was a well educated and an artistic woman. She did not follow the social conventions of the times. Sir Thomas Cayley 5th Baron of Brompton was George Cayley’s father. His biographers say that his father suffered from asthma and was in ill health for most of his life. He spent much time abroad.


They had six children, four girls and two boys who were brought up more by their mother than their father. She had much influenced over them.

Mother's Influence

His mother was very progressive. She did not object to her son’s inquisitiveness. She soon realised that her son was exceptional. She took it upon her self to make sure that George had every opportunity to develop his talents. She saw that George had a natural ability to draw.


The facts are simple enough. Sir George Cayley was born in Scarborough, Yorkshire in 1773. Apart from a few years in London he lived most of his life in nearby Brompton Hall. Cayley’s biography was featured in Look and Read,’ a British children’s magazine. It was part of a series of stories featuring forgotten discoverers. A closer investigation revealed a very talented person who had an unusual childhood. It is Cayley’s boyhood that will be of interest to HBC readers. For George Cayley boyhood and life there is truth in the idea that behind every great man is a woman. In his case it was his mother who had a great influence upon his childhood life. She encouraged him in all that he did. She allowed him much more freedom than was allowed children from privileged backgrounds in the 18th century.

Inquisitive Nature

He was interested in plants and nature study. He was interested in the wild animals which lived on the estate. Isabella Cayley did not let the social traditions get in the way of George’s education. He was developing an interest in engineering and had made a friend of the village watchmaker. George visited him regularly to watch him make and repair clocks. George’s mother did not stop this friendship despite it being against the social customs of the times. In 1788 a child from an aristocratic background was not allowed to make friends with trade people. George’s mother far from objecting encouraged the friendship. His mother encouraged him to keep a journal about his observations. She read it regularly. From his writings she was able to have a clear insight into his mental development and his wide range of interests. It was amusing reading for in one journal she read about George’s discovery of the best recipe for making ‘Ginger Beer.” George wrote that he thought it was the best he had ever tasted. She read his comments on mechanical ideas. He calculated how much power an insect needed to climb a blade of grass.

Interest in Flight

George's mother knew that from age of 10 he had developed a keen interest in flight. Interest in aeronautics This interest came when he read about hot air ballooning pioneers. He was excited by the achievements of the Montgolfier brothers in 1783. George possibly imaged himself as a 10-year-old piloting a flying machine and travelling in it all over England. To further understand the principles of flight he began to watch birds. He made a careful studied how they fly. He observed two ways of animal flight. To gain lift birds flapped their wings or glided. Aeronautics would be a life long interest. His childhood observations would be important to his scientific research into manned flight later in his adulthood. For now George was a boy full of wonder for the world about him. His note-books show his careful observations of birds in flight. One observation reads. “ The downward beat of a crow’s wing – by my stopwatch – 2.647 seconds.”

Childhood Friendship

Gorge enjoyed being in the outdoors and liked to spend hours by the river fishing. He was not a solitary child for he had a best friend. It is unclear how the friendship started. His friend was his cousin who lived about a mile away. They were often together. George liked his cousin because although she was a girl she liked to do the things he did. When they were fishing she could take the fish of the hook without screaming. Many other children had been squeamish doing this fishing task. He was 4 years older than she was. They had been friends from early childhood and it continued into their adult life. He called her ‘Miss Phil,’ a shortened form of her name, which was Miss Philadelphia Cayley. They remained friends throughout their lives.

Childhood Clothes

George was brought up by his mother. His father spent much time overseas because of his poor health. He readily agreed with his wife’s decisions about the up bringing of their son. There is little mentioned in the biographies about the clothes that George wore as a boy. We know that his father spent much time overseas because of his poor health. His mother thus must have choen his clothes. She would have had clothes made for him that followed the fashions of the time. These clothes would have included garments for best wear as well as clothes, which were suitable for the outdoor life George led. As the family was wealthy, George would have has fashionsble clothes. George’s boyhood was towards the end of the 18th Century. According to the Historical Boys' Clothing Website, George was born at a time that the very concept of childhood was developing in Europe. Earlier children past infancy were cnsidered as small adults, but by the the late 19th century the concept of childhood and the special needs of children was becoming accepted. This was relected in the appearance of dedicated children's clothes. Rather than dressing as mall adults, children began wearing specialized children's fashions. The first such garment was the skeleton suit. George may have well worn one or prercursor to the skeleton suit. The skekleton was considered highly fashionable and boys from wealthy families were likely to wear them. The author thinks that it was most likely made from velvet for important occasions and of muslin for ordinary daily wear. It is very likely that George wore this type of clothing. It was suitable for the life he was leading at the time. His mother very likely thought this suitable clothing for it gave the wearer freedom of movement. This idea matched how she was rearing her son for she had given George much greater freedom than the social conventions of the time allowed in many areas of his life. Images from the period suggest that George would have been dressed in the following way. I expect that he wondered around the village and the estate dressed in jacket, white open neck shirt, breeches, stockings and shoes with a buckle on them. His hairstyle would have been short on top with his hair tied into a small ponytail, which was held in place with a small black ribbon tied into a bow. He would have worn a three cornered hat. There would possibly have been occasions when he wore clothes that looked more adult than children’s wear. George was an out door boy. For this reason he would have been dressed in everyday clothes. This would have been suitable attire for his wanderings over the estate. Much of this would have been on foot. I believe that at other times he would have ridden a horse around the estate. He very likely rode in the family carriage when he went on social visits with his parents to other wealthy families.


Schooling George was home schooled up until the time he was 15. It is possible that his cousin also in attendance at these lessons. His mother discussed George’s future education with her husband. He readily agreed with her and was happy to leave these matters in her hands. She believed that it was time for George to go to a boarding school. She found a suitable one in York. The year was 1788. He was not there very long for he contracted a fever which made him very ill. It was thought during the worst moments of his illness that he was going to die. He made a remarkable recover. He returned home and spent a lot of time with his cousin fishing and exploring until he was fully recovered from his sickness. His mother thought that traditional schooling was out of the question for George. She decided that he needed a tutor. She found a suitable tutor in Nottingham. He was he Reverend George Walker. He had a small tutoring school. He took no more than 4 scholars and taught them. They boarded at his home. As it turned out George enjoyed his time there. He made friends with the other students. A similar tutoring school was found in London. He attended Hackney Collage. Here he completed his education and while he was in London his father died and he became the 6th Baron of Brompton.

The Sixth Baron of Brompton

It was while at Hackney Collage that George received sad news that his father had died. This was in 1792. He was only 19. He had inherited a title and his estate. He need not return to his college in London but his mother encouraged him to do so. After a period of mourning he returned to London to finish school which he did the following year in 1793. He was now 20 when he returned to Brompton Hall. His adult life was just beginning. He was secure financially.

Adult Life

Cayley's inheritance had made him a very wealthy man. He was not an idle aristocrat but played an active part in many areas of society. He married and had children. He was a Member of Parliament. He became the chairman of the Polytechnic Institute. He took an interest in the Brompton Estate and was involved in a land reclamation scheme. His mother had encouraged him to develop an interest in nature and science in his childhood. He continued these interests in his adult life and developed further his passion for science and technology. His inventions were wide ranging in science and technology. Caley lived in a very exciting time. He was born just as the Industrial Revolution was beginning in Britain. He became an inventor and worked on the problems of flight.


Through out his life he maintained a deep interest in aeronautics. His theory of flight established the importance of the forces that enable an aeroplane to fly. This interest had begun in childhood and was pursued throughout his life. His note books and diaries record an event that steered him to passionately pursue scientific inquiry in the area of aeronautics. In his 1792 notebook he writes about constructing a helicopter top from feathers and other bits and pieces. When he watched it he had an idea for an airscrew and he thought about an engine to power it. Cayley knew that the engine would have to be light in weight and that the steam engine was not practical for powered flight. Building an engine powerful enough to fly an aeroplane was a scientific investigation that lasted 50 years and may have been partially successful. It is known that he developed an internal combustion engine which was fueled by gun powder! He also worked on developing a lighter engine. This he called an air engine. He realized that the development of a light but powerful engine was needed to make aeronautic headway. Unfortunately he was never able to develop a suitable engine to power a plane. It was not until the 20th century that this problem was solved by the Wright Brothers in America. Cayley was more successful with in developing a theory of flight. His ideas were based on the bird observations he had written about in his childhood. He studied the way the crow and the seagull were able to fly. These observations led him to devise experiments to establish the principles of flight. His wife did not approve of him carrying out experiments inside Brompton Hall. Cayley was a patient man and waited until she was away from home before starting test flight experiments on the stairs. He discovered that thrust and lift would have to be separate features in powered flight. A powerful engine was needed to produce thrust while the wings would give the plane its lift. He was unable to build a suitable engine but he continued his flight experiments by building model gliders. He built them into full size versions. In 1809 he built a glider that could support a person. Unfortunately Sir George could not be the pilot because he was too heavy. His boyhood dream of flying could not be realized. According to Dr. Richard P. Hallion the pilot was a 10-year-old boy. He is the only authority to mention this aspect of the flight. Hallion and other writers say that it was a successful flight because the glider flew for a few yards. Sir George Cayley was encouraged by this success but he was also disheartened because he knew the glider needed an engine. Despite his hard work he had not been able to develop one. He had worked out the principles of powered flight but without a suitable engine progress could not be made. This closed the first stage of his human flight experiments. Some 40 years were to pass before Sir George returned to aeronautics and it is this phase of his work, which has received the most attention. It was the 1840’s and Sir George Cayley was now an elderly man.

Boy Flyer

Books about this period mention the milestones that occurred then. He first flew animals in his gliders and then as in 1809 a boy was given the chance to pilot the craft. The account of this 1849 flight and its boy flyer is briefly mentioned. Most accounts give a more detailed explanation of the 1852 flight in which his coachman flew the glider. The 1849 flight is of more interest than the current literature would have you believe. Sir George called the 1849 glider a boy-carrying machine. Yet, it was sturdy enough to be piloted by a man. Why then did Sir George Cayley choose a child? C. H. Gibbs–Smith believes the boy persistently asked Sir George to be allowed to fly and the child’s wish was granted. The boy’s involvement probably developed when Sir George re-started his aeronautic experiments. He used the servants on his estate. Some of whom had children. A 10-year-old boy intrigued by the stories his father told him about Sir George’s experiments persuaded his father to take him along so that he could help as well. Sir George very likely soon found that the boy was a kindred spirit who showed the same curiosity into things as he had shown in his long ago childhood. Sir George planned to build a glider that could carry a person. He knew that he was too old to be the flier. Here was an eager boy who so impressed him that very likely, he saw in the child his youthful self. He understood the boy’s desire and allowed him to realize his wish and be the test pilot. He went further and for the occasion renamed the ‘Old Flyer’ glider to ‘The Boy–Carrying Machine.’ Unfortunately the name of the boy is not known. Sir George wrote a full account of the event to a colleague called Charles Clark. Cayley’s letter has not survived but Clark’s reply has. He refers to the flight the boy made but does not name him. The 1849 Boy Flight On a spring day in 1849 Miss Phil, whose friendship with Sir George had begun in childhood and continued through their adult lives, came with many other people to Brompton Hall. They went to Brompton Dale. Here there are two small hills, separated by a narrow valley. Sir George knew that this was the best place to launch the glider. The spectators watched the proceedings with growing interest. Some were skeptical that the glider would fly. The illustration shows that the boy pilot was not dressed in special clothes for the flight. He is drawn wearing his ordinary every day clothes. These appear to be white shirt, breaches, socks and buckled shoes. The boy stood with his mother by Sir George Cayley. He was giving last minute instructions to the men and boy rope pullers who would help the glider become airborne. The boy looked at the contraption he was about to fly in. It was the strangest thing he had ever seen. There were three sets of wings connected to a wooden frame. This was fixed to a three-wheeled boat shaped cab. Inside the cab was a seat. Here he would sit so that he could operate the two sets of controls. One was for the rudder and other controlled bird winged shaped flappers. Sir George had taught the boy how to operate them. None-the-less, despite knowing what to do, the boy impatiently listened to Sir George’s final operational instructions. It is easy to imagine the scene as this 10-year-old boy waited, hopping impatiently from one foot to the other, waiting for the order to climb aboard. At long last, after a final briefing and with trepidation the boy scrambled into the car, settled into his seat and feeling scared but excited was ready for take off. There were ropes attached to the cab of the ‘Boy Carrier.’ The men and boys picked these up. The rope pullers trotted forward. The glider’s wheels rolled forward slowly as the ropes grew taught and as the machine bumped along the ground it increased speed as the men raced down the hill as quickly as they could. The boy operated the flapped with all his strength. Then all at one the ‘Boy Carrier’ was air born. It flew over Brompton Dale for several yards. The boy was surely ecstatic as he flew through the air. On looking down he saw the watching crowds cheering the momentous occasion. The men held onto the ropes and the boy operated the controls correctly. The flight seemed to last a lifetime but in reality it was only a few second before the ‘Boy Carrier’ descended to the ground. It was a bumpy but gentle landing. Sir George Cayley rushed towards the glider to congratulate the boy. The boy had climbed out by the time he reached him. The spectators saw Sir George Cayley speak to the boy. They did not know what was said but his beaming smile told them everything. He beamed the sunniest smile because he had achieved his dream of flying like a bird through the sky.


Cayley's grandchildren write about playing on the machines which were stored in a barn on the estate.

Final Years

Cayley died in 1857.

Non-fictional and Fictional Childhoods

Cayley's childhood activities remind me of several characters from English literature. He reminded me of Cedric from Little Lord Fauntleroy because young George Cayley made friends with a shop keeper. I am reminded of Dickin in the Secret Garden who like George had a love of nature. His real life freedom to wonder about the Brompton estate without adult supervision and his liking for ‘ginger beer’ brought to mind the Barnard children and their cousin in 'The Famous Five’ novels.


Gerard Fairlie and Elizabeth Cayley. Life of a Genius: Sir George Cayley Pioneer of Modern Aviation (1965).

Hallion, Richard P. . Pioneers of Flight: Sir George Cayley.

??? Growing Up Sir George Cayley’ s Aeronautics 1796 to 1855 (HMSO London, 1962), pp. 127–134.

"The Boy Carrying Machine (the “old flyer” (1849 ).

"The Flying Coachman " Look and Learn No. 616 (November 3. 1973 ).

"Skeleton Suits" Historical Boys Clothing.

?????. This Web site article contained in Air Force Link: History Features. Picture from Web site: Sir George Cayley’s Man Carrying Glider.

?????. nother web sites dealing with Sir George Cayley.

Sir George Cayley: The Father of Flight BA PHYSICS website.


?????. The web site from which cardboard models of Sir George’s Man carrier glider can be bought and downloaded.

William Ferguson


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Created: 7:13 AM 9/26/2005
Last updated: 2:34 PM 12/8/2007