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Balloon Accident at Bridport 1881
At the 1868 general election Walter Powell was elected Member of Parliament for Malmesbury, Wiltshire. He held the seat until his disappearance and presumed death from a balloon accident at the age of 39 in 1881. 
The Meteorological Society had borrowed a balloon called Saladin from the War Office. On 10 December 1881, Powell accompanied Captain Templer and Mr. A. Agg-Gardner, brother of James Agg-Gardner MP, in an ascent at Bath, Somerset. The balloon was carried over Somerset to Exeter and then into Dorset. The crew tried to descend near Eype Mouth, Bridport, Dorset (at approximate co ordinates 39.72°N 2.78°W) but the balloon hit the ground so hard that Templer was thrown out. As a result, the balloon rose again; Agg-Gardner fell out from a height of about eight feet and broke his leg, and Powell, remaining in the basket of the balloon, was swept out to sea to the south east. Templer, who had still hold of the line, shouted to Powell to climb down the line. Powell made a move for the rope but the balloon rose, tearing the line out of Templer's hands. Powell was last seen waving his hand to Captain Templer and nothing more was heard of him. 
Powell was declared "missing", with a presumed date of death of December 13, 1881, although no trace of him or the wreckage of the Hydrogen Balloon "Saladin" was ever found. This incident may have been the earliest known and/or reported fatal ballooning accident in the UK
Powell and Templer in the Saladin Balloon
16th December 1881 Western Gazette

On December 10, 1881 in what must have been one of the earliest fatal air accidents in Dorset, the balloon ‘Saladin’ crashed into a field at Eypesmouth. The 1882 Edition of the Annual Register,which was a review of public events at home and abroad for the year 1881 reported the event as follows.
“The Government balloon ‘Saladin’, of Woolwich, in charge of Captain James Templer, R.E., Mr. Walter Powell, M.P. for Malmesbury, and Mr. Gardner, left Bath about midday, and, crossing over Somerset to Exeter, proceeded thence to the neighbourhood of Bridport, Dorset. The aeronauts continued their course till near Eypesmouth, which is about one mile west of Bridport, and within half a mile of the sea, when, finding they were rapidly drifting seaward, they attempted to descend. The balloon came down with great rapidity, and striking the ground with great violence, Mr. Gardner and Captain Templer were both thrown out of the car, the former sustaining a fracture of the leg, and the latter being cut and bruised. Mr. Powell remained in the car, and the balloon instantly rose with him to a great height and went rapidly out to sea. A steamer from Weymouth and boats from Bridport, as well as the lifeboat from Lyme Regis, were sent in pursuit, but they returned from their search without meeting with success. The French and Spanish authorities gave instructions to their agents and officers to look out for the ‘Saladin’, but notwithstanding a long and careful search, in the course of which many hopes were raised, no tidings were obtained of Mr. Powell, who was supposed to have been drowned.”
On Wednesday, January 24, 1883 the New York Times carried a story that the remains of the balloonhad been found in the mountains of Sierra del Phedroza, Spain.  There was however no sign of the body of Walter Powell.

James Templer (balloon aviator)

 

The accident to the Saladin near Bridport as seen by the only eye-witness, The balloon accident, Dorsetshire, England, United Kingdom, illustration from the magazine The Graphic, volume XXIV, no 630, December 24, 1881.

 A gas filled War Office balloon named “Saladin” had taken off from Bath at 2 pm to research the weather, measuring cloud temperature and humidity for the Meteorological Society.  It was 60 feet long and 30 feet wide. The crew consisted of Captain James Templer and crewman Agg Gardner, with a guest, Walter Powell, MP for Malmesbury, Wiltshire. Powell was described as “dashing and daring” and boasted of becoming “an aeronautic adventurer”. The balloon had drifted south over Glastonbury, Crewkerne, passing over Beaminster at 4 pm,  but clouds prevented course checking, until they were able to see Lyme Bay and realised the danger of going over the Channel. The crew tried to bring the balloon down but brushed the ground at Eype’s Mouth and the two crew members were thrown out, together with some ballast, as the basket bounced. Templer was bruised, but Gardner was caught in a rope and dragged along the ground for 80 feet, breaking his leg. Meantime Walter Powell continued upwards in the basket, floating out over the English Channel and was not seen again. Wreckage was found in January 1882 on mountains in Spain, but with no trace of human remains. Some suggestions that Powell had bailed out over the sea because he was in debt, proved to be untrue. He is commemorated by the name of the Walter Powell Primary School at Great Somerfield and the Saladin public house in nearby Little Somerfield in Wiltshire. For some time a cottage at Eype’s Mouth was named “Balloon Cottage”, with a name plaque, since changed.
One excitement occurred in 1881, when a pioneering balloon flight took off from Bath and headed south-south-west. The four men on board noted with some alarm that the English Channel was coming closer and descended to land at Eype Mouth. Three of them leapt out successfully, one of them breaking his leg, but the balloon, relieved of the weight, soared up again with its one remaining unfortunate passenger, Walter Powell, the MP for Malmesbury. Last seen heading for the Continent at a great rate, the balloon was found some years later in the Pyrenees, but of Mr Powell no trace was ever discovered. The event was commemorated in four houses built soon after and named Balloon Cottages; they have today all been knocked down or re-named.

English meteorology may seem rather tame, but it can be hazardous, as shown by a balloon expedition by the Meteorological Council in December 1881.

The expedition, in a balloon called Saladin, was to examine the conditions that had produced “a very peculiar fog”, thick enough to delay the trains in London.

Three men were involved: Captain Templer from the Royal Middlesex Rifles, a Mr Agg-Gardener, and the Conservative MP and aeronaut Walter Powell, who piloted the balloon. The plan was to take temperature readings at different altitudes.

They may have been looking for evidence of a temperature inversion, in which cold air is trapped below warmer air, now known to be associated with smog formation.

The balloon lifted off from Bath and was blown along at over 30mph. Visibility was poor and, realising that they were approaching the sea, Templer ordered a descent. The balloon crash-landed near Bridport.

Templer and Agg-Gardener were thrown out, the latter breaking his leg. The balloon, lightened by the reduced load, rose again. Templer held on to a line and shouted to Powell to jump. The line was torn out of Templer’s grip, lacerating his hands.

The balloon continued to rise as it blew away. Templer speculated that Powell was ditching ballast, hoping to make it clear across the Channel. The balloon was soon lost to sight.

Two weeks later, fragments of the balloon were found in Asturias in Spain. There was no sign of Powell, apparently lost in the cause of meteorology.

Crowds gather in Cross Hayes, Malmesbury, for the original Eclipse flight which took place in 1881.The picture shows the balloon Eclipse about to take off from the Cross Hayes Malmesbury (little changed since save cars now rather than people). The local gas company laid a special pipe to provide the gas. Rumour has it that so much gas was needed that the rest of the town had to do without.

30th April 2017
EXCITEMENT is building in Malmesbury as the town gears up to recreate an historic hot air balloon flight in three weeks.

Explorer Sir David Hempleman-Adams and James Gray, MP for North Wiltshire, will take to the skies on Sunday, May 21 to replicate the famous Eclipse Flight of 1881.

The original flight, which took place 136 years ago, saw Walter Powell, the Victorian explorer and Malmesbury MP, launch from what is now Cross Hayes car park in the centre of town.

Walter Powell had a great passion for ballooning and the whole town turned out to see him off, however, on a separate flight a few months later, both MP and balloon were lost over the English Channel and never seen again. 
The present day flight will lift off from exactly the same spot with activities beginning at 4.30pm ahead of the launch at 6.30pm.

Celebrations begin on Friday, May 19 with a lecture by Sir David Hempleman-Adams and James Gray at Malmesbury Town Hall before an activity day on the Saturday.

Tickets for both events are available from the Athelstan Museum.

Angela Sykes, event organiser, said: “Every penny raised from this incredible event will go towards the restoration of the Moravian Church. 

“What has been an eyesore in the town for two decades will soon become a great space for the community and the expanding work of the museum. 

For more information go to malmesburyeclipseflight.co.uk

 

First, a snippet of biography. Walter Powell was the youngest son of a tough and ruthless Welsh mine owner (a tautology, I know) who ran his pits for profit first and safety very much last, emerging during the 1840s as the largest coal exporter in the world. Having driven through a 20% cut in wages and broken the resultant strike, Thomas Powell's mines were plagued by accidents, culminating in two major explosions at Dyffryn, in Aberdare, and the deaths of more than 80 men. According to Walter Powell's biographer, the Dyffryn disasters belatedly shamed Thomas senior into repentence for his past behaviour, and inculcated in Walter Powell a determination to use his own inherited wealth more for the public good.

In the late 1860s, Powell moved to Wiltshire, where in 1868 he was selected as Conservative parliamentary candidate for the market town of Malmesbury. Powell won the seat in the subsequent election with a narrow majority of 23, which most likely says something positive about his personality and character, as well as his wealth; the election was a Liberal triumph, and Malmesbury had been a solidly Liberal seat since the 1830s, so Powell's victory was achieved very much against the prevailing political winds of the day. The evidence suggests he was a good MP and a benefactor to the town; he earned the soubriquet "the poor man's friend," and among his achievements was the endowment of a Ragged School there and the supply of 50 tons of coal each winter to Malmesbury's "aged poor". More pertinently, from our perspective, Powell was also an enthusiast for all sorts of new inventions. He acquired a magic lantern at around the time just such a contraption was suspected of being used to create the apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Knock, in Ireland, and in 1880, after the death of his wife, he took up ballooning and became very keen on aeronautics.

Ballooning in those days was a preserve of the wealthy. The balloons themselves were hand-made to order, from "good Lyons silk" (Powell's own apparently in the nearby village of Little Somerford), and filled either with hot air or, in the case of more advanced types, hydrogen gas. They were, of course, dependent on the wind and impossible to steer, making fine judgement of course, distance and the likelihood of being blown off course and out to sea important qualities for aeronauts – particularly those living in a small island kingdom such as Britain. Powell seems to have been trained as a balloonist by the noted Crystal Palace company, and received some personal tuition from the celebrated aeronaut Henry Coxwell, with whom he made a number of flights. Coxwell liked Powell but seems to have found him rather too daring, writing:

I never had a companion who so thoroughly enjoyed himself. It was with extreme regret that I recommended Mr Powell to pass into other hands. He was rather too enterprising and fresh for an aeronaut at my time of life. He had superabundant pluck and his was the type of chivalry which needed checking if possible.

Coming from Coxwell, this was quite a statement, since Powell's teacher had been the pilot involved in a ridiculously dangerous assault on the world altitude record a few years earlier – an effort that ended, as I recall pretty vividly from a book on daring aerial adventures that I devoured as a kid, with the balloon ascending into the stratosphere past 35,000 feet, one of its two crewmen (neither of whom was, of course, equipped with oxygen), collapsing, unconscious, and Coxwell himself eventually saving them both by clambering out of the basket while temporarily blinded by lack of air, his hands so frozen they were useless, so as to pull the gas release cord with his teethPowell made numerous flights in his own balloon during 1881, but also assisted fellow aeronauts with theirs. He was a close friend of Captain J.L.B. Templer, a pioneer in military ballooning who ran the War Office's 'Balloon Corps', and he helped him make several ascents to take meteorological readings. On 10 December 1881, Powell, Templar and a third man, named in press reports at the time as "A. Agg-Gardner", travelled to Bath to make a flight in a new military balloon that had been stationed there named Saladin. The Saladin, it may be noted here, utilised not expensive hydrogen but 38,000 cubic feet of "used coal gas," and had an open basket equipped with various scientific instruments. The mysterious Agg-Gardner, meanwhile, was probably a relative of Powell's fellow Conservative MP James Agg-Gardner, of Cheltenham – a man whose chief contribution to political life, in a near-40-year career in parliament, was to serve on the Commons Kitchen Committee and supervise the daily serving of tea on the Commons terrace.

With Templer, Powell and Agg-Gardner on board, the Saladin made a long flight across Somerset and Devon, borne south by the prevailing winds. Conditions, particularly visibility, were poor, and the crew only became aware that they were approaching the English Channel when they heard the roar of the sea. Templer made what must have been a very hurried emergency descent, ripping opening a valve to allow gas to escape and the balloon to touch down. In any event, the landing was uncontrolled and violent; Agg-Gardner and Templer were thrown from the basket, Agg-Gardner broke an arm and a leg, and Powell was left stranded and alone on the by now far lighter craft [The Graphic, 17 December 1881]. Templer's report, made a few weeks later to the Met. Office, sums up the next stage of the disaster as follows:

I retained my hold of the valve line and was dragged along the earth by it for a considerable distance. I tried very hard to get the line between my teeth, and could I have done so, I have no doubt the balloon would have been crippled. I shouted to Mr. Powell to come down the line. At this time he was close to me and about eight feet from the earth. The line was torn from my grasp by a succession of jerks, both my hands being severely lacerated. The balloon then floated along close to the earth for some 300 feet until it reached a fence, which the car grazed as it went by. I had risen to my feet and could see Mr. Powell standing up in the car...  The balloon rose rapidly and Mr Powell waved his hand to me.

Quite why Powell chose to stay on board the Saladin was never clear; it may simply have been fear of injuring himself by jumping. Templer thought that, as an experienced aeronaut, he was hoping to save the balloon by bringing her down on the nearby beach, and even when it became clear that the Saladin could not be brought to earth so soon, he still hoped Powell would succeed in crossing the Channel to France. Most contemporary aeronauts, apparently, believed the lightened Saladin would prove easily capable of such a crossing. In the event, however, neither Powell nor the Saladin was seen again. The helpless MP drifted out over Bridport, heading towards the sea, and there, it was presumed, he came down into the Channel or the Atlantic and drowned.The only firm evidence of the Saladin's progress that could be found at the time was a thermometer, "with a single human hair attached," that was picked up on the beach at Portland [The Graphic, 17 December 1881].It was what happened next that gives the saga of the Saladin its Fortean relevance. Powell was a well-known man; his disappearance was big news, and widely reported as such in the newspapers. The consequence was a flurry of "sightings" of the missing balloon, which flooded in not just from Devon, France and the Channel (there was at least one in the vicinity of Alderney [Western Mail, 17 December 1881]), but from areas much further off – including many where the balloon could not possibly have been. These reports were picked up and read with interest by Charles Fort [Complete Books pp.461-2], who in New Lands devoted a full page to sightings of mysterious "lights in the sky" reported in the days that followed, many of which moved about in a manner quite unlike any balloon:

The extraordinary circumstance is that reports came in upon a luminous object that was seen in the sky at the time that this balloon disappeared. In the London Times, it is said that a luminous object had been seen, evening of the 13th, moving in various directions in the sky near Cherbourg. It is said that upon the night of the 16th three customhouse guards, at Laredo, Spain, had seen something like a balloon in the sky, and had climbed a mountain in order to see it better, but that it had shot out sparks, and had disappeared – and had been reported from Bilbao, Spain, the next day. In the Morning Post, it is said that this luminous display was the chief feature; that it was this sparkling that had made the object visible. In the Standard, December 16, is an account of something that was seen in the sky, five o'clock in the morning of December 15, by Capt. McBain, of the steamship Countess of Aberdeen, off the coast of Scotland, 25 miles from Montrose. Through glasses, the object seemed to be a light attached to something thought to be the car of a balloon, increasing and decreasing in size – a large light – "as large as the light at Girdleness" [a lighthouse]. It moved in a opposite direction to that of the wind, though possibly with wind of an upper stratum. It was visible half an hour, and when it finally disappeared, was moving toward Bervie, a town on the Scottish coast about 12 miles north of Montrose. In the Morning Post it is said that the explanation is simple: that someone in Monfrieth, 8 miles from Dundee, had, late in the evening of the 15th, sent up a fire-balloon, "which had been carried along the coast by a gentle breeze, and, after burning all night, extinguished and collapsed off Montrose, early on Thursday morning (16th)." This story of a balloon that wafted to Montrose, and that was evidently traced until it collapsed near Montrose, does not so simply explain an object that was seen 25 miles from Montrose. In the Standard, December 19, it is said that two bright lights were seen over Dartmouth Harbor, upon the 11th.

If we plot these balloon sightings on a map [below], we can see that those in Spain are more or less in line with the likely route followed by a balloon borne on winds that were moving pretty much directly south – though whether the distance travelled, about 500 miles, is credible is harder to say. It's equally possible to state with some certainty that whatever might have been seen around Montrose, and off the Scottish coast, certainly could not have been the Saladin, and was almost equally unlikely to have been a "fire-balloon" capable of burning for the entire duration of a northern winter night. Whether the Scottish reports were suggested by word of the disappearance of a rogue balloon is harder to say, but news of the Saladin's loss had made the papers by 12 December [Leeds Mercury and many others, 12 December 1881], so it's entirely credible that reports made in Scotland two or three days after that were directly influenced by knowledge of Walter Powell's appalling and evocative predicament. The Countess of Aberdeen's sighting, on the other hand, may have been of something else entirely... something only associated with the Saladin when the ship made port and heard the news.Thus, in any case, the story of the Saladin as reported in 1881... and so far as most later accounts of the tale go, that was that – Powell and his balloon had simply vanished, presumably to end their days somewhere out in the Atlantic. In the course of doing the research for this post, however, I discovered something rather interesting: a much later report, in the New York Times [24 January 1883], of the discovery of what appeared to be the remnants of a large balloon at Sierra del Pedroza, in the Asturias, directly to the west of the two Spanish locations mentioned as sighting spots in 1881. Ballooning was not practised in northern Spain at this time, and the discovery – though originating in a report from Paris, of indeterminate reliability, which mentioned only the recovery of "a few fragments and shreds of cloth" – was immediately assumed to be the Saladin. Of Powell, however, there was no sign.

"The wreck of the balloon discovered in the Spanish mountains," concluded the NYT,settles the dispute as to the strength of that pride of the aeronaut; it undoubtedly  did not pitch into the Channel, but half-inflated with gas, sailed through the air for many days. But while the tattered rags and splintered wood which formed it have been rotting among the peaks of Spain, the bones of the intrepid aeronaut have been whitening beneath the waters of the English Channel.As for Templer, though, there is one interesting postscript. He continued to serve with the Royal Engineers' balloon unit for a further two decades, and in 1899 was posted, with three of his contraptions, to South Africa to serve in the Boer War. British balloons were widely used during the mobile phase of the conflict to keep an eye open for elusive Boer troops, and their appearance there evidently had quite an impact on the Boers themselves, since they soon began making reports of unknown aerial craft over their northern territories in almost precisely the same terms as were to become so familiar a few years later, during the various phantom airship scares of the next decade. These incidents – summarised by Nigel Watson and analysed afresh a while ago in the excellent Airminded blog – plainly had little connection to the actual activities of Templer's units; the Boers feared bombs drops from free-flying balloons (a virtually untested and highly difficult and dangerous proposition at the time), while the Royal Engineer's command consisted solely of securely tethered observation balloons that operated in close conjunction with the main British army [above]. Says Airminded:

The Boers were initially quite worried about the British balloons, for which they had no counter. It was thought they might be used to float over Boer cities to drop bombs. In October 1899 the following telegraph message was sent from (actually, the source says received by, but that makes little sense) the Transvaal headquarters:

Balloons — Yesterday evening two balloons were seen at Irene, proceeding in the direction of Springs. Official telegraphists instructed to inform the Commander in Chief about any objects seen in the sky.

Here’s an example of the sort of response that was received, in this case from Vryheid:

Airship with powerful light plainly visible from here in far off distance towards Dundee. Telegraphist at Paulpietersburg also spied one, and at Amsterdam three in the direction of Zambaansland to the south east.

Shots were fired at these supposed balloons or airships, and Transvaal apparently bought powerful searchlights from Germany to sweep the skies for them (although if that’s true, it must have been done before the outbreak of war, because the British imposed an effective blockade on the Boer republics). The British balloons were nowhere near the Transvaal, so the Boers were seeing what they didn’t want to see, so to speak. But lest it be thought that Tommy Atkins was too sober and rational to be afflicted with such visions, General Buller’s men thought they were being followed by a light which appeared at dusk, which they called the ‘Boer signal’. It was probably Venus.

Now, where have we heard that before?

Additional sources:

Portia Hobbs, Walter Powell MP: Balloonist (Malmesbury: self published, 1985)

Nigel Watson, Phantom Aerial Flaps and Waves (London: Magonia, 1987)

__________, The Scareship Mystery (Corby, Northants: Domra  Publications, 2000)

Powell

Athelstan Museum held a weekend of exciting events to commemorate the 1881 Eclipse balloon flight by Malmesbury’s MP Walter Powell. On Friday evening there was a lecture in The Town Hall when James Gray told the story of Walter Powell and his deadly passion for ballooning. There is a new booklet on sale in the Museum if you would like to know more. World famous explorer Sir David Hempleman-Adams spoke about his own adventurous ballooning escapades and thrilled everyone with descriptions of the hazards and highlights of his exploits. Members of the audience in Victorian dress added to the occasion. On Saturday afternoon there were guided walks around the town illustrating Walter Powell’s lasting influence on Malmesbury. Unfortunately the rain came down but we were assured by one father in the Museum afterwards that his children had enjoyed it none the less.

Sunday afternoon saw The Cross Hayes closed to traffic and the people of Malmesbury coming in their thousands to watch our attempt to re-create Walter Powell’s 1881 Eclipse flight which took off from the Cross Hayes and used up the town’s gas supply in the process. Sir David Hempleman -Adams and James Gray attired in Victorian costume were ready to fly with two passengers also splendid in Victorian outfits. Prizes were presented to local school children who had entered the Art Competition, with prizes kindly donated by MDFAS, the Malmesbury Celebration Band played the original music for Walter Powell’s flight, the original prayer was recited by Sara Crabb, the balloon was inflated and ready to go. Sadly the winds were not in our favour and at the last moment the flight was aborted owing to wind turbulence.

However, disappointing as this was, the event displayed the spirit of the people of Malmesbury who supported The Museum and donated to the Moravian Church Restoration Fund. The atmosphere was wonderful, the sun shone, children made hot air balloons which are hung in the Museum for the week. The sight of the huge blue balloon and the crowds filling the traffic-free Cross Hayes will remain in our memories for many years to come. If you would like to donate to the Moravian Church Restoration Fund go the donation button on the website:

The field adjacent to Maidenhead Road, Clewer and Windsor Racecourse is known as Balloon Meadow due to its links with the earliest days of flight when only ballooning was successful.

According to a report in the Windsor Express of the day, at 9.00pm, on Saturday, 23rd July, 1881, the MP for Malmesbury, Walter Powell, descended in his balloon onto Balloon Meadow, then owned by a Mr Paget. He had been on his way with his servant back to Malmesbury having left Crystal Palace earlier in the afternoon, hoping to reach his destination by nightfall. He was unable to to get further than Clewer and so he stayed the night in Windsor and continued the flight on Sunday morning when a large crowd gathered to watch the preparations for the take-off. When the ascent was accomplished a great cheer went up!

Balloon Meadow used to be the football ground of Windsor and Eton FC before the club moved to Stag Meadow.

Sadly Walter Powell died little more than four months later when his balloon ‘Saladin’ crashed into the sea off the Dorset coast.

Walter Powell - 1842-81

Benefactor, Philanthropist, M.P. and Balloonist.

Walter Powell was born in Newport Wales into a very wealthy family; his father was reported to be the largest coal exporter in the world. In 1867 he rented Dauntsey House, a big country house four miles south east of Malmesbury and lived there with his widowed mother. Within two years he was elected to Parliament as the conservative M.P. for Malmesbury.

In 1870 he presented to the town a reading room in Silver Street (now the King’s Nursery). This was tastefully decorated with a fine collection of Buck and other horns, skins, etc. There were two rooms; ‘the first room was set apart for the use of the upper classes and tradesmen and the inner room was provided for the lower classes.’ No euphemisms then about social position.

He had built a ‘Ragged school in Burnivale’ in 1873. The school numbered about 180 and ‘an excellent female teacher from London is regularly engaged to teach them.’

The quotes are from James Bird a Victorian clergyman who wrote a history of the town.

Walter also gave prizes for the local fatstock show and there is an account of five wagon loads of children being taken for tea at his new house at Eastcourt (two miles nor-nor-west of Malmesbury) They were preceded by the town band. History does not relate how many children to a wagon nor whether they were more trouble than a wagon load of monkeys.

He was among the first subscribers for the Malmesbury railway and paid for gas lighting in the Abbey. The combustion products of the gas, sulphuric and carbonic acids, cannot have done the delicate stone carvings any good! He distributed fifty tons of coal to the elderly poor each winter plus many other charitable acts.

He was a diligent and popular M.P.. In the 1880 election 917 votes were cast (small electorate not apathy) and he received 607 nearly two thirds, but it is as a balloonist that he is remembered.

The picture shows the balloon Eclipse about to take off from the Cross Hayes Malmesbury (little changed since save cars now rather than people). The local gas company laid a special pipe to provide the gas. Rumour has it that so much gas was needed that the rest of the town had to do without.

In December 1881 Walter Powell flew his balloon, Saladin, with two friends to take some meteorological observations. They found themselves being blown out to sea and had to make a rapid descent near Chesil Beach. They landed heavily and his two passengers and some ballast were thrown out; one of them breaking his leg. Powell stayed in the basket but the balloon, now much lighter, took off once more. Water Powell was last seen waving to his companions as the balloon disappeared out to sea.

He was never seen again.

I meant to be researching something else entirely but then I stumbled upon the sad story of Walter Powell, a Welsh gentleman born in 1842 who disappeared in 1881.

Walter Powell, the Tory Member of Parliament for Malmesbury, took up ballooning in 1880 after the death of his wife. He received training and soon had his own balloon made for him. The red and yellow striped silk balloon used hydrogen gas and was designed by his friend, James Templer.

Colonel James Lethbridge Brooke Templer is considered the godfather of the modern Royal Air Force. He pioneered the British military use of balloons and airships. In 1878 Captain Templer started a British Army balloon school in Woolwich, using his own balloon, Crusader. Templer was also the Instructor in Ballooning to the Royal Engineers and commanded the military balloon department at Chatham.

Walter Powell became an avid balloonist. He had a dream that one day a balloon would be able to fly across the Atlantic to America. Ballooning took over his life.

Walter Powell – Malmesbury Memories by David Forward

In Malmesbury they looked at their Member’s new interest with tolerant amusement. We read how in October 1880 when Walter Powell was to have proposed the election of the town’s new coroner he had to send a telegram of apology as he would be up in a balloon then. There was much friendly laughter at the meeting when the message arrived, and jokes were made about the hope that they would not soon be needing to elect a new M.P. as well.

Captain Templer often used balloons to make observations for the Meteorological Office. On the 9th of December, 1881, London was enveloped by a very peculiar fog and Templer wished to ascend to investigate the conditions which had produced it. The Meteorological Society had been given access to the newly developed military balloon Saladin from the War Office and it was available to Captain Templer for an ascent to measure the temperature and atmospheric conditions which had produced the fog. The Saladin was moored at Bath.

Captain Templer arranged a flight for the 10th of December and invited the 39-year-old Powell to attend to the balloon, which would leave Templer free to make his observations. A gentleman by the name of A. Agg-Gardner was also invited to join them.

 

Saladin was a green and yellow calico balloon which used coal gas. The balloon rose when sacks of ballast where dropped out to reduce the weight. A valve in the balloon neck allowed the balloonists to let out the gas, reducing the lifting power and bringing the balloon down. The direction was dependent on wind and air currents.

They departed from the field at Bath Gas Works on the 10th in poor conditions and passed over Wells at 4,200 feet. They passed over Glastonbury and then a current of air blew them between Somerton and Langport. Here, they rose to 5,000 feet to investigate a bank of cloud and then sank to 2,000 feet and drifted towards Crewkerne.

Visibility was poor. Captain Templer heard the roar of waves and realised they were within half a mile of the sea nears Eypesmouth, west of Bridgport. The balloon was now rapidly drifting towards the sea and Captain Templer felt that the descent was critical.

Captain Templer reported the final moments to the Meteorological Office:

’Crewkerne was sighted when we were at 2,000 feet altitude, and Mr Powell allowed the balloon, at my request, to descend, and we passed Beaminster, where we first heard the sea, and immediately I verified my position, and we prepared to effect our descent. The horizontal velocity was increased to thirty-five miles an hour. The balloon was descending most favourably near Symondsbury when Mr Powell threw out some ballast. On his telling me that he had done so I immediately opened the valve. He then asked me if this was necessary? I answered, “We are nearing the sea,” and he replied “I am afraid I rather overdid that last ballast.” Glancing downwards I found that our pace had increased.

The Saladin touched the ground less than 150 metres (450 feet) from the edge of a cliff. The “landing” was uncontrolled and violent. Captain Templer half-fell, half-disembarked from the balloon as the car capsized, still holding the valve line in his hand. The balloon rose sharply as a result of the change in weight and Agg-Gardner fell out as well, breaking his leg in the process.

Powell remained in the car as it righted itself. Captain Templar was dragged along by the valve line and shouted at Powell to come down. The car was still just 2.5 metres / 8 feet above the ground but Powell did not jump. The valve line was ripped from Captain Templer’s hands as the balloon rose. Templer said that he believed that Powell stayed with the balloon hoping that he could save it by bringing it down on the beach. The Captain said that it was possible with the light weight that the balloon might even make it across the Channel.

Powell was last seen waving his hand to Captain Templar as the balloon was swept out to sea. No trace of Powell was ever found.

Two years later, the New York Times reported that the remains of Saladin had been discovered. Fragments and shreds of cloth were recovered in the mountains of Sierra del Pedroza in Asturias, on the northwest coast of Spain.

The balloon had in fact made it across the Channel and even the Bay of Biscay, but of its passenger there was no sign.

A HOT air balloon is to be launched from the town centre of Malmesbury, re-creating an 1881 flight from the very same spot.

The event marks the flight of the Eclipse balloon, with Mr Walter Powell, a former MP for Malmesbury, in the basket.

Wiltshire explorer Sir David Hempleman-Adams, from Box, will be taking to the skies when the balloon sets off on the Eclipse Flight on May 21, raising money for the Friends of Athelstan Museum and the restoration of the Moravian Church.

Event organiser Angela Sykes said: “There is an enormous buzz in the town about this weekend, with all sorts of businesses supporting us.

“This is a weekend not to be missed and is highly unlikely ever to be repeated.

“The day will start at 4.30pm with lots of entertainment for all the family and lift off will be from 6.30pm-7pm, proclaimed by a brass band playing the same music which was played in 1881 when Mr Powell took off in the Eclipse.”

Born into a wealthy family in 1842, Mr Powell and his two brothers and at least two sisters grew up in The Gaer, a large house on the outskirts of Newport which later became Gwent College.

There is evidence that they were a close knit family, with Powell’s father naming his ships Thomas Powell, Anne Powell and Sarah Powell.

In 1867, Powell’s father, a successful mine owner, died of a severe cold, and Powell and his widowed mother rented Dauntsey House in North Wiltshire, where he was later elected as MP for the borough of Malmesbury.

After the sudden death of his father, Powell and his mother completed his business negotiations with George Elliot, another wealthy industrialist, and sold the family business, which became the successful Powell-Duffryn Company of today.

As his interest in politics lessened, Powell took up ballooning.

One of Powell’s most successful flights took off from Cross Hayes in Malmesbury in November 1880.

Originally, Powell was to be accompanied by his ballooning teacher Henry Coxwell. As the day neared Coxwell was not well enough to fly, so another balloonist, Thomas Writ, brought his own vessel for the trip, the Eclipse.

Powell’s last flight was in December 1881 in the Saladin, a balloon belonging to his good friend Captain James Templer, accompanied by Mr A Agg-Gardner.

As they were in full flight they found themselves being blown out to sea and needed to make a rapid descent near Chesil Beach.

The balloon landed heavily and threw out Powell’s two passengers. With Powell still in the basket, the balloon took off once more, and Powell was not seen again.

See www.malmesburyeclipseflight.co.uk for more information on the recreation of the Eclipse flight in Malmesbury.

At a time when MPs are in the news, and not often for the right reasons, I want to take a moment to dwell on the more worthwhile, and (from a Fortean perspective, anyway) peculiarly illuminating career of a long-forgotten predecessor of the current bunch of petty crooks. His name was Walter Powell (1842-1881) [below left], he was Tory MP for Malmesbury in Wiltshire, and his strange and lonely death offers a good deal of unexpected insight into the perennially fascinating topics of expectant attention and witness perception.First, a snippet of biography. Walter Powell was the youngest son of a tough and ruthless Welsh mine owner (a tautology, I know) who ran his pits for profit first and safety very much last, emerging during the 1840s as the largest coal exporter in the world. Having driven through a 20% cut in wages and broken the resultant strike, Thomas Powell's mines were plagued by accidents, culminating in two major explosions at Dyffryn, in Aberdare, and the deaths of more than 80 men. According to Walter Powell's biographer, the Dyffryn disasters belatedly shamed Thomas senior into repentence for his past behaviour, and inculcated in Walter Powell a determination to use his own inherited wealth more for the public good.
In the late 1860s, Powell moved to Wiltshire, where in 1868 he was selected as Conservative parliamentary candidate for the market town of Malmesbury. Powell won the seat in the subsequent election with a narrow majority of 23, which most likely says something positive about his personality and character, as well as his wealth; the election was a Liberal triumph, and Malmesbury had been a solidly Liberal seat since the 1830s, so Powell's victory was achieved very much against the prevailing political winds of the day. The evidence suggests he was a good MP and a benefactor to the town; he earned the soubriquet "the poor man's friend," and among his achievements was the endowment of a Ragged School there and the supply of 50 tons of coal each winter to Malmesbury's "aged poor". More pertinently, from our perspective, Powell was also an enthusiast for all sorts of new inventions. He acquired a magic lantern at around the time just such a contraption was suspected of being used to create the apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Knock, in Ireland, and in 1880, after the death of his wife, he took up ballooning and became very keen on aeronautics.
Ballooning in those days was a preserve of the wealthy. The balloons themselves were hand-made to order, from "good Lyons silk" (Powell's own apparently in the nearby village of Little Somerford), and filled either with hot air or, in the case of more advanced types, hydrogen gas. They were, of course, dependent on the wind and impossible to steer, making fine judgement of course, distance and the likelihood of being blown off course and out to sea important qualities for aeronauts – particularly those living in a small island kingdom such as Britain. Powell seems to have been trained as a balloonist by the noted Crystal Palace company, and received some personal tuition from the celebrated aeronaut Henry Coxwell, with whom he made a number of flights. Coxwell liked Powell but seems to have found him rather too daring, writing:

I never had a companion who so thoroughly enjoyed himself. It was with extreme regret that I recommended Mr Powell to pass into other hands. He was rather too enterprising and fresh for an aeronaut at my time of life. He had superabundant pluck and his was the type of chivalry which needed checking if possible.

Coming from Coxwell, this was quite a statement, since Powell's teacher had been the pilot involved in a ridiculously dangerous assault on the world altitude record a few years earlier – an effort that ended, as I recall pretty vividly from a book on daring aerial adventures that I devoured as a kid, with the balloon ascending into the stratosphere past 35,000 feet, one of its two crewmen (neither of whom was, of course, equipped with oxygen), collapsing, unconscious, and Coxwell himself eventually saving them both by clambering out of the basket while temporarily blinded by lack of air, his hands so frozen they were useless, so as to pull the gas release cord with his teeth.Powell made numerous flights in his own balloon during 1881, but also assisted fellow aeronauts with theirs. He was a close friend of Captain J.L.B. Templer, a pioneer in military ballooning who ran the War Office's 'Balloon Corps', and he helped him make several ascents to take meteorological readings. On 10 December 1881, Powell, Templar and a third man, named in press reports at the time as "A. Agg-Gardner", travelled to Bath to make a flight in a new military balloon that had been stationed there named Saladin. The Saladin, it may be noted here, utilised not expensive hydrogen but 38,000 cubic feet of "used coal gas," and had an open basket equipped with various scientific instruments. The mysterious Agg-Gardner, meanwhile, was probably a relative of Powell's fellow Conservative MP James Agg-Gardner, of Cheltenham – a man whose chief contribution to political life, in a near-40-year career in parliament, was to serve on the Commons Kitchen Committee and supervise the daily serving of tea on the Commons terrace.

With Templer, Powell and Agg-Gardner on board, the Saladin made a long flight across Somerset and Devon, borne south by the prevailing winds. Conditions, particularly visibility, were poor, and the crew only became aware that they were approaching the English Channel when they heard the roar of the sea. Templer made what must have been a very hurried emergency descent, ripping opening a valve to allow gas to escape and the balloon to touch down. In any event, the landing was uncontrolled and violent; Agg-Gardner and Templer were thrown from the basket, Agg-Gardner broke an arm and a leg, and Powell was left stranded and alone on the by now far lighter craft [The Graphic, 17 December 1881]. Templer's report, made a few weeks later to the Met. Office, sums up the next stage of the disaster as follows:

I retained my hold of the valve line and was dragged along the earth by it for a considerable distance. I tried very hard to get the line between my teeth, and could I have done so, I have no doubt the balloon would have been crippled. I shouted to Mr. Powell to come down the line. At this time he was close to me and about eight feet from the earth. The line was torn from my grasp by a succession of jerks, both my hands being severely lacerated. The balloon then floated along close to the earth for some 300 feet until it reached a fence, which the car grazed as it went by. I had risen to my feet and could see Mr. Powell standing up in the car...  The balloon rose rapidly and Mr Powell waved his hand to me.

Quite why Powell chose to stay on board the Saladin was never clear; it may simply have been fear of injuring himself by jumping. Templer thought that, as an experienced aeronaut, he was hoping to save the balloon by bringing her down on the nearby beach, and even when it became clear that the Saladin could not be brought to earth so soon, he still hoped Powell would succeed in crossing the Channel to France. Most contemporary aeronauts, apparently, believed the lightened Saladin would prove easily capable of such a crossing. In the event, however, neither Powell nor the Saladin was seen again. The helpless MP drifted out over Bridport, heading towards the sea, and there, it was presumed, he came down into the Channel or the Atlantic and drowned.The only firm evidence of the Saladin's progress that could be found at the time was a thermometer, "with a single human hair attached," that was picked up on the beach at Portland [The Graphic, 17 December 1881].

It was what happened next that gives the saga of the Saladin its Fortean relevance. Powell was a well-known man; his disappearance was big news, and widely reported as such in the newspapers. The consequence was a flurry of "sightings" of the missing balloon, which flooded in not just from Devon, France and the Channel (there was at least one in the vicinity of Alderney [Western Mail, 17 December 1881]), but from areas much further off – including many where the balloon could not possibly have been. These reports were picked up and read with interest by Charles Fort [Complete Bookspp.461-2], who in New Lands devoted a full page to sightings of mysterious "lights in the sky" reported in the days that followed, many of which moved about in a manner quite unlike any balloon:

The extraordinary circumstance is that reports came in upon a luminous object that was seen in the sky at the time that this balloon disappeared. In the London Times, it is said that a luminous object had been seen, evening of the 13th, moving in various directions in the sky near Cherbourg. It is said that upon the night of the 16th three customhouse guards, at Laredo, Spain, had seen something like a balloon in the sky, and had climbed a mountain in order to see it better, but that it had shot out sparks, and had disappeared – and had been reported from Bilbao, Spain, the next day. In the Morning Post, it is said that this luminous display was the chief feature; that it was this sparkling that had made the object visible. In the Standard, December 16, is an account of something that was seen in the sky, five o'clock in the morning of December 15, by Capt. McBain, of the steamship Countess of Aberdeen, off the coast of Scotland, 25 miles from Montrose. Through glasses, the object seemed to be a light attached to something thought to be the car of a balloon, increasing and decreasing in size – a large light – "as large as the light at Girdleness" [a lighthouse]. It moved in a opposite direction to that of the wind, though possibly with wind of an upper stratum. It was visible half an hour, and when it finally disappeared, was moving toward Bervie, a town on the Scottish coast about 12 miles north of Montrose. In the Morning Post it is said that the explanation is simple: that someone in Monfrieth, 8 miles from Dundee, had, late in the evening of the 15th, sent up a fire-balloon, "which had been carried along the coast by a gentle breeze, and, after burning all night, extinguished and collapsed off Montrose, early on Thursday morning (16th)." This story of a balloon that wafted to Montrose, and that was evidently traced until it collapsed near Montrose, does not so simply explain an object that was seen 25 miles from Montrose. In the Standard, December 19, it is said that two bright lights were seen over Dartmouth Harbor, upon the 11th.

If we plot these balloon sightings on a map [below], we can see that those in Spain are more or less in line with the likely route followed by a balloon borne on winds that were moving pretty much directly south – though whether the distance travelled, about 500 miles, is credible is harder to say. It's equally possible to state with some certainty that whatever might have been seen around Montrose, and off the Scottish coast, certainly could not have been the Saladin, and was almost equally unlikely to have been a "fire-balloon" capable of burning for the entire duration of a northern winter night. Whether the Scottish reports were suggested by word of the disappearance of a rogue balloon is harder to say, but news of the Saladin's loss had made the papers by 12 December [Leeds Mercury and many others, 12 December 1881], so it's entirely credible that reports made in Scotland two or three days after that were directly influenced by knowledge of Walter Powell's appalling and evocative predicament. The Countess of Aberdeen's sighting, on the other hand, may have been of something else entirely... something only associated with the Saladinwhen the ship made port and heard the news.
Thus, in any case, the story of the Saladin as reported in 1881... and so far as most later accounts of the tale go, that was that – Powell and his balloon had simply vanished, presumably to end their days somewhere out in the Atlantic. In the course of doing the research for this post, however, I discovered something rather interesting: a much later report, in the New York Times [24 January 1883], of the discovery of what appeared to be the remnants of a large balloon at Sierra del Pedroza, in the Asturias, directly to the west of the two Spanish locations mentioned as sighting spots in 1881. Ballooning was not practised in northern Spain at this time, and the discovery – though originating in a report from Paris, of indeterminate reliability, which mentioned only the recovery of "a few fragments and shreds of cloth" – was immediately assumed to be the Saladin. Of Powell, however, there was no sign.

"The wreck of the balloon discovered in the Spanish mountains," concluded the NYT,

settles the dispute as to the strength of that pride of the aeronaut; it undoubtedly  did not pitch into the Channel, but half-inflated with gas, sailed through the air for many days. But while the tattered rags and splintered wood which formed it have been rotting among the peaks of Spain, the bones of the intrepid aeronaut have been whitening beneath the waters of the English Channel.

 
 
 
 
30 December 1881 - Western Times - Exeter
 
   

THE MISSING BALLOON from the Bridport News 30 December 1881
The search for the “Saladin” has been continued with much energy and perseverance not only in the West Bay but around the Channel Islands and along the French coast, and in fact in all the localities hinted at and suggested ae places where It might be possible to find traces of it. The search prosecuted and the enquiries made have however, proved entirely fruitless, and the fate of Mr. Powell and the balloon to all intents and purposes are wrapped In the same uncertainty as ever. Just before going to press last week a rumour gained currency, additional publicity being given to it through the medium of our columns as to the missing balloon having been seen in the neighbourhood of the Channel Islands by a fisher­man of Isigny, named Castel Louis. This naturally caused a considerable amount of anxiety, and created a painful feeling of suspense in the minds of Mr. Powell's relatives, more particularly who were staying at the Bull Hotel. The state­ment made by the fisherman Louis, however, which was promptly followed up has received no confirmation of a nature which would indicate that it was the missing balloon which he saw, and in fact from subsequent inquiries and Investigations which have been diligently made it has been clearly proved that the object which the Isigny fisherman ' saw in the channel was not the truant “Saladin” but a whale (as Louis at first thought) In an advanced state of decomposition. Mr. J. Fowler, the manager of Messrs. Cozens & Co. (limited), of Weymouth, who has all along conducted the searching operations on behalf of the family of Mr. Powell with great energy and praiseworthy per­severance, has, in company with Mr. Powell's brother visited the Harbour and made all neces­sary arrangements in case of the recovery of the recovery of the body or any traces being found of it in the West Bay. We may once more advert to the fact that Mr. H. Good, Lloyd's agent at the Harbour, has all along adhered to his statement that he saw a balloon dip " the water at some distance out in the bay on the evening of the descent of the “Saladin” at Eype, and on Monday, being the ninth day after the accident, it was re­garded as probable that the body of Mr. Powell, if drowned in the Channel, would float. In anticipation of this a number of men were en­gaged and supplied with life-buoys, grappling hooks, and other necessary appliances. However, nothing which could give the least possible clue to each an event had transpired. Search parties have continually watched the coast and the coastguards on duty have been doubled.
On Wednesday afternoon. Mr. Powell, a brother of the missing gentleman, with Mrs. Gore, his sister, left Bridport for Weymouth, where they will reside for a time in case anything should transpire appertaining or belonging to the raising Balloon or its unfortunate occupant. They were accompanied to the station by Captain Templer. On the same day a telegram arrived at Bridport from Mr. Fowler, the manager of the Weymouth and Portland Steam Packet Company, conveying the intelligence that a barometer, about 16 inches in length, bearing the name " L. Casella, Holborn Bars, London," and enclosed in a mahogany case, had been washed ashore near the Chesil Cove. near Portland. Captain Templer informs us that a similar instrument, beating the same name, was in the car of the missing balloon. It was made expressly from his instructions for the Meteoro­logical Society, and according to the description given he firmly believes that it is the same instru­ment which was in the car of the balloon, at the time of its escape.
Mr. Age-Gardner, the late member for Chelten­ham, has been during the last few days staying at the Bull Hotel, having been on a visit to his brother, who is now lying at the Hospital suffering from the effects of the accident.  
A Reuter's telegram, dated Madrid, Saturday, reports that the Custom's Officer stationed at Ladero, near Santander, has telegraphed to the Prefect of Santander that at ten o'clock on Friday night he saw a balloon, supposed to be the misting balloon “Saladin”, pass over the port at a low eleva­tion, proceeding m the direction of Bilbao. The Spanish authorities have despatched orders to the Gendamerie to render every assistance wherever the balloon may descend, A later message from Madrid says " A large balloon was seen this afternoon about two kilometres from Bilbao by the conductor of the tramway running between that town and Arenas. The balloon was going in an easterly direction towards the sea coast. A policeman also saw it and gave the same information on the subject.
We publish the above reports as they have appeared, but notwithstanding that every in­quiry has been made to ascertain the correctness of these rumours very little credit has been given to them by the public generally. In fact it may be said that the. reports from the Spanish coast were not at all credited from the first.
On Tuesday some amount of intercut and enquiry was excited at Bridport by a statement that a piece of woodwork, supposed to have formed a portion of the car of the missing balloon, had been washed ashore at Weymouth. The piece of wood in question was forwarded to Bridport and ap­peared to be a portion of framework. It having been examined by Captain Templer he decided that it could have had no possible connection with the “Saladin”.
The headquarters of the indefatigable search which is still being made for the fugitive balloon have virtually been transferred from Bridport to Weymouth, but Captain Templar will remain in the neighbourhood whilst the search is being con­tinued. In order that he may be near for the pur­pose or identifying anything which may perchance be washed ashore.
The thermometer picked up near Weymouth has been so clearly identified as having belonged to the “Saladin” that no doubt on the point is pos­sible. It was made for Capt. Templer, and it has been recognised by him, and by Mr. Powell's brother and sister, aa one which was in the balloon when it left the Dorset coast and got lost to view in the Channel. The first report left a doubt as to whether the frame had been found on the coast or Inland. If it had been picked up inland a new set of theories would have been started as to the balloon after leaving land and going out to sea, doubling back to land again, and as to whether the Instrument was jerked out by the balloon dragging the ground or thrown out by the aeronaut to attract attention. It was it seems, washed up in Chesil Cove, a part of the famous Pebble Ridge off Portland, which faces the Channel; and thus the probability is strengthened that those were right who said they saw the balloon dip into the sea after leaving the cliff at Bridport. It is however just possible that, finding the balloon sinking, Mr. Powell this instru­ment and other things out of the car to lighten it. Even if so, what became of the balloon J The hope that Mr, Powell was blown out to sea, and that he had been rescued by an outward-bound vessel which has not yet been able to com­municate the news of his safety, is every day diminishing. It is a fortnight tomorrow that the balloon disappeared.
THURSDAY.
Another account respecting the finding of the instrument named states that a thermometer in a broken state, and which it is believed was fixed in the missing balloon “Saladin”, was picked up at Weymonth on Tuesday evening, and was handed to the Receiver of Wrecks there, who telegraphed as follows to the secretary of the Board of Trade, London -"31st December, 1881. Mahogany frame of thermometer, or other Instrument, measuring 16 inches, marked L. Casella,; London, was washed on shore at Chesil Cove, Port­land, supposed to be from the missing balloon, is in my custody." On Inquiries being made of Mr. L. Casella. the well-known scientific instru­ment maker, that gentleman stated that he had manufactured the thermometer in question, and supplied It to Capt. Templer about six weeks ago. It is similar to those which are used by the Meteorological Department, and was a very sensitive one, with extremely long mercurial bulb, for taking the most accurate atmospheric Indications. In consequence of this discovery it is considered certain in Weymouth that the balloon is somewhere in West Bay. Messrs. Cosens and Co. contemplate getting their best steamer,, the Empress, ready, in order to continue the search for the missing balloon in Portland Race, the Shambles, and surrounding coasts, with the view of seeing if any other portions of the balloon are afloat.
Captain Cozens returned to Weymonth on Tuesday after an unsuccessful search with Captain Anson in the Onto",In the neighbourhood of the Channel Islands and Cherbourg for the missing balloon.
Three seine boats left Portland this morning to search for farther traces of balloon “Saladin”.
FRIDAY MORNING.
In spite of the strictest search off Bridport and Weymouth by two vessels, no success has attended their efforts. Captain Templer has made a calculation as to the present locality of the balloon, on the supposition that it dropped into the sea off Bridport harbour immediately after the ascension. and has experimented with cordage and material similar to that forming the “Saladin”, to ascertain Its floating-power. This calculation will materially assist further search this morning, which will be personally conducted by Captain Templer. It is proposed to organise a sweeping expedition, by means of boats and long lines with hooks, in the hope of sweeping over the place where the balloon lies.
The following letter appeared in the Standard yesterday
TO THE EDITOR 0F THE STANDARD.
sir, As my brother is still disabled, I write to ask if you will correct a mistake affecting him that appears in your article in The Standard of to-day, referring to the accident to the balloon “Saladin”. My brother did not throw himself out of the balloon : but was thrown out, with the result of the broken limbs from which he now suffers,  I apologise for asking you to notice so small a correction, but the statements made by the President of the Aeronautical Society; as reported in the newspaper of Saturday, make one anxious that every detail In con­nection with this unhappy accident should be accurately stated. I am, Sir, your obedient servant. J. T. AGA-GARDNER. Bull Hotel, Bridport, December 20.
MEETING OF THE BALLOON SOCIETY. A meeting of the council of the Balloon Society of Great Britain was held on Friday, at which Mr. W. H. Lefevre, president, said he still entertalned the hope that the “Saladin”, might be re­covered. He had received that morning a com­munication from the president of the Societe D'Aerostation et Meteorologique at Paris, M. de Fouvlelle, who expressed great sympathy with the relatives of the missing gentleman, and stated their society was making every possible search for the balloon at their various stations throughout France. KL Fouvielle also stated that he did not give up hope that the balloon and its occupant might be recovered, basing his confidence on his personal knowledge of Mr. Powell's courage and self-possession. At a meeting of the Society held afterwards, in the evening, the Chairman said that in endeavouring to discover Mr. Powell and the missing balloon, the Government were deserving of their thanks. He took it that up to the present moment Mr. Powell had not been found alive, as he had a letter from the Admiralty, dated 4.45 that afternoon, which stated that the Government had no further Intelligence. On the other hand, he had received a message from Cardiff which stated that Messrs. Jones & Head had heard that the balloon had been picked up off Cherbourg, with Mr. Powell alive, but in an exhausted condition. He did not, however, think this statement could be correct. He thought that the Balloon Society had done all that was possible to find out the whereabouts of Mr. Powell. There were one or two circumstances in connection with the affair which he would rather not mention, but he felt it his duty to do so, and the gentleman referred to he trusted would not consider he was making a personal attack upon them. He considered that a court of inquiry should be held to determine the real cause of the accident, Many times he had been up in balloons, and there were many in the room who had done likewise, but there was always one condition impressed upon all, and that was that all the when it l*ft um Dorset coast and got lost to view in the Channel, The first report left a doubt as to whether the frame had been found on the coast or Inland. If It had been picked up inland a new Mt of th*arl« woedd oat* been started to the balloon, after leaving land and going out to sea, doubling back to land again, and as to whether the Instrument was jerked out by the balloon dragging the ground or thrown out by the aeronaut to attract attention. It was, it seems, washed up In Chesil Cove, a part of the famous Pebble Ridge off Portland, which faces the Channel: and thus the probability is strengthened that those were right who said they saw the balloon dip into the sea after leaving the cliff at Bridport. It was, however just possible that, finding the balloon sinking, Mr. Powell this instru­ment and other things pat or the oar to lighten it. Even if so, what became of the balloon? The hope that Mr. Powell was blown out to sea, and that he had been rescued by an outward-bound vessel which has not yet been able to com­municate the news of his safety, is every day diminishing. It Is a fortnight tomorrow that the balloon disappeared.

Walter Powell MP Balloonist

Sources of Information

This book comes from a variety of sources. When the local history, Somerford Magna, was put together in 1976 various personal memories from old inhabitants of Malmesbury and Little Somerford were used for the chapter on Walter Powell, Malmesbury’s loved but little recorded M.P.. Later and more rigorous enquiries show that some of the local traditions had become confused and unfortunately not everything written in the former account is accurate.

The written record is limited, but much reliable information has come through Mr. Gordon Cullingham, the archivist of Windsor. Mr. Cullingham discovered that Balloon Meadow at Clewer near Windsor was so called locally because Walter Powell had put down in it on a flight from Crystal Palace to Malmesbury, and he came here himself to investigate. He has since used his influence to get information about the Powell family and copies of the official reports on Walter’s death, all of which has been generously allowed to be used here.

A copy of the auctioneer’s lists (he was called William Teagle of Little Somerford) of all the buildings and land sold after Walter Powell’s death is in the County Archives at Trowbridge and that tells a great deal about him. There was, too, an historian ]ames Bird who wrote an interesting History of Malmesbury in 1876 and dedicated it to Walter Powell. This describes two of his gifts to Malmesbury, the Reading Room and the Ragged School, but there were more buildings and many adventures to come after that.

The firm of Powell—Duffryn, (originally the Powell family’s own business,) has kindly sent information about it and them, and many local people have told their own traditions and memories. Miss Dorothy Barnes, the descendant of a Powell tenant, produced a most helpful collection of cuttings and a picture of Walter Powell himself. But for knowledge of this remarkable man’s everyday life here we are chiefly indebted to a nameless good reporter on the staff of the North Wilts Herald. He probably lived in Malmesbury for he steadily recorded his Member’s social, local, political and aeronautical doings in detail. His articles have every appearance of being accurate; they are not florid or fulsome and nothing learned from other sources contradicts them. We owe him a considerable debt.

The Powell Family

Walter Powell was born in 1842, the youngest child of Thomas Powell, a very wealthy mine-owner living at Newport in South Wales.

Thomas’s career was quite remarkable. He was born at Chepstow in 1779, but the family soon moved to Newport and on his father’s death the young Thomas was left managing the timber business they had established there. A biographer, Howard Meyrick, wrote that at this age, ’his temperament, already naturally hard, became even more toughened as he developed the unscrupulous opportunism, accompanied by independence and frugality that were to be his characteristics for the rest of his life.’ He bought a small coal seam in 1810 and helped to work it himself to gain experience, and as the mining industry spread through South Wales he extended his interests into railways and coastal shipping. He was not above running his mines into other people’s land and out—manoeuvring his competitors on freight prices; till by 1843 when he struck a great four foot seam at the Mountain Ash colliery he was the largest single coal exporter in the world, and was using his own shipping and railways.

Thomas Powell was three times married; the two wives of his earlier years both died young leaving infant daughters. The third, Anne, he wed in about 1833 when he was becoming a rich man. They had three sons, Thomas, Henry, and Walter, and the family became established in The Gaer, a large house on the outskirts of Newport which later became Gwent College and existed until 1950. An estate on the site is still called Gaer. Here Walter Powell grew up with two elder brothers and at least three sisters. One of these, Sarah, died when Walter was a boy of ten, and another, Ann, who had moved away and married, died seven years later. A third sister, referred to as Mrs. ]enkins was alive in 1881. She may have been the youngest of the family, or a child of one of the earlier marriages. Walter was at Rugby School from 1858-61.

There are signs that it was an affectionate, close—knit family — they had ships named ’Thomas Powell’, ‘Anne Powell’ and ’Sarah Powell’, but Thomas Powell’s reputation outside his family circle was not good. Not only was he unscrupulous in business dealing but he cared little for the welfare and even safety of those he employed. His mines were the scenes of several fatal accidents, largely because of inadequate air—vents, and in 1852 there was a major explosion. In 1858 Powell persuaded the other coal owners to join him in a fifteen per cent cut of wages, producing a strike throughout the Welsh coal field, which Powell broke by bringing in his dock labourers. After several weeks this strike was settled when the hungry men accepted the reduction at twenty per cent. Very soon after work resumed, and when the pit was full of men, another violent explosion killed many of them. Young Walter was a lad of sixteen by this time, just starting at Rugby. The tragedy had a profound effect on his hitherto callous father. The old man, now seventy-eight, went immediately to the stricken pit, Cwmpennar, to take charge of the rescue. He ran his own trains to bring in extra help, and he gave all the widows a free house, coal, and a pension for life out of his own pocket. Walter must have known that all this was happening and it may well have influenced the way he used his family wealth for the public good when much of it became his own in a few years’ time.

In spite of his age Thomas Powell senior remained active for five years more, with his eldest son, another Thomas, also taking an active share in the business. Plans were being made for a big merger with George Elliot, another wealthy industrialist, when the old mine—owner died, unexpectedly as the result of a severe cold in 1863. His sons completed the negotiations and sold the business, which became the still flourishing Powell—Duffryn Company of today.

The New M.P.

The next we hear of Walter Powell is in 1867 when he rented Dauntsey House in north Wiltshire and brought his widowed mother to live with him there. There is no telling now why he chose this area and whether he had already considered a political career or had it suggested to him after he came here. He seems to have been or become a personal friend of the Rev. Arthur Evans the rector of Little Somerford, who was chairman then of the local Conservative Association, and in December 1868, Powell was chosen as Conservative parliamentary candidate for the borough of Malmesbury. The campaign was successful and Malmesbury had its first non—Liberal M.P. for thirty years. This was celebrated in February at the George Hotel in Malmesbury, and in ]une Walter Powell invited his supporters to a general rejoicing at Dauntsey Park. The North Wilts Herald of that day describes it in detail. A marquee was erected in the grounds and all roads to Dauntsey were thronged with vehicles of every sort bringing about eight hundred men to a grand lunch. The ladies joined them for tea (one wonders if the various carriages made a double journey) which was followed by dancing on the grass, and there was a grand ball in the marquee which went on until four in the morning.

A man who has just been elected to Parliament and given a large party to celebrate it is likely to get appreciative press reports, but the words attributed to various speakers at Walter Powell’s first public appearance sound sincere and throw a pleasant light on his character. There are references to his ‘coming into a strange country’ only two years before and having already endeared himself by ’many acts of benevolence’ to the neighbourhood. His mother too, was well liked and her health heartily drunk; she appears with him many times in the next few years attending concerts and organizing children’s treats.

Young and wealthy, (Walter was twenty—six years old when he first entered public life) the new M.P. had plenty of interests. His clubs were Boodles, Fentons, the Conservative Club, the Carlton, the Four in Hand, and the Coaching Club and he obviously kept up his interest in the last two of these — and very likely the others as well. Dauntsey station was only a few miles away, which put London within easy reach by rail. Then, within a year of his election Walter bought land at the top of Little Somerford Hill and built a large group of stables there; six loose boxes with a seventy—foot hay loft, a sixty—five foot coach house with four pairs of doors, a saddle room, three servants’ bedrooms and a detached wooden house with four loose boxes. This property is now Coach House Farm, and the eleven acre piece nearby described at the sale as being ’on an eminence and containing a beautiful landscape view of the surrounding country, well adapted for building a mansion or small residence’ was presumably bought as the site of the present Hill House. Walter himself lived in rented houses all the time he was in Wiltshire, moving from Dauntsey House to Eastcourt House in about 1874, but it looks as if he intended eventually to make his home in Little Somerford. In 1868 and 69 he bought at least three other sites in that village and built pairs of cottages on each of them. The housing of his tenants and his horses seems to have been more important to him than his own.

The Rev. Arthur Evans, remained his constant friend and it was to Mr Evan’s house, the old rectory beside Little Somerford Church, that he made his last move in 1878. This clergyman was a great figure in local life. A hunting parson, much concerned in Malmesbury affairs, he gave his parish its village school and was father to his successor, another Reverend Arthur Evans.

Gifts and Benefactors to Malmesbury

1869 had opened with triumph and rejoicing but a family tragedy soon came. Thomas Powell Junior had gone to Abyssinia with his wife and seven-year-old son to explore that country, and while there they were attacked by bandits and all three killed. Walter went to Alexandria for some time to deal with their affairs.

Personal anxieties however did not prevent the start of a series of good works in Malmesbury and the neighbouring villages. In the same year that Thomas died came the gift of Malmesbury Reading Room and James Bird’s description of it is worth quoting in full.

’A splendid building situate in Back Hill (now called Silver Street) was erected in 1870 by W. Powell Esq. M,P, and presented to the Corporation to be used as free Reading Rooms. The first room is set apart for the use of the upper classes and tradesmen who choose to avail themselves of the privilege, and the inner room is provided for the lower classes. There is a large and capital Library, and a good supply of London and Provincial Newspapers, and Periodicals; all supplied gratis by the munificent donor of the building. The rooms are decorated with a fine collection of Buck and other horns, skins, etc. Various games such as Drafts, Dominoes, etc., are allowed to be played, the necessaries being also supplied by Mr Powel.’ A movable partition allowed the two rooms to be thrown into one and the building also served as a free meeting place for local groups. The Medical Society met there and the Temperance Club, the Farmers and Tradesmen went there for their ball, and the Moravians sometimes used it also.

Walter took a keen interest in the market, presenting an annual cup for the best beast sold there, and it was in the Reading Room that he entertained the trainers to dinner to discuss market affairs. By 1874 a games room and a soup kitchen had been included in the building. There could be excitement there as well. The newspaper reports that in 1881 a market cow ran into the Reading Room, tossed a young man over her back and damaged chairs, tables, books and the fender, but fortunately not the large bookcase which contained the library. The animal was later removed when she became quiet. This building, given with so much good will to the people of Malmesbury, is still doing them service. It continued to be a reading room for some years after Walter Powell’s death, then it was used as council chambers, till in 1921 Bristol Diocesan Trust bought it for a parish room for the Abbey. During the second world war it became a school room; the Catholic Church bought it in 1952 and it was sold again to the Assembly of God Church in 1967. It is now known as the Pentecostal Church and is still in regular use and a benefit to the town.

A second Malmesbury benefaction followed soon after the Reading Room. In 1870 Thomas Luce gave the borough a piece of land in Burnivale, at the foot of the steps that are opposite the Bell Hotel. Here Walter Powell put a Ragged School, as recorded in Kelly’s Directory and the contemporary press, but there is some confusion about it. The actual date of building is given as 1873, and James Bird (who must have seen it) describes a ’large building composed of wood presented gratis to the trustees of the Ragged School for the free use of young children. The school numbers about 180 and an excellent female teacher from London is regularly engaged to teach them. The school is supported by voluntary subscriptions.’

The school went out of use early this century and no attempts to trace its records have so far succeeded, but Mr Frederick Rice, an old builder still living beside the site in Burnivale, says that he saw it taken down and that it was a long, stone, building with three windows on each side. There are garages there now. Perhaps the original one was a temporary wooden building later replaced by stone. When Walter Powell’s properties were sold they included a wooden supper—room sixty foot long ’thoroughly water-proof, bolted together, and may easily be taken down’ which was standing at that time beside the Reading Room.

The borough’s M.P. took a personal interest in his establishment, visiting it and presenting prizes, and there is a pleasing account of a treat that he gave them in 1874 when five wagon loads of children led by Malmesbury Town Band and bearing banners proclaiming ’Health to Mr and Mrs Powell’ went off to Eastcourt House where the children had tea in a tent, a roundabout was provided, and they all had the freedom of the garden and vinery.

It is obvious from the newspapers that many of the folk who had large houses and gardens round Malmesbury took turns in entertaining the schools and charitable institutions of that day, and Mrs Powell clearly did her share. Perhaps she too enjoyed spending some of Thomas Powell’s wealth on other people. There are references during the next few years to treats given to Schools and Sunday Schools and to concerts which they both attended, as well as local events like choir suppers, farmers’ dinners and the Hunt Ball. And there was a great deal more to Walter Powell’s generosity than fun and games. He provided fifty tons of coal every winter for the aged poor of Malmesbury as well as tea and sugar, and twenty tons at various times for the Somerfords and Corston, as well as a joint of meat and a plum pudding on Christmas day for every poor family in Eastcourt when he lived there. ln 1876, when he was in Rome at Christmas, he left money with the Mayor of Malmesbury to make the gifts for him. All this might have been the mass generosity of a kind—hearted very rich man (and even, at a lower estimate, a good political advertisement) but this member of Parliament showed a real concern for people themselves. He was naturally interested, though not long involved, in the building of the Malmesbury railway line, and he would visit men injured at work there at home and in hospital, as well as sending more serious cases to other hospitals, to which he subscribed. In one case he actually started his subscription to a specialist institution in order to get a Malmesbury patient admitted.

Another improvement made in the constituency was to Malmesbury Abbey. Walter Powell offered to install gas lighting there. Mr Pitt, the vicar at the time, refused it, thinking the maintenance would be too much trouble and expense, but the offer was accepted by his successor the Rev. G.W. Tucker in 1875 and they had their first evening service by gas light that year.

The parish clerk had his pay raised from £6. 10s. to £10 per annum to cover the extra work. There is no longer a gas works in Malmesbury and now the Abbey is lit by electricity. In 1875 he gave £100 to Bristol Cathedral restoration fund.

The Somerfords

Walter Powell obviously took particular interest in the two Somerfords. He had moved from Dauntsey House to Eastcourt House in 1874, but he had been building his coach house and his cottages in Little Somerford as early as 1868-69 and it looks as if the Rector of Great Somerford, the Rev. William Andrews, was also one of his friends. He twice came with the rector to visit the school there, he subscribed to its maintenance, paid £20 towards the building of an organ chamber in the church and gave entertainments to the villagers. The most notable of his buildings is also in Great Somerford. In 1872 he built there an excellent reading room.

Unrestricted by the limitations of site which hampered the Malmesbury building this was a well-planned red brick structure with arched windows, a high gabled roof and rather an ornate little porch. A caretaker’s house in a similar style was attached at one side and heating, furniture, books and magazines were again provided. From outside it looked exactly like what it is now, a nice commodious little Chapel. There is an interesting history to this.

A renowned Methodist preacher, Mordecai Ayliffe, who served a group of chapels in the district lived in Great Somerford (where his wife kept the Post Office and his great granddaughter Mrs Bridges in 1985 still does). There was much enthusiasm among the Primitive Methodists then, as the many village chapels in this area bear witness, but Great Somerford had no meeting place of its own. Local tradition reports that while the reading room was being built Mordecai Ayliffe went regularly among the workmen proclaiming ’This is to be the house of God’, and similar invocations. Ten years later, when Walter Powell had died and this building with the rest of his property, was put up for auction, the Methodists were able to buy it and it has been regularly used by them ever since. it now, of course, has pews and a pulpit, but the coat pegs round the walls which once took readers’ jackets are still in place. Walter Powell would probably be pleased about this development of its use. He spoke sometimes of ’our Nonconformist friends’ and he was criticised in public by some of his own voters for having supported the Burials Bill in Parliament which allowed Nonconformists to have funerals conducted by their own clergy. Walter replied that he came from Monmouth, lately a part of Wales, and he knew how strongly some people felt. He ended by saying that while he was prepared to make sacrifices for his party, ’l wish to tell you clearly and plainly, there is one sacrifice I am not prepared to make, and that is the sacrifice of my independence.’

There is a strong tradition in Little Somerford that a reading room too had been given by their generous M.P. There certainly was such a room in the early twentieth century. It was a wooden structure at the foot of Clay Street, on the Dauntsey side, and many of the older inhabitants remember it. But unfortunately there is nothing in either the parish records or the lists of Powell’s own property to connect it with him. One possibility is that a portable wooden building auctioned with his estate was bought by some local benefactor and used by the village in his memory, but that is only guesswork. It has disappeared now, but the three pairs of brick cottages he built for that village are still in use, as are his splendid stables, though those are now for people, not horses.

Parliamentary Work

There were several occasions when Walter Powell brought local affairs to the attention of Parliament or supported motions in which the Town Council had shown an interest. During his time in the House of Commons he put forward a petition that the maintenance of turnpike roads should fall upon the treasury, not on the area through which they passed, and he made a personal application to the War Office to have Malmesbury made a pay station for army and navy reserve men so that they need not travel outside the town for their pay. Other bills which he supported with full local approval included one to prevent the sale of intoxicating liquor on Sundays; an amendment to the Elementary Education Bill to include exams in religious education, and an unsuccessful motion to introduce votes for women. But, seriously as he took his responsibilities to Malmesbury, Walter Powell had a mind of his own. We have seen how he supported the Burials Bill in the interests of the Nonconformists although his own party disapproved, and he voted against the Conservatives in support of a bill to abolish flogging in the army. He was not one of the great figures of Parliament, but he was certainly not unknown among the members; he went to dinner with Disraeli when he was First Lord of the Treasury and attended a Speaker’s Levee. So much had all this been appreciated that at the 1874 election such limited Liberal opposition as there was to his reappointment was not followed up. That party decided that ’his position was unassailable’ and he was elected unopposed. At Eastcourt House there was a celebratory dance to the accompaniment of the band of the Scots Fusilier Guards, and described locally as ’one of the best balls in the county’. Two years later he was made a magistrate, but this seems to have been an honorary position as there is no record of his serving on the Bench.

Fun and Games

Powell’s stables are evidence today of his interest in riding and driving, as is his membership of the Coaching and Four in Hand Clubs. These stables probably held three pairs of matching horses for his own coach, a carriage and pair for his mother and workaday vehicles for local use. There would have been saddle horses, too, and Walter clearly liked looking at horses as well as driving them. It is said that he often took parties of friends to the races and gave them splendid lunches as part of the day’s entertainments.

By 1876 Walter had bought a magic lantern. He took a great interest in this and acquired many sets of slides (sometimes referred to as ’dissolving pictures’) which he exhibited himself to people of all ages, giving a descriptive commentary as the show went on. On one occasion he had an instrument brought down from London, with its own operator, and the pictures were ’brilliantly illuminated by ex-hydrogen lime-light machinery of the most costly and perfect description’. He repeated this experiment at least once afterwards. There must have been lots of shows given in the Powell home; the public ones which the newspapers reported are an interesting collection. He took his lantern to the Town Hall, the Reading Room, Westport Church and various Sunday and day schools, and his shows were a nice mixture of comedy and education. Their subjects include The Railway across the Prairie, Pilgrim’s Progress, Niagara Falls, the Arctic Regions, The Jackdaw of Rheims, Hogarth’s Idle and Industrious Apprentices and ’comic sets of various subjects’. At the end of one showing in Great Somerford School Mr Andrews the rector in thanking him referred significantly to ‘this man of means and position ready to afford amusement and recreation to his poorer neighbours as Mr Powell has done on this and many other occasions. His many acts of kindness and generosity will always ensure him a hearty welcome in this parish.’

The move to Little Somerford came in 1878; Mrs Powell had died and Walter changed to a smaller establishment nearer to his friends and his horses. His house there is still called the Old Rectory and the present owners, Mr and Mrs R.C. Hatchwell, have carefully preserved Walter Powell’s memory there. This house, though smaller than Eastcourt, still gave room for entertaining young relatives, and there was a minor adventure here one morning. A fire was discovered in the oak beam in an old fireplace while Mr Powell and his nephews were having breakfast. lt was soon put out with little damage done, and was probably a fine cause of excitement for the visitors. Unfortunately the report does not name (or number) these nephews; they are likely to have been the sons of Walter’s sister Mrs Jenkins.

Another fireplace in the Old Rectory has had the happier fate of becoming a most attractive and unusual memorial to the former tenant. A yew tree, believed to have been planted in the year of the battle of Trafalgar, used to flourish in the front garden and must have been well known to Walter Powell. During the 1970s this tree, now really old, was blown down in a big storm and Mr Hatchwell carefully had the lovely, hard, golden wood preserved — and how it comes to be a Powell memorial will be told anon.

Vote for Walter Powell General Election 1880 © Malmesbury Memories

Vote for Walter Powell General Election 1880 © Malmesbury Memories

A Third Term of Office Begun

1880 brought another election, and this time the Liberals were prepared to put up a candidate, Mr Albert G. Kitching. Walter Powell referred to him as a ‘kind agreeable gentleman’ and said that he and his friends had agreed not to say harm about anyone. Indeed the atmosphere was so cordial that one Liberal supporter said you might expect to see political opponents ‘walking arm in arm together down the High Street like the lion and the lamb.’

Conservative enthusiasm burst into a spate of banners. Some were purely political like ’Beaconsfield and the Peace of Europe’, or ’True blue and English honour’, but there were personal ones as well — ’Powell and our Local Interests’ — ’Powell, an old and true Friend’ — ‘Powell, the Farmers’ Friend’ — ‘Powell, the Poor man’s Friend.’ The last of these brought a noteworthy comment from Walter Powell himself. He is reported as looking round the room at one meeting where they were displayed and saying, ’I am proud to have been called the poor man’s friend. When that time comes which will come to us all, rich or poor, the feeling of having been able to do something for their happiness will be more gratifying than if we had won all the boroughs in the United Kingdom.’

Election day when it came was as good as a carnival for the Malmesbury people. Little Somerford School was given a day’s holiday. Mr Kitching drove into town in an open carriage with postilions and four greys, accompanied by Sherston Brass Band. Mr Powell had Somerford band and seven or eight carriages, and was met at Burton Hill by Malmesbury Town Band as well as the Somerford voters who had come in before him on the train. After a day’s excitement Mr ]oseph Hanks announced the result of the election at half past five from a window in the Town Hall:-

Walter Powell 607. Albert Kitching 310. In 1869 the majority had been 23.

The Ballooning M.P.

For the Conservative Party as a whole the election had not been so successful; there was a Liberal majority in Parliament and Mr Gladstone had replaced. Mr Disraeli as Prime Minister. Perhaps Walter Powell felt himself less involved now in national affairs (one can be sure that he never neglected local interests) and was able to spend more time on his own concerns. He took up ballooning and this became the great enthusiasm of his life.

It was no new idea. Nearly a hundred years earlier the Montgolfier brothers had sent up the first balloon from France. This had been powered by smoke from burning straw, and it did not take inventors long to realise that the reduced weight as the air inside the balloon expanded in the heat from the fire was what caused the vessel to rise. After that experiments flourished. Within the year England had her own balloon makers; hydrogen was being used for lifting power, and varnished silk and calico were being tried out as materials for the fabric. Before long passengers were being carried, albeit at the whim of the weather, often for several hours at a time. Nor was it just an inventors’ hobby. From the earliest days of the new venture balloons carried scientific instruments. By 1852 Kew Observatory was organising a regular series of ascents for scientific research; the Meteorological Office began using balloons of its own and the War Department was also interested. Balloons in fact had been known and used all through Walter Powell’s lifetime, but they were still something special — a strange and unfamiliar sight to most people. Then, probably in 1880 just as his parliamentary interests were lessening, Walter met Henry Coxwell and was taken on his first flight. The sequence of events after that is a little uncertain. Malmesbury’s ballooning M.P. did not live long enough to be recorded by historians of aeronautics (or of Parliament) and the information we now have about him comes mainly from articles by his faithful reporter in the North Wilts Herald, as well as from many tributes written later by those who knew him, and the official account of the loss of the balloon Saladin in December 1881.

Powell probably received his training, which was said later to have been very thorough, with the Crystal Palace company which had been in existence by then for about thirty years and must have known and taught everything that had been discovered so far about flying balloons. He made several flights with Henry Coxwell, a most experienced balloonist who wrote of him ’I never had a companion who so thoroughly enjoyed himself. It was with extreme regret that I recommended Mr Powell to pass into other hands. He was rather too enterprising and fresh for an aeronaut at my time of life. He had super-abundant pluck and his was the type of chivalry which needed checking if possible.’

In Malmesbury they looked at their Member’s new interest with tolerant amusement. We read how in October 1880 when Walter Powell was to have proposed the election of the town’s new coroner he had to send a telegram of apology as he would be up in a balloon then. There was much friendly laughter at the meeting when the message arrived, and jokes were made about the hope that they would not soon be needing to elect a new M.P. as well. Walter’s own attitude to the new adventure was shown when he told a meeting at Chippenham that ballooning was much more to him than a passing pleasure, it was a wonderful new experience to be able to see so much of the wonders of nature and the works of God.

New Adventures

One flight that Walter made with Mr Coxwell happened in November 1880. The two men took off from Ashford in Kent hoping to cross to France, but an easterly wind carried them to Salisbury which they reached at dusk and by about 10 p.m. they were over Exeter. It was bitterly cold, and must have been dark, so Coxwell advised a descent though Powell still wanted to keep on and try to cross the Bristol Channel to Wales. At Crediton however they were enveloped in a cloud and made a difficult landing near trees in a field a few miles from the town. This frightened some local villagers who thought the balloon was an apparition, but they managed to get lodgings for the night in a nearby farm. Next day they returned to London by train and presumably the deflated balloon and its basket went with them.

There must have been various other training flights, then Malmesbury had its own great day next June. Henry Coxwell himself had intended to make an ascent there with his pupil and let the constituency see ballooning at close quarters. Unfortunately when the day neared he was not well enough so another aeronaut, Mr Thomas Wright, brought his own vessel, Eclipse, for the trip.

The balloon arrived the day before the event and was put in the Cross Hayes and filled by means of long pipes from Malmesbury Gas Works, which stood then on a river bank below Silver Street. The envelope, though quite buoyant, was not fully inflated, and when the time came for the two men to go up Walter Powell took off his great coat in order to leave weight room for their anchor. Malmesbury made it a gala day. The brass band played, as did one from Didmarton, choosing appropriately ’Up in a balloon’ which the two passengers were still able to hear from afar. Free tea and cakes were provided in the Reading Room, and the railway put on an extra five carriages to bring in spectators. The flight was a short one, but quite successful and the balloon was in sight for about three quarters of an hour passing over Lea and Somerford and finally coming down at Spirthill. There is an interesting photograph in Malmesbury Museum showing the balloon still on the ground; the Cross Hayes (with its houses in the back-ground practically unchanged today) is crowded with spectators but unfortunately Walter Powell and Thomas Wright themselves cannot be distinguished.

What Happened to The Eclipse

The Eclipse had its own interesting history, and Mr Cullingham has sent details of it from his researches at Windsor. In 1880 Thomas Wright had flown it himself at the English entry in the International Contest, which he won. Then in 1882 it was used by Colonel Fred Burnaby to cross the channel from Dover to Dieppe. How Walter Powell would have enjoyed that. The rest of the story is not so happy. We. learn of the balloon’s ultimate fate from Major Baden Powell, brother of the famous Scout, who wrote an article on safety in ballooning in 1895. He mentions avoidable accidents being generally due to carelessness, bad management by untrained pilots and the risk from using unsound balloons. Then he refers scathingly to uneducated ignorant men who ’probably through utter lack of capacity to get on in other walks of life’ purchase an outfit at the lowest possible figure and announce themselves as professional aeronauts (which suggests that giving joy—rides in a balloon was becoming a profitable business). Major Baden Powell then tells how he himself had bought the Eclipse ’from an experienced aeronaut’ some years before. It was still sound and he had used it for several flights before having it patched, after which he stowed it away in a cellar before selling it back to the maker for a few pounds as old material. It was however sold again and flown, against Major Baden Powell’s advice. At last it fell into the hands of a young man who experimented by boiling it in soda till it was snowy white and then re-varnishing the material. Finally an officer in India who wanted to test some ideas about parachutes sent to England for a balloon and received the apparently rejuvenated (and now nameless) Eclipse. When he made his ascent from Bombay the balloon burst and he was killed. Incidentally, the young boiler of balloons tried the same thing again soon after, and was killed himself when that one also burst.

A Balloon of His Own

Walter Powell was not the sort of man to be content with always flying in other people’s balloons. He could well afford to have one of his own, and in the autumn of 1881 a balloon was made for him. There is a strong and very sound tradition that this was done in Little Somerford in a shed alongside the Old Rectory and there are still families in that village who are proud to remember that their grandmothers and great—aunts took part in the work. In 1882 a Mr G. Alexander of Highworth wrote after Walter’s death, ’He invited Captain Templer of the balloon department at Woolwich to stay with him at his house at Somerford where Captain Templer cut out and had made up (at the silk works), under his own supervision, a spherical balloon of good Lyons silk, being better and stronger than calico. The network was made at Mr Powell’s own house of silk cord especially prepared and carefully proved for strength, each row being calculated to fit exactly to the balloon. The car was fitted with cork seats and lifebelts and all the latest improvements. It was in this silk balloon that Mr Powell has lately made several successful attempts. He always had a number of carboys of vitriol and a quantity of zinc plates on his premises, ready to inflate his balloon with hydrogen gas.’

There is a reference elsewhere to its being in stripes of red and yellow. Unfortunately Mr Alexander does not say what the balloon was called. There is however a description of Mr Powell and a friend ascending from Cardiff on 22 November in a balloon called Daystar. They passed over Cirencester, cheerfully shouting greetings to the people below, and finally landed at Ampney Crucis in the midst of the Vale of White Horse hounds and followers. Here the whole thing was quickly emptied and packed for transport, which makes it sound very like Walter Powell’s well constructed balloon.

He had another adventure, known to have been in his own vessel, when he was nearly blown out to sea near Dover. The account says that local country folk secured the balloon, but not understanding it, they made gashes in the silk to let the gas out, and the marks showed afterwards where it had had to be repaired. One can imagine how the ever—courteous Walter Powell could have accepted this mistake without hurting anyone’s feelings. There are a number of casual references to ascents, flights, and landings throughout the autumn of 1881. We hear of him at Bath, Malmesbury, Charlcut and Cardiff, and it is possible that he was using the Powell’s family home at the Gaer near Newport as a second base for making his hydrogen. Sometimes he flew alone, (he passed over Stroud once in a solo balloon), sometimes with other balloonists, and in at least one flight he was accompanied by his manservant. This was the trip from Crystal Palace to Malmesbury when they put down at Clewer; the servant mentioned was probably Sergeant Scott, formerly of the Bath Police.

Very little is known of Walter’s household staff. There would have been grooms living at the stables at the top of Little Somerford Hill, but the only other name that has come to light is Thomas Forrester. In 1963 the Mayor of Swindon, Alderman C.W.J. Streetly, kindly gave Malmesbury a match—holder which had once belonged to Walter Powell and had been given after the balloonist’s death to his valet Thomas Forrester, whose great-grandnephew Mr Streetly was. This is now in the Athelstan Museum in Malmesbury. Thomas lived in one of those brick cottages which his master built in the village. Had matters gone differently there might well have been another, more famous, Powell balloon. Thomas Wright, the owner of the Eclipse, wrote later that Walter had often spoken of his determination to fly the Atlantic to America. He declared that neither the size and cost of the balloon nor the dangers of the journey were going to deter him from flying, but it was not, alas, those dangers which prevented his making the attempt.

It was nearly a century later, in 1978, that a balloon crossing of the Atlantic was eventually made.

The Loss of The Saladin

Walter Powell’s last flight was not made in his own balloon. His friend Captain ]ames Templer used to take observations for the Meteorological Office and made ascents to measure the temperature, height, and movements of clouds when a suitable opportunity offered. On 9 December 1881 (he wrote later) London was enveloped in a very peculiar fog and he was anxious to investigate the atmospheric conditions which had produced it. The fog itself prevented an ascent that day by delaying the trains, but as the balloon Saladin was already at Bath, Templer decided to ascend from there. He took Walter Powell as his assistant to manage the balloon while he himself made the observations. Management meant controlling the height at which the balloon was flying. Its direction depended on the wind and air currents but it could be made to rise and fall by either dropping out sacks of ballast to reduce the weight and make it rise higher, or by opening the valve in the balloon neck and letting out some gas so that there was less lifting power and the balloon went down. The valve was operated by a cord and only stayed open while this was being pulled from below. Unlike Walter’s own silk balloon with its hydrogen filling the Saladin was made of calico and used coal gas. A third person, Mr A. Agg·Gardner, also went up on this flight. He may have been just an interested visitor. Captain Templer also tells us that the balloon itself, envelope, car, gear, anchor etc. weighed 492 lbs., the instruments and kit 82 lbs., the three occupants 494 lbs., and the ballast 632 lbs., a total of 1700 lbs. To raise this they had 38,600 cubic feet of gas, supplied presumably by Bath Gas Works, from whose field they took off. They passed over Wells at a height of 4,200 feet and moved on to Glastonbury in a clear sky. Then a current of air took them between Somerton and Langport. They rose to 6,000 feet to investigate a bank of cloud — its temperature was 31°F — and then sank to 2,000 feet and moved towards Crewkerne.

The rest of the story from Captain Templer’s second and detailed report sent to the Meteorological Office on 31 December is as follows:-

’Crewkerne was sighted when we were at 2,000 feet altitude, and Mr Powell allowed the balloon, at my request, to descend, and we passed Beaminster, where we first heard the sea, and immediately I verified my position, and we prepared to effect our descent. The horizontal velocity was increased to thirty-five miles an hour. The balloon was descending most favourably near Symondsbury when Mr Powell threw out some ballast. On his telling me that he had done so I immediately opened the valve. He then asked me if this was necessary? I answered, “We are nearing the sea,” and he replied “I am afraid I rather overdid that last ballast. Glancing downwards I found that our pace had increased. I asked Mr Agg—Gardner to hold the valve open while I looked out for a place to descend; he did this, but almost immediately I took the valve line and never allowed the valve to close until the line was torn from my grasp after I had been thrown out and dragged about sixty yards.

When we were about 200 feet distant from the earth Mr Powell said he could touch the earth with his pilot line, and after a pause he said to me “Shall I part (i.e. drop) the anchor?” I said “No” as I considered it was not the proper moment to do so. I may state here that it was Mr Powell’s duty to part the anchor and any ballast that would be requisite to check too rapid a descent while I continued to keep the valve open, and he would not have appealed to me had he not felt doubtful on the point. Immediately after this we touched the earth at about 4 hours 40 p.m. in the second field, or about 500 yards from the cliff. The car was capsized and turned right over and I was thrown violently out; Mr Gardner was thrown out at the same time, as also were several bags of ballast. Mr Powell was, I think, partially thrown out, but, as far as I could see, he had hold of the hoop, and the car righting underneath him he recovered his position.

I retained my hold of the valve line and was dragged along the earth by it for a considerable distance. I tried very hard to get the line between my teeth, and could I have done so, I have no doubt the balloon would have been crippled. I shouted to Mr Powell to come down the line. At this time he was close to me and about eight feet from the earth. The line was torn from my grasp by a succession of jerks, both my hands being severely lacerated. The balloon then floated along close to the earth for some 300 feet until it reached a fence, which the car grazed as it went by. I had risen to my feet and could see Mr Powell standing up in the car.’

There follow various suggestions as to what Walter Powell might have done to save himself, such as jumping out, throwing out the anchor or opening the valve again. Captain Templer assumed that he was trying to save the balloon by either bringing it down later on the beach or flying across the Channel. His first report made immediately after the accident says here ’The balloon rose rapidly and Mr Powell waved his hand to me.’ The final report continues:-

’The balloon, after passing the fence, began to ascend and continued to do so steadily for about ten minutes when it was lost to sight in the clouds,’

Nothing more was ever seen or heard of Walter Powell or the Saladin. Back on the ground Mr Agg-Gardner was found to have broken his leg. Several local helpers had arrived and he was left in the charge of a cottager, Robert Warren, where the family, a hundred years later, were still telling the story of what had happened. Templer, not waiting to dress his bruises and lacerations, went off to start rescue operations. He sent word to the coastguards and to the harbour master at Bridport to keep a look out and put out boats, while he himself went to Bridport to telegraph the Commanding Officer of the Royal Engineers to prepare a steamer. When he reached Weymouth the S.S. Commodore was ready waiting and there was also a telegram from Bridport saying something had been seen to drop into the sea just south of the town. The area was searched at once with no success. The captain thought the object must have been gear Walter had thrown out to lighten the car, as he doubted if the balloon itself would have fallen close enough inshore to be visible at 5.00 p.m. (It was, after all, a winter evening, and the Saladin was coloured green and yellow). They continued searching in the Commodore right across the Channel until five o’clock next morning, but nothing was found. Walter’s brother Henry and his sister Mrs Ienkins came to Weymouth and continued investigations, including dredging, for another fortnight but it was all in vain. The only relic of the Saladin was a broken thermometer found on the site of the accident and that was given to Mrs. ]enkins.

The last paragraphs of Captain Templer’s report say;-

’I feared that Mr Powell was in imminent danger of coming down in mid—channel. But owing to my own knowledge of his aeronautical experience and determination, I had great hopes that he would make the French coast. He had often proved that he was a most fearless aeronaut, and had made more than twenty ascents this year, having a perfect knowledge of the whole management of a balloon.

I lament most deeply the untimely fate of my gallant friend; but I have the melancholy satisfaction of feeling that, both at the moment of the accident and afterwards, nothing was left undone which could have averted it.’

A Good Friend Gone

Malmesbury was grief-stricken. The Liberal party cancelled a meeting they had arranged and the Conservatives met to register in silence their profound regrets.

In the local papers there were tributes from all sorts and conditions of people — though surprisingly little in The Times; perhaps because there was no official date of death. Any member of Parliament lost in such a spectacular manner would be an item of news, but the paragraphs about Walter Powell in his own area are much more than that. There are, naturally, lists of his benefactions, but most significant are such remarks as ’his unostentatious, unknown kindnesses are beyond description’ or again, ’Mr Powell has hit the happy medium. While disposed to help a not very prosperous town with his great wealth he has done so in a way to which none can take exception,’ and from a fellow balloonist, ’Upon the balloon ground Mr Powell’s fearlessness and enthusiasm in the art and practice of aerostatics have passed for a proverb.’ Questions were raised too about the safety of the Saladin and why it had not had cork seats and other safety devices like Walter’s own balloon, and why it had carried a passenger. Captain Templer repeated the substance of his own report in the Press. Another interesting item — so typical of Walter Powell — which came to light at this time was that he had been planning an emigration scheme for farmers’ sons in the area. Enquiries were already afoot for him to take out a party of young men to South Africa and see what the opportunities were there, but all fell through, alas, at his death.

Then, after the grief of losing their friend and benefactor came the melancholy business of settling up his affairs. Walter had made a will in 1878 leaving everything to his brother Henry, and in ]uly ’82, six months after the loss of the Saladin, Henry officially took over. The gross estate was then just under £40,0O0 (which would have made him a millionaire in twentieth century money). All Walter Powell’s property was sold. The Old Rectory did not belong to him, it was rented from Mr Evans, but the stables, the cottages he had built in the village and the Reading Room at Malmesbury and Great Somerford were all put up for auction by Mr W. Teagle of Little Somerford, under instructions from the Powell family solicitor in Merthyr Tydfil. Copies of the detailed notice of sale still exist and tell us exactly what the property was, but unfortunately there is no record of the buyers. The Reading Rooms had been entirely for the free use of their respective parishes. By keeping possession of them in his own hands the M.P. had retained responsibility for the upkeep, maintenance and all the other expenses which would otherwise have fallen on the users of the rooms. This great benefit was now lost. As we have already seen, the Malmesbury room was bought for that town and continued in use, and the local Methodists borrowed enough money to buy the Great Somerford room as a Chapel. All the rest went to private buyers, the cottages being sold with their tenants keeping the right to remain.

There were separate sales for the smaller items which included six hundred books from the Reading Rooms and all their furniture down to the fender and fire irons. The railway station lost the wooden hut and weighing machine which had been provided for it, and furniture from the Old Rectory was sold as well. A few of these items are still known to exist. Miss Barnes at Lea still uses Walter’s kitchen table which her grandfather bought to help furnish a house for his bride. What happened to the balloon which the Little Somerford ladies so carefully stitched does not, unfortunately, seem to be recorded in this area. lt would be interesting to know where it went. Henry Powell had been living in Ireland when his brother was lost, but he moved to Cirencester some time later and died here, from the kick of a horse, in 1894. Malmesbury was left with its memories — memories of parties he had given, kindnesses he had done, cottages he had built, and stories about seeing the balloon taking off from local fields or coming back home, deflated, on a farm cart after a flight. He was a much loved and most unusual man and some of the stories about him have gradually turned into legends which, as legends will do, occasionally elaborate on history. There is one sad little tale though which sounds to bear a pathetic stamp of truth; an elderly lady in Malmesbury recalls that when she was a child an old gentleman, who had lost his memory, used to walk about the town and say sadly as he stopped to look up into the sky, ’My master went away in a balloon and he hasn’t come back.’

Surprisingly enough there was no memorial erected in the town itself. Little Somerford has a good clear tablet inside the church and there is an inscription on the family tombstone at Bassaleg in Gwent but that was all. Now, thanks to Mr Hatchwell, he has a fascinating memorial in the house where he once used to live. The fallen yew tree he must once have walked under was made into a fireplace and is carved on each side with a balloon. One carries three passengers and the other shows the solitary Walter waving a friendly hand as he sailed away.

Then, in 1982, it became possible to commemorate him in a wider field. A school which the Church of England planned to build in another parish had to be given up for various reasons and the diocese used the money instead to erect one good modern building to combine and replace the two old schools of Great and Little Somerford. It stands in Dauntsey Road, Great Somerford and is named the Walter Powell School. This school has the warm support of both parishes and the great firm of Powell Duffryn has taken a friendly interest in it. Hector Cole made the weather vane, shaped like a balloon, which turns above it and Walter Powell’s name is at the gate.

I meant to be researching something else entirely but then I stumbled upon the sad story of Walter Powell, a Welsh gentleman born in 1842 who disappeared in 1881.

Walter Powell, the Tory Member of Parliament for Malmesbury, took up ballooning in 1880 after the death of his wife. He received training and soon had his own balloon made for him. The red and yellow striped silk balloon used hydrogen gas and was designed by his friend, James Templer.

Colonel James Lethbridge Brooke Templer is considered the godfather of the modern Royal Air Force. He pioneered the British military use of balloons and airships. In 1878 Captain Templer started a British Army balloon school in Woolwich, using his own balloon, Crusader. Templer was also the Instructor in Ballooning to the Royal Engineers and commanded the military balloon department at Chatham.

Walter Powell became an avid balloonist. He had a dream that one day a balloon would be able to fly across the Atlantic to America. Ballooning took over his life.

In Malmesbury they looked at their Member’s new interest with tolerant amusement. We read how in October 1880 when Walter Powell was to have proposed the election of the town’s new coroner he had to send a telegram of apology as he would be up in a balloon then. There was much friendly laughter at the meeting when the message arrived, and jokes were made about the hope that they would not soon be needing to elect a new M.P. as well.

Captain Templer often used balloons to make observations for the Meteorological Office. On the 9th of December, 1881, London was enveloped by a very peculiar fog and Templer wished to ascend to investigate the conditions which had produced it. The Meteorological Society had been given access to the newly developed military balloon Saladin from the War Office and it was available to Captain Templer for an ascent to measure the temperature and atmospheric conditions which had produced the fog. The Saladin was moored at Bath.

Captain Templer arranged a flight for the 10th of December and invited the 39-year-old Powell to attend to the balloon, which would leave Templer free to make his observations. A gentleman by the name of A. Agg-Gardner was also invited to join them.

 

Saladin was a green and yellow calico balloon which used coal gas. The balloon rose when sacks of ballast where dropped out to reduce the weight. A valve in the balloon neck allowed the balloonists to let out the gas, reducing the lifting power and bringing the balloon down. The direction was dependent on wind and air currents.

They departed from the field at Bath Gas Works on the 10th in poor conditions and passed over Wells at 4,200 feet. They passed over Glastonbury and then a current of air blew them between Somerton and Langport. Here, they rose to 5,000 feet to investigate a bank of cloud and then sank to 2,000 feet and drifted towards Crewkerne.

Visibility was poor. Captain Templer heard the roar of waves and realised they were within half a mile of the sea nears Eypesmouth, west of Bridgport. The balloon was now rapidly drifting towards the sea and Captain Templer felt that the descent was critical.

Captain Templer reported the final moments to the Meteorological Office:

’Crewkerne was sighted when we were at 2,000 feet altitude, and Mr Powell allowed the balloon, at my request, to descend, and we passed Beaminster, where we first heard the sea, and immediately I verified my position, and we prepared to effect our descent. The horizontal velocity was increased to thirty-five miles an hour. The balloon was descending most favourably near Symondsbury when Mr Powell threw out some ballast. On his telling me that he had done so I immediately opened the valve. He then asked me if this was necessary? I answered, “We are nearing the sea,” and he replied “I am afraid I rather overdid that last ballast.” Glancing downwards I found that our pace had increased.

The Saladin touched the ground less than 150 metres (450 feet) from the edge of a cliff. The “landing” was uncontrolled and violent. Captain Templer half-fell, half-disembarked from the balloon as the car capsized, still holding the valve line in his hand. The balloon rose sharply as a result of the change in weight and Agg-Gardner fell out as well, breaking his leg in the process.

Powell remained in the car as it righted itself. Captain Templar was dragged along by the valve line and shouted at Powell to come down. The car was still just 2.5 metres / 8 feet above the ground but Powell did not jump. The valve line was ripped from Captain Templer’s hands as the balloon rose. Templer said that he believed that Powell stayed with the balloon hoping that he could save it by bringing it down on the beach. The Captain said that it was possible with the light weight that the balloon might even make it across the Channel.

Powell was last seen waving his hand to Captain Templar as the balloon was swept out to sea. No trace of Powell was ever found.

Two years later, the New York Times reported that the remains of Saladin had been discovered. Fragments and shreds of cloth were recovered in the mountains of Sierra del Pedroza in Asturias, on the northwest coast of Spain.

The balloon had in fact made it across the Channel and even the Bay of Biscay, but of its passenger there was no sign.

Walter Powell - 1842-81

Benefactor, Philanthropist, M.P. and Balloonist.

Walter Powell was born in Newport Wales into a very wealthy family; his father was reported to be the largest coal exporter in the world. In 1867 he rented Dauntsey House, a big country house four miles south east of Malmesbury and lived there with his widowed mother. Within two years he was elected to Parliament as the conservative M.P. for Malmesbury.

In 1870 he presented to the town a reading room in Silver Street (now the King’s Nursery). This was tastefully decorated with a fine collection of Buck and other horns, skins, etc. There were two rooms; ‘the first room was set apart for the use of the upper classes and tradesmen and the inner room was provided for the lower classes.’ No euphemisms then about social position.

He had built a ‘Ragged school in Burnivale’ in 1873. The school numbered about 180 and ‘an excellent female teacher from London is regularly engaged to teach them.’

The quotes are from James Bird a Victorian clergyman who wrote a history of the town.

Walter also gave prizes for the local fatstock show and there is an account of five wagon loads of children being taken for tea at his new house at Eastcourt (two miles nor-nor-west of Malmesbury) They were preceded by the town band. History does not relate how many children to a wagon nor whether they were more trouble than a wagon load of monkeys.

He was among the first subscribers for the Malmesbury railway and paid for gas lighting in the Abbey. The combustion products of the gas, sulphuric and carbonic acids, cannot have done the delicate stone carvings any good! He distributed fifty tons of coal to the elderly poor each winter plus many other charitable acts.

He was a diligent and popular M.P.. In the 1880 election 917 votes were cast (small electorate not apathy) and he received 607 nearly two thirds, but it is as a balloonist that he is remembered.

The picture shows the balloon Eclipse about to take off from the Cross Hayes Malmesbury (little changed since save cars now rather than people). The local gas company laid a special pipe to provide the gas. Rumour has it that so much gas was needed that the rest of the town had to do without.

In December 1881 Walter Powell flew his balloon, Saladin, with two friends to take some meteorological observations. They found themselves being blown out to sea and had to make a rapid descent near Chesil Beach. They landed heavily and his two passengers and some ballast were thrown out; one of them breaking his leg. Powell stayed in the basket but the balloon, now much lighter, took off once more. Water Powell was last seen waving to his companions as the balloon disappeared out to sea.

He was never seen again.

 commemorate Walter Powell's 1881 hot air balloon launch from Cross Hayes. ... Venue: Malmesbury Library; Date: Saturday, 20 May, 2017; Time: 10.30am to .

Sun 21st May 2017

The Eclipse Flight – Launch Day!

A hot air balloon will be launching from the Cross Hayes, with Sir David Hempleman-Adams and James Gray riding in the basket. The event will commemorate Walter Powell’s 1881 hot air balloon launch from the very same spot, 136 years prior.
Fun activities start from 4.30pm with lift off between 6.30pm – 7pm.
The event will be supported by local businesses who will be opening their doors / providing stalls on the day. As well as food and drink, expect all the traditional favourites, including a tombola, a coconut shy and an old-fashioned hammer strike. Children can enjoy modern and vintage fire trucks, face painting, balloons, stickers and activity packs.
Back up date in case of poor lift off conditions is Sunday 4th June 2017. Please check website for live updates before you leave home!

The Eclipse Flight is a special event designed to recreate Walter Powell’s 1881 hot air balloon launch, from the very same spot, 136 years prior. For full event details, click here.


Renowned explorer, Sir David Hempleman-Adams will be launching his hot air balloon from the Cross Hayes in Malmesbury. For more information on Sir David Hempleman-Adams, click here.

For a fascinating insight into the life of Walter Powell, visit The Balloon Book page. The Balloon Book is a limited-edition reprint of ‘Walter Powell MP The Balloonist’ written by Portia Hobbs. It will be available at the event and from Athelstan Museum thereafter.

A HOT air balloon is to be launched from the town centre of Malmesbury, re-creating an 1881 flight from the very same spot.

The event marks the flight of the Eclipse balloon, with Mr Walter Powell, a former MP for Malmesbury, in the basket.

Wiltshire explorer Sir David Hempleman-Adams, from Box, will be taking to the skies when the balloon sets off on the Eclipse Flight on May 21, raising money for the Friends of Athelstan Museum and the restoration of the Moravian Church.

Event organiser Angela Sykes said: “There is an enormous buzz in the town about this weekend, with all sorts of businesses supporting us.

 

“This is a weekend not to be missed and is highly unlikely ever to be repeated.

“The day will start at 4.30pm with lots of entertainment for all the family and lift off will be from 6.30pm-7pm, proclaimed by a brass band playing the same music which was played in 1881 when Mr Powell took off in the Eclipse.”

Born into a wealthy family in 1842, Mr Powell and his two brothers and at least two sisters grew up in The Gaer, a large house on the outskirts of Newport which later became Gwent College.

There is evidence that they were a close knit family, with Powell’s father naming his ships Thomas Powell, Anne Powell and Sarah Powell.

In 1867, Powell’s father, a successful mine owner, died of a severe cold, and Powell and his widowed mother rented Dauntsey House in North Wiltshire, where he was later elected as MP for the borough of Malmesbury.

After the sudden death of his father, Powell and his mother completed his business negotiations with George Elliot, another wealthy industrialist, and sold the family business, which became the successful Powell-Duffryn Company of today.

As his interest in politics lessened, Powell took up ballooning.

One of Powell’s most successful flights took off from Cross Hayes in Malmesbury in November 1880.

Originally, Powell was to be accompanied by his ballooning teacher Henry Coxwell. As the day neared Coxwell was not well enough to fly, so another balloonist, Thomas Writ, brought his own vessel for the trip, the Eclipse.

Powell’s last flight was in December 1881 in the Saladin, a balloon belonging to his good friend Captain James Templer, accompanied by Mr A Agg-Gardner.

As they were in full flight they found themselves being blown out to sea and needed to make a rapid descent near Chesil Beach.

The balloon landed heavily and threw out Powell’s two passengers. With Powell still in the basket, the balloon took off once more, and Powell was not seen again.

See www.malmesburyeclipseflight.co.uk for more information on the recreation of the Eclipse flight in Malmesbury.

Please note the event will not be happen again on the reserve date (June 4th). This back up date was only if the event could not happen due to rain and was cancelled in advance. Whilst the balloon didn’t quite make it up, the event did go ahead and planning, organisation and insurance requirements mean it won’t be happening again in the near future. The pilot made the decision to abort and Sir David Hempleman-Adams and everyone attending and involved were disappointed of course. A great day out with many many enjoying the fun and visiting our very special Athelstan Museum. All proceeds will go towards the Moravian Church restoration. 


Type:
Saladin (Hydrogen Balloon)
Owner/operator: Walter Powell
Registration: Unregistered
C/n / msn: 1
Fatalities: Fatalities: 1 / Occupants: 3
Other fatalities: 0
Airplane damage: Aircraft missing
Location: English Channel, off Eype Mouth, west of Bridport, Dorset -    United Kingdom
Phase: Approach
Nature: Private
Departure airport: Bath, Somerset
Destination airport: Bridport, Dorset
Narrative:
At the 1868 general election Walter Powell was elected Member of Parliament for Malmesbury, Wiltshire. He held the seat until his disappearance and presumed death from a balloon accident at the age of 39 in 1881. 

The Meteorological Society had borrowed a balloon called Saladin from the War Office. On 10 December 1881, Powell accompanied Captain Templer and Mr. A. Agg-Gardner, brother of James Agg-Gardner MP, in an ascent at Bath, Somerset. The balloon was carried over Somerset to Exeter and then into Dorset. The crew tried to descend near Eype Mouth, Bridport, Dorset (at approximate co ordinates 39.72°N 2.78°W) but the balloon hit the ground so hard that Templer was thrown out. As a result, the balloon rose again; Agg-Gardner fell out from a height of about eight feet and broke his leg, and Powell, remaining in the basket of the balloon, was swept out to sea to the south east. Templer, who had still hold of the line, shouted to Powell to climb down the line. Powell made a move for the rope but the balloon rose, tearing the line out of Templer's hands. Powell was last seen waving his hand to Captain Templer and nothing more was heard of him. 

Powell was declared "missing", with a presumed date of death of December 13, 1881, although no trace of him or the wreckage of the Hydrogen Balloon "Saladin" was ever found. This incident may have been the earliest known and/or reported fatal ballooning accident in the UK

Mr. Walter Powell, M.P. for Malmesbury, has, we fear, long

ago paid the penalty of his too great faith in the safety of balloons. Ascending, on Saturday last, with Captain Templer end Mr. Agg-Gardner, from Bath, the balloon drifted rapidly to- wards the Channel, and when within half a mile of the sea, near Bridport, they attempted a descent. The balloon came down rather too rapidly, and the car struck the ground with such force that Captain Templer and Mr. Agg-Gardner were thrown out, the former being bruised, and the latter having his leg broken. Mr. Powell remained in the car, and the balloon immediately shot up again with great velocity, and went off in the direction of the sea, and no one as yet knows what became of it. Some- thing was seen to fall into the sea soon after, which many believed to be the balloon. Again, some French fishermen stated that they had seen a large balloon floating down the Channel; and various persons in Alderney asserted that they had seen a large balloon floating eastward in the air. However, nothing certain is as yet known of its fate, and it is almost im- possible that Mr. Powell, even if still in the balloon, should be alive. It is said that there was no supply of water or food, and the extreme cold would render food and cordials absolutely essential to life. If Mr. Powell remained in the balloon, it can only be his corpse which is floating about with it now.

Malmesbury in Wiltshire is busy preparing for the re-enactment of a Hot Air Balloon flights in hot air balloon balloon rides hot air balloon flight which originally happened in 1881.

The Eclipse Flight took to the skies on  21st May 1881, flown by Walter Powell, a Victorian explorer and the MP for Malmesbury. The flight launched from a site which is now the Cross Hayes car park, located in the town centre. On Sunday 21st May, the balloon will be flown by the explorer Sir David Hempleman-Adams and the MP for North Wiltshire, James Gray.

Back in 1881, the town of Malmesbury attended the launch, cheering their hero on. Powell was passionate about hot air ballooning, and took off on another flight just a few months afterwards. However, the MP and his balloon never returned and neither were seen again.

The flight on 21st May 2017 will take off from the very same spot as the original, around 6.30pm. Prior to the launch, there will be a number of activities to celebrate the event, although they will officially start on Friday 19th May, with a day of activities also included on Saturday.

The organiser of the event, Angela Sykes, said that all the proceeds from the event will be donated to the restoration project for the Moravian Church. The church has stood for 20 years as an eyesore, but will become a central point for the community and local museum once the rejuvenation is completed.

Hot air balloons hold a fascination for many people, whether they are taking a balloon flight or are observing a flight.

A by-election was held in Malmesbury the following year. 

Is this the only by-election ever called without the previous member's resignation or his body being found?
The man after whom our school is   
named,Walter Powell,was a local M.P.
and magistrate from 1868 to 1881.He
was a popular "society" figure who
used his wealth to assist poor people
inthis area,including building reading
rooms,subsidising coal prices and
paying for a "ragged school" in
Malmesbury.His home was in our area.
He was also famous for his interest
in ballooning which he used to assist
the Meteorological Office.He made his
own balloon from silk and flew it
locally.Sadly,on December 10th 1881 he
was blown out to sea while ballooning
and was never seen again.
Our present school has an unusual
weather vane on its roof in the shape
of a balloon in memory of Walter
Powell.His association with the school
continues through the interest of the
Powell Duffryn Company.
1 September 2001

Gwent local history the journal of Gwent Local History Council.

Dry As Dust

A Fortean in the Archives


Walter Powell, the Saladin, and some very early cases of lights in the sky (1881-1902)

April 26, 2010 - 14:58 — Mike

At a time when MPs are in the news, and not often for the right reasons, I want to take a moment to dwell on the more worthwhile, and (from a Fortean perspective, anyway) peculiarly illuminating career of a long-forgotten predecessor of the current bunch of petty crooks. His name was Walter Powell (1842-1881) [below left], he was Tory MP for Malmesbury in Wiltshire, and his strange and lonely death offers a good deal of unexpected insight into the perennially fascinating topics of expectant attention and witness perception.

First, a snippet of biography. Walter Powell was the youngest son of a tough and ruthless Welsh mine owner (a tautology, I know) who ran his pits for profit first and safety very much last, emerging during the 1840s as the largest coal exporter in the world. Having driven through a 20% cut in wages and broken the resultant strike, Thomas Powell's mines were plagued by accidents, culminating in two major explosions at Dyffryn, in Aberdare, and the deaths of more than 80 men. According to Walter Powell's biographer, the Dyffryn disasters belatedly shamed Thomas senior into repentence for his past behaviour, and inculcated in Walter Powell a determination to use his own inherited wealth more for the public good.

In the late 1860s, Powell moved to Wiltshire, where in 1868 he was selected as Conservative parliamentary candidate for the market town of Malmesbury. Powell won the seat in the subsequent election with a narrow majority of 23, which most likely says something positive about his personality and character, as well as his wealth; the election was a Liberal triumph, and Malmesbury had been a solidly Liberal seat since the 1830s, so Powell's victory was achieved very much against the prevailing political winds of the day. The evidence suggests he was a good MP and a benefactor to the town; he earned the soubriquet "the poor man's friend," and among his achievements was the endowment of a Ragged School there and the supply of 50 tons of coal each winter to Malmesbury's "aged poor". More pertinently, from our perspective, Powell was also an enthusiast for all sorts of new inventions. He acquired a magic lantern at around the time just such a contraption was suspected of being used to create the apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Knock, in Ireland, and in 1880, after the death of his wife, he took up ballooning and became very keen on aeronautics.

Ballooning in those days was a preserve of the wealthy. The balloons themselves were hand-made to order, from "good Lyons silk" (Powell's own apparently in the nearby village of Little Somerford), and filled either with hot air or, in the case of more advanced types, hydrogen gas. They were, of course, dependent on the wind and impossible to steer, making fine judgement of course, distance and the likelihood of being blown off course and out to sea important qualities for aeronauts – particularly those living in a small island kingdom such as Britain. Powell seems to have been trained as a balloonist by the noted Crystal Palace company, and received some personal tuition from the celebrated aeronaut Henry Coxwell, with whom he made a number of flights. Coxwell liked Powell but seems to have found him rather too daring, writing:

I never had a companion who so thoroughly enjoyed himself. It was with extreme regret that I recommended Mr Powell to pass into other hands. He was rather too enterprising and fresh for an aeronaut at my time of life. He had superabundant pluck and his was the type of chivalry which needed checking if possible.

Coming from Coxwell, this was quite a statement, since Powell's teacher had been the pilot involved in a ridiculously dangerous assault on the world altitude record a few years earlier – an effort that ended, as I recall pretty vividly from a book on daring aerial adventures that I devoured as a kid, with the balloon ascending into the stratosphere past 35,000 feet, one of its two crewmen (neither of whom was, of course, equipped with oxygen), collapsing, unconscious, and Coxwell himself eventually saving them both by clambering out of the basket while temporarily blinded by lack of air, his hands so frozen they were useless, so as to pull the gas release cord with his teeth.

Powell made numerous flights in his own balloon during 1881, but also assisted fellow aeronauts with theirs. He was a close friend of Captain J.L.B. Templer, a pioneer in military ballooning who ran the War Office's 'Balloon Corps', and he helped him make several ascents to take meteorological readings. On 10 December 1881, Powell, Templar and a third man, named in press reports at the time as "A. Agg-Gardner", travelled to Bath to make a flight in a new military balloon that had been stationed there named Saladin. The Saladin, it may be noted here, utilised not expensive hydrogen but 38,000 cubic feet of "used coal gas," and had an open basket equipped with various scientific instruments. The mysterious Agg-Gardner, meanwhile, was probably a relative of Powell's fellow Conservative MP James Agg-Gardner, of Cheltenham – a man whose chief contribution to political life, in a near-40-year career in parliament, was to serve on the Commons Kitchen Committee and supervise the daily serving of tea on the Commons terrace.

With Templer, Powell and Agg-Gardner on board, the Saladin made a long flight across Somerset and Devon, borne south by the prevailing winds. Conditions, particularly visibility, were poor, and the crew only became aware that they were approaching the English Channel when they heard the roar of the sea. Templer made what must have been a very hurried emergency descent, ripping opening a valve to allow gas to escape and the balloon to touch down. In any event, the landing was uncontrolled and violent; Agg-Gardner and Templer were thrown from the basket, Agg-Gardner broke an arm and a leg, and Powell was left stranded and alone on the by now far lighter craft [The Graphic, 17 December 1881]. Templer's report, made a few weeks later to the Met. Office, sums up the next stage of the disaster as follows:

I retained my hold of the valve line and was dragged along the earth by it for a considerable distance. I tried very hard to get the line between my teeth, and could I have done so, I have no doubt the balloon would have been crippled. I shouted to Mr. Powell to come down the line. At this time he was close to me and about eight feet from the earth. The line was torn from my grasp by a succession of jerks, both my hands being severely lacerated. The balloon then floated along close to the earth for some 300 feet until it reached a fence, which the car grazed as it went by. I had risen to my feet and could see Mr. Powell standing up in the car...  The balloon rose rapidly and Mr Powell waved his hand to me.

Quite why Powell chose to stay on board the Saladin was never clear; it may simply have been fear of injuring himself by jumping. Templer thought that, as an experienced aeronaut, he was hoping to save the balloon by bringing her down on the nearby beach, and even when it became clear that the Saladin could not be brought to earth so soon, he still hoped Powell would succeed in crossing the Channel to France. Most contemporary aeronauts, apparently, believed the lightened Saladin would prove easily capable of such a crossing. In the event, however, neither Powell nor the Saladin was seen again. The helpless MP drifted out over Bridport, heading towards the sea, and there, it was presumed, he came down into the Channel or the Atlantic and drowned.The only firm evidence of the Saladin's progress that could be found at the time was a thermometer, "with a single human hair attached," that was picked up on the beach at Portland [The Graphic, 17 December 1881].

 

It was what happened next that gives the saga of the Saladin its Fortean relevance. Powell was a well-known man; his disappearance was big news, and widely reported as such in the newspapers. The consequence was a flurry of "sightings" of the missing balloon, which flooded in not just from Devon, France and the Channel (there was at least one in the vicinity of Alderney [Western Mail, 17 December 1881]), but from areas much further off – including many where the balloon could not possibly have been. These reports were picked up and read with interest by Charles Fort [Complete Bookspp.461-2], who in New Lands devoted a full page to sightings of mysterious "lights in the sky" reported in the days that followed, many of which moved about in a manner quite unlike any balloon:

The extraordinary circumstance is that reports came in upon a luminous object that was seen in the sky at the time that this balloon disappeared. In the London Times, it is said that a luminous object had been seen, evening of the 13th, moving in various directions in the sky near Cherbourg. It is said that upon the night of the 16th three customhouse guards, at Laredo, Spain, had seen something like a balloon in the sky, and had climbed a mountain in order to see it better, but that it had shot out sparks, and had disappeared – and had been reported from Bilbao, Spain, the next day. In the Morning Post, it is said that this luminous display was the chief feature; that it was this sparkling that had made the object visible. In the Standard, December 16, is an account of something that was seen in the sky, five o'clock in the morning of December 15, by Capt. McBain, of the steamship Countess of Aberdeen, off the coast of Scotland, 25 miles from Montrose. Through glasses, the object seemed to be a light attached to something thought to be the car of a balloon, increasing and decreasing in size – a large light – "as large as the light at Girdleness" [a lighthouse]. It moved in a opposite direction to that of the wind, though possibly with wind of an upper stratum. It was visible half an hour, and when it finally disappeared, was moving toward Bervie, a town on the Scottish coast about 12 miles north of Montrose. In the Morning Post it is said that the explanation is simple: that someone in Monfrieth, 8 miles from Dundee, had, late in the evening of the 15th, sent up a fire-balloon, "which had been carried along the coast by a gentle breeze, and, after burning all night, extinguished and collapsed off Montrose, early on Thursday morning (16th)." This story of a balloon that wafted to Montrose, and that was evidently traced until it collapsed near Montrose, does not so simply explain an object that was seen 25 miles from Montrose. In the Standard, December 19, it is said that two bright lights were seen over Dartmouth Harbor, upon the 11th.

If we plot these balloon sightings on a map [below], we can see that those in Spain are more or less in line with the likely route followed by a balloon borne on winds that were moving pretty much directly south – though whether the distance travelled, about 500 miles, is credible is harder to say. It's equally possible to state with some certainty that whatever might have been seen around Montrose, and off the Scottish coast, certainly could not have been the Saladin, and was almost equally unlikely to have been a "fire-balloon" capable of burning for the entire duration of a northern winter night. Whether the Scottish reports were suggested by word of the disappearance of a rogue balloon is harder to say, but news of the Saladin's loss had made the papers by 12 December [Leeds Mercury and many others, 12 December 1881], so it's entirely credible that reports made in Scotland two or three days after that were directly influenced by knowledge of Walter Powell's appalling and evocative predicament. The Countess of Aberdeen's sighting, on the other hand, may have been of something else entirely... something only associated with the Saladinwhen the ship made port and heard the news.

 

Thus, in any case, the story of the Saladin as reported in 1881... and so far as most later accounts of the tale go, that was that – Powell and his balloon had simply vanished, presumably to end their days somewhere out in the Atlantic. In the course of doing the research for this post, however, I discovered something rather interesting: a much later report, in the New York Times [24 January 1883], of the discovery of what appeared to be the remnants of a large balloon at Sierra del Pedroza, in the Asturias, directly to the west of the two Spanish locations mentioned as sighting spots in 1881. Ballooning was not practised in northern Spain at this time, and the discovery – though originating in a report from Paris, of indeterminate reliability, which mentioned only the recovery of "a few fragments and shreds of cloth" – was immediately assumed to be the Saladin. Of Powell, however, there was no sign.

"The wreck of the balloon discovered in the Spanish mountains," concluded the NYT,

settles the dispute as to the strength of that pride of the aeronaut; it undoubtedly  did not pitch into the Channel, but half-inflated with gas, sailed through the air for many days. But while the tattered rags and splintered wood which formed it have been rotting among the peaks of Spain, the bones of the intrepid aeronaut have been whitening beneath the waters of the English Channel.

As for Templer, though, there is one interesting postscript. He continued to serve with the Royal Engineers' balloon unit for a further two decades, and in 1899 was posted, with three of his contraptions, to South Africa to serve in the Boer War. British balloons were widely used during the mobile phase of the conflict to keep an eye open for elusive Boer troops, and their appearance there evidently had quite an impact on the Boers themselves, since they soon began making reports of unknown aerial craft over their northern territories in almost precisely the same terms as were to become so familiar a few years later, during the various phantom airship scares of the next decade. These incidents – summarised by Nigel Watson and analysed afresh a while ago in the excellent Airminded blog – plainly had little connection to the actual activities of Templer's units; the Boers feared bombs drops from free-flying balloons (a virtually untested and highly difficult and dangerous proposition at the time), while the Royal Engineer's command consisted solely of securely tethered observation balloons that operated in close conjunction with the main British army [above]. Says Airminded:

The Boers were initially quite worried about the British balloons, for which they had no counter. It was thought they might be used to float over Boer cities to drop bombs. In October 1899 the following telegraph message was sent from (actually, the source says received by, but that makes little sense) the Transvaal headquarters:

Balloons — Yesterday evening two balloons were seen at Irene, proceeding in the direction of Springs. Official telegraphists instructed to inform the Commander in Chief about any objects seen in the sky.

Here’s an example of the sort of response that was received, in this case from Vryheid:

Airship with powerful light plainly visible from here in far off distance towards Dundee. Telegraphist at Paulpietersburg also spied one, and at Amsterdam three in the direction of Zambaansland to the south east.

Shots were fired at these supposed balloons or airships, and Transvaal apparently bought powerful searchlights from Germany to sweep the skies for them (although if that’s true, it must have been done before the outbreak of war, because the British imposed an effective blockade on the Boer republics). The British balloons were nowhere near the Transvaal, so the Boers were seeing what they didn’t want to see, so to speak. But lest it be thought that Tommy Atkins was too sober and rational to be afflicted with such visions, General Buller’s men thought they were being followed by a light which appeared at dusk, which they called the ‘Boer signal’. It was probably Venus.

This book comes from a variety of sources. When the local history, Somerford Magna, was put together in 1976 various personal memories from old inhabitants of Malmesbury and Little Somerford were used for the chapter on Walter Powell, Malmesbury's loved but little recorded M.P. Later and more rigorous enquiries show that some of the local traditions had become confused and unfortunately not everything written in the former account is accurate.

The written record is limited, but much reliable information has come through Mr. Gordon Cullingham, the archivist of Windsor. Mr. Cullingham discovered that Balloon Meadow at Cleaver near Windsor was so called locally because Walter Powell had put down in it on a flight from Crystal Palace to Malmesbury, and he came here himself to investigate. He has since used his influence to get information about the Powell family and copies of the official reports on Walter's death, all of which has been generously allowed to be used here.

A copy of the auctioneer's lists (he was called William Teagle of Little Somerford) of all the buildings and land sold after Walter Powell's death is in the County Archives at Trowbridge and that tells a great deal about him. There was, too, an historian James Bird who wrote an interesting History of Malmesbury in 1876 and dedicated it to Walter Powell. This describes two of his gifts to Malmesbury, the Reading Room and the Ragged School, but there were more buildings and many adventures to come after that.

The firm of Powell-Duffryn, (originally the Powell family's own business,) has kindly sent information about it and them, and many local people have told their own traditions and memories. Miss Dorothy Barnes, the descendant of a Powell tenant, produced a most helpful collection of cuttings and a picture of Walter Powell himself. But for knowledge of this remarkable man's everyday life here we are chiefly indebted to a nameless good reporter on the staff of the North Wilts Herald. He probably lived in Malmesbury for he steadily recorded his Member's social, local, political and aeronautical doings in detail. His articles have every appearance of being accurate; they are not florid or fulsome and nothing learned from other sources contradicts them. We owe him a considerable debt.

THE POWELL FAMILY

Walter Powell was born in 1842, the youngest child of Thomas Powell, a very wealthy mine-owner living at Newport in South Wales.

Thomas's career was quite remarkable. He was born at Chepstow in 1779, but the family soon moved to Newport and on his father's death the young Thomas was left managing the timber business they had established there. A biographer, Howard Meyrick, wrote that at this age, 'his temperament, already naturally hard, became even more toughened as he developed the unscrupulous opportunism, accompanied by independence and frugality that were to be his characteristics for the rest of his life.' He bought a small coal seam in 1810 and helped to work it himself to gain experience, and as the mining industry spread through South Wales he extended his interests into railways and coastal shipping. He was not above running his mines into other people's land and out-manoeuvering his competitors on freight prices; till by 1843 when he struck a great four foot seam at the Mountain Ash colliery he was the largest single coal exporter in the world, and was using his own shipping and railways.

Thomas Powell was three times married; the two wives of his earlier years both died young leaving infant daughters. The third, Anne, he wed in about 1833 when he was becoming a rich man. They had three sons, Thomas, Henry, and Walter, and the family became established in The Gaer, a large house on the outskirts of Newport which later became Gwent College and existed until 1950. An estate on the site is still called Gaer. Here Walter Powell grew up with two elder brothers and at least three sisters. One of these, Sarah, died when Walter was a boy of ten, and another, Ann, who had moved away and married, died seven years later. A third sister, referred to as Mrs. Jenkins was alive in 1881. She may have been the youngest of the family, or a child of one of the earlier marriages. Walter was at Rugby School from 1858-61.There are signs that it was an affectionate, close-knit family - they had ships named 'Thomas Powell', 'Anne Powell' and `Sarah Powell', but Thomas Powell's reputation outside his family circle was not good. Not only was he unscrupulous in business dealing but he cared little for the welfare and even safety of those he employed. His mines were the scenes of several fatal accidents, largely because of inadequate air-vents, and in 1852 there was a major explosion. In 1858 Powell persuaded the other coal owners to join him in a fifteen per cent cut of wages, producing a strike throughout the Welsh coal field, which Powell broke by bringing in his dock labourers. After several weeks this strike was settled when the hungry men accepted the reduction at twenty per cent. Very soon after work resumed, and when the pit was full of men, another violent explosion killed many of them. Young Walter was a lad of sixteen by this time, just starting at Rugby. The tragedy had a profound effect on his hitherto callous father. The old man, now seventy-eight, went immediately to the stricken pit, Cwmpennar, to take charge of the rescue. He ran his own trains to bring in extra help, and he gave all the widows a free house, coal, and a pension for life out of his own pocket. Walter must have known that all this was happening and it may well have influenced the way he used his family wealth for the public good when much of it became his own in a few years' time.

In spite of his age Thomas Powell senior remained active for five years more, with his eldest son, another Thomas, also taking an active share in the business. Plans were being made for a big merger with George Elliot, another wealthy industrialist, when the old mine-owner died, unexpectedly as the result of a severe cold in 1863. His sons completed the negotiations and sold the business, which became the still flourishing Powell-Duffryn Company of today.

THE NEW M.P.

The next we hear of Walter Powell is in 1867 when he rented Dauntsey House in north Wiltshire and brought his widowed mother to live with him there. There is no telling now why he chose this area and whether he had already considered apolitical career or had it suggested to him after he came here. He seems to have been or become a personal friend of the Rev. Arthur Evans the rector of Little Somerford, who was chairman then of the local Conservative Association, and in December 1868, Powell was chosen as Conservative parliamentary candidate for the borough of Malmesbury. The campaign was successful and Malmesbury had its first non-Liberal M.P. for thirty years. This was celebrated in February at the George Hotel in Malmesbury, and in June Walter Powell invited his supporters to a general rejoicing at Dauntsey Park. The North Wilts Herald of that day describes it in detail. A marquee was erected in the grounds and all roads to Dauntsey were thronged with vehicles of every sort bringing about eight hundred men to a grand lunch. The ladies joined them for tea (one wonders if the various carriages made a double journey) which was followed by dancing on the grass, and there was a grand ball in the marquee which went on until four in the morning.

A man who has just been elected to Parliament and given a large party to celebrate it is likely to get appreciative press reports, but the words attributed to various speakers at Walter Powell's first public appearance sound sincere and throw a pleasant light on his character. There are references to his 'coming into a strange country' only two years before and having already endeared himself by 'many acts of benevolence' to the neigbourhood. His mother too, was well liked and her health heartily drunk; she appears with him many times in the next few years attending concerts and organizing children's treats.

Young and wealthy, (Walter was twenty-six years old when he first entered public life) the new M.P. had plenty of interests. His clubs were Boodles, Fentons, the Conservative Club, the Carlton, the Four in Hand, and the Coaching Club and he obviously kept up his interest in the last two of these - and very likely the others as well. Dauntsey station was only a few miles away, which put London within easy reach by rail. Then, within a year of his election Walter bought land at the top of Little Somerford Hill and built a large group of stables there; six loose boxes with a seventy-foot hay loft, a sixty-five foot coach house with four pairs of doors, a saddle room, three servants' bedrooms and a detached wooden house with four loose boxes. This property is now Coach House Farm, and the eleven acre piece nearby described at the sale as being 'on an eminence and containing a beautiful landscape view of the surrounding country, well adapted for building a mansion or small residence' was presumably bought as the site of the present Hill House. Walter himself lived in rented houses all the time he was in Wiltshire, moving from Dauntsey House to Eastcourt House in about 1874, but it looks as if he intended eventually to make his home in Little Somerford. In 1868 and 69 he bought at least three other sites in that village and built pairs of cottages on each of them. The housing of his tenants and his horses seems to have been more important to him than his own.The Rev. Arthur Evans, remained his constant friend and it was to Mr. Evan's house, the old rectory beside Little Somerford Church, that he made his last move in 1878. This clergyman was a great figure in local life. A hunting parson, much concerned in Malmesbury affairs, he gave his parish its village school and was father to his successor, another Reverend Arthur Evans.

GIFTS AND BENEFACTIONS TO MALMESBURY

1869 had opened with triumph and rejoicing but a family tragedy soon came. Thomas Powell junior had gone to Abyssinia with his wife and seven-year-old son to explore that country, and while there they were attacked by bandits and all three killed. Walter went to Alexandria for some time to deal with their affairs.

Personal anxieties however did not prevent the start of a series of good works in Malmesbury and the neighbouring villages. In the same year that Thomas died came the gift of Malmesbury Reading Room and James Bird's description of it is worth quoting in full.

'A splendid building situate in Back Hill (now called Silver Street) was erected in 1870 by W. Powell Esq. M.P. and presented to the Corporation to be used as free Reading Rooms. The first room is set apart for the use of the upper classes and tradesmen who choose to avail themselves of the privilege, and the inner room is provided for the lower classes. There is a large and capital Library, and a good supply of London and Provincial Newspapers, and Periodicals; all supplied gratis by the munificent donor of the building.The rooms are decorated with a fine collection of Buck and other horns, skins, etc. Various games such as Drafts, Dominoes, etc., are allowed to be played, the necessaries being also supplied by Mr. Powell.' A movable partition allowed the two rooms to be thrown into one and the building also served as a free meeting place for local groups. The Medical Society met there and the Temperance Club, the Farmers and Tradesmen went there for their ball, and the Moravians sometimes used it also.

Walter took a keen interest in the market, presenting an annual cup for the best beast sold there, and it was in the Reading Room that he entertained the trainers to dinner to discuss market affairs. By 1874 a games room and a soup kitchen had been included in the building. There could be excitement there as well. The newspaper reports that in 1881 a market cow ran into the Reading Room, tossed a young man over her back and damaged chairs, tables, books and the fender, but fortunately not the large bookcase which contained the library. The animal was later removed when she became quiet. This building, given with so much good will to the people of Malmesbury, is still doing them service. It continued to be a reading room for some years after Walter Powell's death, then it was used as council chambers, till in 1921 Bristol Diocesan Trust bought it for a parish room for the Abbey. During the second world war it became a school room; the Catholic Church bought it in 1952 and it was sold again to the Assembly of God Church in 1967. It is now known as the Pentecostal Church and is still in regular use and a benefit to the town.

A second Malmesbury benefaction followed soon after the Reading Room. In 1870 Thomas Luce gave the borough a piece of land in Burnivale, at the foot of the steps that are opposite the Bell Hotel. Here Walter Powell put a Ragged School, as recorded in Kelly's Directory and the contemporary press, but there is some confusion about it. The actual date of building is given as 1873, and James Bird (who must have seen it) describes a 'large building composed of wood presented gratis to the trustees of the Ragged School for the free use of young children. The school numbers about 180 and an excellent female teacher from London is regularly engaged to teach them. The school is supported by voluntary subscriptions.'

The school went out of use early this century and no attempts to trace its records have so far succeeded, but Mr. Frederick Rice, an old builder still living beside the site in Burnivale, says that he saw it taken down and that it was a long, stone, building with three windows on each side. There are garages there now. Perhaps the original one was a temporary wooden building later replaced by stone. When Walter Powell's properties were sold they included a wooden supper-room sixty foot long 'thoroughly water-proof, bolted together, and may easily be taken down' which was standing at that time beside the Reading Room.

The borough's M.P. took a personal interest in his establishment, visiting it and presenting prizes, and there is a pleasing account of a treat that he gave them in 1874 when five wagonloads of children led by Malmesbury Town Band and bearing banners proclaiming 'Health to Mr. and Mrs. Powell' went off to Eastcourt House where the children had tea in a tent, a roundabout was provided, and they all had the freedom of the garden and vinery.

It is obvious from the newspapers that many of the folk who had large houses and gardens round Malmesbury took turns in entertaining the schools and charitable institutions of that day, and Mrs. Powell clearly did her share. Perhaps she too enjoyed spending some of Thomas Powell's wealth on other people. There are references during the next few years to treats given to Schools and Sunday Schools and to concerts which they both attended, as well as local events like choir suppers, farmers' dinners and the Hunt Ball. And there was a great deal more to Walter Powell's generosity than fun and games. He provided fifty tons of coal every winter for the aged poor of Malmesbury as well as tea and sugar, and twenty tons at various times for the Somerfords and Corston, as well as a joint of meat and a plum pudding on Christmas day for every poor family in Eastcourt when he lived there. In 1876, when he was in Rome at Christmas, he left money with the Mayor of Malmesbury to make the gifts for him. All this might have been the mass generosity of a kind-hearted very rich man (and even, at a lower estimate, a good political advertisement) but this member of Parliament showed a real concern for people themselves. He was naturally interested, though not long involved, in the building of the Malmesbury railway line, and he would visit men injured at work there at home and in hospital, as well as sending more serious cases to other hospitals, to which he subscribed. In one case he actually started his subscription to a specialist institution in order to get a Malmesbury patient admitted.

Another improvement made in the constituency was to Malmesbury Abbey. Walter Powell offered to install gas lighting there. Mr. Pitt, the vicar at the time, refused it, thinking the maintenance would be too much trouble and expense, but the offer was accepted by his successor the Rev. G.W. Tucker in 1875 and they had their first evening service by gas light that year.

The parish clerk had his pay raised from �110 per annum to cover the extra work. There is no longer a gas works in Malmesbury and now the Abbey is lit by electricity. In 1875 he gave �100 to Bristol Cathedral restoration fund.

THE SOMERFORDS

Walter Powell obviously took particular interest in the two Somerfords. He had moved from Dauntsey House to Eastcourt House in 1874, but he had been building his coach house and his cottages in Little Somerford as early as 1868-69 and it looks as if the Rector of Great Somerford, the Rev. William Andrews, was also one of his friends. He twice came with the rector to visit the school there, he subscribed to its maintenance, paid �20 towards the building of an organ chamber in the church and gave entertainments to the villagers. The most notable of his buildings is also in Great Somerford. In 1872 he built there an excellent reading room.

Unrestricted by the limitations of site which hampered the Malmesbury building this was a well-planned red brick structure with arched windows, a high gabled roof and rather an ornate little porch. A caretaker's house in a similar style was attached at one side and heating, furniture, books and magazines were again provided. From outside it looked exactly like what it is now, a nice commodious little Chapel. There is an interesting history to this.A renowned Methodist preacher, Mordecai Ayliffe, who served a group of chapels in the district lived in Great Somerford ford (where his wife kept the Post Office and his great grand-daughter Mrs. Bridges in 1985 still does). There was much enthusiasm among the Primitive Methodists then, as the many village chapels in this area bear witness, but Great Somerford had no meeting place of its own. Local tradition reports that while the reading room was being built Mordecai Ayliffe went regularly among the workmen proclaiming 'This is to be the house of God', and similar invocations. Ten years later, when Walter Powell had died and this building with the rest of his property, was put up for auction, the Methodists were able to buy it and it has been regularly used by them ever since. It now, of course, has pews and a pulpit, but the coat pegs round the walls which once took readers' jackets are still in place. Walter Powell would probably be pleased about this development of its use. He spoke sometimes of 'our Noncomformist friends' and he was criticised in public by some of his own voters for having supported the Burials Bill in Parliament which allowed Nonconformists to have funerals conducted by their own clergy. Walter replied that he came from Monmouth, lately a part of Wales, and he knew how strongly some people felt. He ended by saying that while he was prepared to make sacrifices for his party, 'I wish to tell you clearly and plainly, there is one sacrifice I am not prepared to make, and that is the sacrifice of my independence.'

There is a strong tradition in Little Somerford that a reading room too had been given by their generous M.P. There certainly was such a room in the early twentieth century. It was a wooden structure at the foot of Clay Street, on the Dauntsey side, and many of the older inhabitants remember it. But unfortunately there is nothing in either the parish records or the lists of Powell's own property to connect it with him. One possibility is that a portable wooden building auctioned with his estate was bought by some local benefactor and used by the village in his memory, but that is only guesswork. It has disappeared now, but the three pairs of brick cottages he built for that village are still in use, as are his splendid stables, though those are now for people, not horses.

PARLIAMENTARY WORK

There were several occasions when Walter Powell brought local affairs to the attention of Parliament or supported motions in which the Town Council had shown an interest. During his time in the House of Commons he put forward a petition that the maintenance of turnpike roads should fall upon the treasury, not on the area through which they passed, and he made a personal application to the War Office to have Malmesbury made a pay station for army and navy reserve men so that they need not travel outside the town for their pay.

Other bills which he supported with full local approval included one to prevent the sale of intoxicating liquor on Sundays; an amendment to the Elementary Education Bill to include exams in religious education, and an unsuccessful motion to introduce votes for women. But, seriously as he took his responsibilities to Malmesbury, Walter Powell had a mind of his own.

We have seen how he supported the Burials Bill in the interests of the Nonconformists although his own party disapproved, and he voted against the Conservatives in support of a bill to abolish flogging in the army. He was not one of the great figures of Parliament, but he was certainly not unknown among the members; he went to dinner with Disraeli when he was First Lord of the Treasury and attended a Speaker's Levee. So much had all this been appreciated that at the 1874 election such limited Liberal opposition as there was to his re-appointment was not followed up. That party decided that 'his position was unassailable' and he was elected unopposed. At Eastcourt House there was a celebratory dance to the accompaniment of the band of the Scots Fusilier Guards, and described locally as 'one of the best balls in the county'. Two years later he was made a magistrate, but this seems to have been an honorary position as there is no record of his serving on the Bench.

FUN AND GAMES

Powell's stables are evidence today of his interest in riding and driving, as is his membership of the Coaching and Four in Hand Clubs. These stables probably held three pairs of matching horses for his own coach, a carriage and pair for his mother and workaday vehicles for local use. There would have been saddle horses, too, and Walter clearly liked looking at horses as well as driving them. It is said that he often took parties of friends to the races and gave them splendid lunches as part of the day's entertainments.

By 1876 Walter had bought a magic lantern. He took a great interest in this and acquired many sets of slides (sometimes referred to as 'dissolving pictures') which he exhibited himself to people of all ages, giving a descriptive commentary as the show went on. On one occasion he had an instrument brought down from London, with its own operator, and the pictures were 'brilliantly illuminated by exhydrogen lime-light machinery of the most costly and perfect description'. He repeated this experiment at least once afterwards. There must have been lots of shows given in the Powell home; the public ones which the newspapers reported are an interesting collection. He took his lantern to the Town Hall, the Reading Room, Westport Church and various Sunday and day schools, and his shows were a nice mixture of comedy and education. Their subjects include The Railway across the Prairie, Pilgrim's Progress, Niagara Falls, the Arctic Regions, The Jackdaw of Rheims, Hogarth's Idle and Industrious Apprentices and 'comic sets of various subjects'. At the end of one showing in Great Somerford School Mr. Andrews the rector in thanking him referred significantly to 'this man of means and position ready to afford amusement and recreation to his poorer neighbours as Mr. Powell has done on this and many other occasions. His many acts of kindness and generosity will always ensure him a hearty welcome in this parish.'

The move to Little Somerford came in 1878; Mrs. Powell had died and Walter changed to a smaller establishment nearer to his friends and his horses. His house there is still called the Old Rectory and the present owners, Mr. and Mrs. R.C. Hatchwell, have carefully preservedWalter Powell's memory there. This house, though smaller than Eastcourt, still gave room for entertaining young relatives, and there was a minor adventure here one morning. A fire was discovered in the oak beam in an old fireplace while Mr. Powell and his nephews were having breakfast. It was soon put out with little damage done, and was probably a fine cause of excitement for the visitors. Unfortunately the report does not name (or number) these nephews; they are likely to have been the sons of Walter's sister Mrs. Jenkins.

Another fireplace in the Old Rectory has had the happier fate of becoming a most attractive and unusual memorial to the former tenant. A yew tree, believed to have been planted in the year of the battle of Trafalgar, used to flourish in the front garden and must have been well known to Walter Powell. During the 1970s this tree, now really old, was blown down in a big storm and Mr. Hatchwell carefully had the lovely, hard, golden wood preserved -- and how it comes to be a Powell memorial will be told anon.A THIRD TERM OF OFFICE BEGUN

1880 brought another election, and this time the Liberals were prepared to put up a candidate, Mr. Albert G. Kitching. Walter Powell referred to him as a 'kind agreeable gentleman' and said that he and his friends had agreed not to say harm about anyone. Indeed the atmosphere was so cordial that one Liberal supporter said you might expect to see political opponents 'walking arm in arm together down the High Street like the lion and the lamb.'

Conservative enthusiasm burst into a spate of banners. Some were purely political like 'Beaconsfield and the Peace of Europe, or 'True blue and English honour', but there were personal ones as well - 'Powell and our Local Interests' - 'Powell, an old and true Friend' - 'Powell, the Farmers' Friend' - 'Powell, the Poor man's Friend.' The last of these brought a noteworthy comment from Walter Powell himself. He is reported as looking round the room at one meeting where they were displayed and saying, 'I am proud to have been called the poor man's friend. When that time comes which will come to us all, rich or poor, the feeling of having been able to do something for their happiness will be more gratifying than if we had won all the boroughs in the United Kingdom.'

Election day when it came was as good as a carnival for the Malmesbury people. Little Somerford School was given a day's holiday. Mr. Kitching drove into town in an open carriage with postillions and four greys, accompanied by Sherston Brass Band. Mr. Powell had Somerford band and seven or eight carriages, and was met at Burton Hill by Malmesbury Town Band as well as the Somerford voters who had come in before him on the train. After a day's excitement Mr. Joseph Hanks announced the result of the election at half past five from a window in the Town Hall:-

Walter Powell 607. Albert Kitching 310. In 1869 the majority had been 23.

THE BALLOONING M.P.

For the Conservative Party as a whole the election had not been so successful; there was a Liberal majority in Parliament and Mr. Gladstone had replaced Mr. Disraeli as Prime Minister. Perhaps Walter Powell felt himself less involved now in national affairs (one can be sure that he never neglected local interests) and was able to spend more time on his own concerns. He took up ballooning and this became the great enthusiasm of his life.

It was no new idea. Nearly a hundred years earlier the Montgolfier brothers had sent up the first balloon from France. This had been powered by smoke from burning straw, and it did not take inventors long to realise that the reduced weight as the air inside the balloon expanded in the heat from the fire was what caused the vessel to rise. After that experiments flourished. Within the year England had her own balloon makers; hydrogen was being used for lifting power, and varnished silk and calico were being tried out as materials for the fabric. Before long passengers were being carried, albeit at the whim of the weather, often for several hours at a time. Nor was it just an inventors' hobby. From the earliest days of the new venture balloons carried scientific instruments. By 1852 Kew Observatory was organising a regular series of ascents for scientific research; the Meteorological Office began using balloons of its own and the War Department was also interested. Balloons in fact had been known and used all through Walter Powell's lifetime, but they were still something special - a strange and unfamiliar sight to most people. Then, probably in 1880 just as his parliamentary interests were lessening, Walter met Henry Coxwell and was taken on his first flight. The sequence of events after that is a little uncertain. Malmesbury's ballooning M.P. did not live long enough to be recorded by historians of aeronautics (or of Parliament) and the information we now have about him comes mainly from articles by his faithful reporter in the North Wilts Herald, as well as from many tributes written later by those who knew him, and the official account of the loss of the balloon Saladin in December 1881.

Powell probably received his training, which was said later to have been very thorough, with the Crystal Palace company which had been in existence by then for about thirty years and must have known and taught everything that had been discovered so far about flying balloons. He made several flights with Henry Coxwell, a most experienced balloonist who wrote of him 'I never had a companion who so thoroughly enjoyed himself. It was with extreme regret that I recommended Mr. Powell to pass into other hands. He was rather too enterprising and fresh for an aeronaut at my time of life. He had superabundant pluck and his was the type of chivalry which needed checking if possible.'

In Malmesbury they looked at their Member's new interest with tolerant amusement. We read how in October 1880 when Walter Powell was to have proposed the election of the town's new coroner he had to send a telegram of apology as he would be up in a balloon then. There was much friendly laughter at the meeting when the message arrived, and jokes were made about the hope that they would not soon be needing to elect a new M.P. as well. Walter's own attitude to the new adventure was shown when he told a meeting at Chippenham that ballooning was much more to him than a passing pleasure, it was a wonderful new experience to be able to see so much of the wonders of nature and the works of God.

NEW ADVENTURES

One flight that Walter made with Mr. Coxwell happened in November 1880. The two men took off from Ashford in Kent hoping to cross to France, but an easterly wind carried them to Salisbury which they reached at dusk and by about 10 p.m. they were over Exeter. It was bitterly cold, and must have been dark, so Coxwell advised a descent though Powell still wanted to keep on and try to cross the Bristol Channel to Wales. At Crediton however they were enveloped in a cloud and made a difficult landing near trees in a field a few miles from the town. This frightened some local villagers who thought the balloon was an apparition, but they managed to get lodgings for the night in a nearby farm. Next day they returned to London by train and presumably the deflated balloon and its basket went with them.

There must have been various other training flights, then Malmesbury had its own great day next June. Henry Coxwell himself had intended to make an ascent there with his pupil and let the constituency see ballooning at close quarters. Unfortunately when the day neared he was not well enough so another aeronaut, Mr. Thomas Wright, brought his own vessel, Eclipse, for the trip.he balloon arrived the day before the event and was put in the Cross Hayes and filled by means of long pipes from Malmesbury Gas Works, which stood then on a river bank below Silver Street. The envelope, though quite buoyant, was not fully inflated, and when the time came for the two men to go up Walter Powell took off his great coat in order to leave weight room for their anchor. Malmesbury made it a gala day. The brass band played, as did one from Didmarton, choosing appropriately 'Up in a balloon' which the two passengers were still able to hear from afar. Free tea and cakes were provided in the Reading Room, and the railway put on an extra five carriages to bring in spectators. The flight was a short one, but quite successful and the balloon was in sight for about three quarters of an hour passing over Lea and Somerford and finally coming down at Spirthill. There is an interesting photograph in Malmesbury Museum showing the balloon still on the ground; the Cross Hayes (with its houses in the back-ground practically unchanged today) is crowded with spectators but unfortunately Walter Powell and Thomas Wright themselves cannot be distinguished.

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE ECLIPSE

The Eclipse had its own interesting history, and Mr. Cullingham has sent details of it from his researches at Windsor. In 1880 Thomas Wright had flown it himself at the English entry in the International Contest, which he won. Then in 1882 it was used by Colonel Fred Burnaby to cross the channel from Dover to Dieppe. How Walter Powell would have enjoyed that. The rest of the story is not so happy. We learn of the balloon's ultimate fate from Major Baden Powell, brother of the famous Scout, who wrote an article on safety in ballooning in 1895. He mentions avoidable accidents being generally due to carelessness, bad management by untrained pilots and the risk from using unsound balloons. Then he refers scathingly to Uneducated ignorant men who 'probably through utter lack of capacity to get on in other walks of life' purchase an outfit at the lowest possible figure and announce themselves as professional aeronauts (which suggests that giving joyrides in a balloon was becoming a profitable business). Major Baden Powell then tells how he himself had bought the Eclipse `from an experienced aeronaut' some years before. It was still sound and he had used it for several flights before having it patched, after which he stowed it away in a cellar before selling it back to the maker for a few pounds as old material. It was however sold again and flown, against Major Baden Powell's advice. At last it fell into the hands of a young man who experimented by boiling it in soda till it was snowy white and then re-varnishing the material. Finally an officer in India who wanted to test some ideas about parachutes sent to England for a balloon and received the apparently rejuvenated (and now nameless) Eclipse. When he made his ascent from Bombay the balloon burst and he was killed. Incidentally, the young boiler of balloons tried the same thing again soon after, and was killed himself when that one also burst.

A BALLOON OF HIS OWN

Walter Powell was not the sort of man to be content with always flying in other people's balloons. He could well afford to have one of his own, and in the autumn of 1881 a balloon was made for him. There is a strong and very sound tradition that this was done in Little Somerford in a shed alongside the Old Rectory and there are still families in that village who are proud to remember that their grandmothers and great-aunts took part in the work. In 1882 a Mr. G. Alexander of Highworth wrote after Walter's death, `He invited Captain Templer of the balloon department at Woolwich to stay with him at his house at Somerford where Captain Templer cut out and had made up (at the silkworks), under his own supervision, a spherical balloon of good Lyons silk, being better and stronger than calico. The network was made at Mr. Powell's own house of silk cord especially prepared and carefully proved for strength, each row being calculated to fit exactly to the balloon. The car was fitted with cork seats and lifebelts and all the latest improvements. It was in this silk balloon that Mr. Powell has lately made several successful attempts. He always had a number of carboys of vitriol and a quantity of zinc plates on his premises, ready to inflate his balloon with hydrogen gas.'

There is a reference elsewhere to its being in stripes of red and yellow. Unfortunately Mr. Alexander does not say what the balloon was called. There is however a description of Mr. Powell and a friend ascending from Cardiff on 22 November in a balloon called Daystar. They passed over Cirencester, cheerfully shouting greetings to the people below, and finally landed at Ampney Crucis in the midst of the Vale of White Horse hounds and followers. Here the whole thing was quickly emptied and packed for transport, which makes it sound very like Walter Powell's well constructed balloon.

He had another adventure, known to have been in his own vessel, when he was nearly blown out to sea near Dover. The account says that local country folk secured the balloon, but not understanding it, they made gashes in the silk to let the gas out, and the marks showed afterwards where it had had to be repaired. One can imagine how the ever-courteous Walter Powell could have accepted this mistake without hurting anyone's feelings. There are a number of casual references to ascents, flights, and landings throughout the autumn of 1881. We hear of him at Bath, Malmesbury, Charlcut and Cardiff, and it is possible that he was using the Powell's family home at the Gaer near Newport as a second base for making his hydrogen. Sometimes he flew alone, (he passed over Stroud once in a solo balloon), sometimes with other balloonists, and in at least one flight he was accompanied by his manservant. This was the trip from Crystal Palace to Malmesbury when they put down at Clewer; the servant mentioned was probably Sergeant Scott, formerly of the Bath Police.

Very little is known of Walter's household staff. There would have been grooms living at the stables at the top of Little Somerford Hill, but the only other name that has come to light is Thomas Forrester. In 1963 the Mayor of Swindon, Alderman C.W.J. Streetly, kindly gave Malmesbury a match-holder which had once belonged to Walter Powell and had been given after the balloonist's death to his valet Thomas Forrester, whose great-grandnephew Mr. Streetly was. This is now in the Athelstan Museum in Malmesbury. Thomas lived in one of those brick cottages which his master built in the village. Had matters gone differently there might well have been another, more famous, Powell balloon. Thomas Wright, the owner of the Eclipse, wrote later that Walter had often spoken of his determination to fly the Atlantic to America. He declared that neither the size and cost of the balloon nor the dangers of the journey were going to deter him from flying, but it was not, alas, those dangers which prevented his making the attempt.

It was nearly a century later, in 1978, that a balloon crossing of the Atlantic was eventually made.

THE LOSS OF THE SALADIN

Walter Powell's last flight was not made in his own balloon. His friend Captain James Templer used to take observations for the Meteorological Office and made ascents to measure the temperature, height, and movements of clouds when a suitable opportunity offered. On 9 December 1881 (he wrote later) London was enveloped in a very peculiar fog and he was anxious to investigate the atmospheric conditions which had produced it. The fog itself prevented an ascent that day by delaying the trains, but as the balloon Saladin was already at Bath, Templer decided to ascend from there. He took Walter Powell as his assistant to manage the balloon while he himself made the observations. Management meant controlling the height at which the balloon was flying. Its direction depended on the wind and air currents but it could be made to rise and fall by either dropping out sacks of ballast to reduce the weight and make it rise higher, or by opening the valve in the balloon neck and letting out some gas so that there was less lifting power and the balloon went down. The valve was operated by a cord and only stayed open while this was being pulled from below. Unlike Walter's own silk balloon with its hydrogen filling the Saladin was made of calico and used coal gas. A third person, Mr. A. Agg-Gardner, also went up on this flight. He may have been just an interested visitor. Captain Templer also tells us that the balloon itself, envelope, car, gear, anchor etc. weighed 492 lbs., the instruments and kit 82 lbs., the three occupants 494 lbs., and the ballast 632 lbs., a total of 1700 lbs. To raise this they had 38,600 cubic feet of gas, supplied presumably by Bath Gas Works, from whose field they took off. They passed over Wells at a height of 4,200 feet and moved on to Glastonbury in a clear sky. Then a current of air took them between Somerton and Langport. They rose to 6,000 feet to investigate a bank of cloud - its temperature was 31�F - and then sank to 2,000 feet and moved towards Crewkerne.

The rest of the story from Captain Templer's second and detailed report sent to the Meteorological Office on 31 December is as follows:-

`Crewkerne was sighted when we were at 2,000 feet altitude, and Mr. Powell allowed the balloon, at my request, to descend, and we passed Beaminster, where we first heard the sea, and immediately I verified my position, and we prepared to effect our descent. The horizontal velocity was increased to thirty-five miles an hour. The balloon was descending most favourably near Symondsbury when Mr. Powell threw out some ballast. On his telling me that he had done so I immediately opened the valve. He then asked me if this was necessary? I answered, "We are nearing the sea," and he replied "I am afraid I rather overdid that last ballast. Glancing downwards I found that our pace had increased. I asked Mr. Agg-Gardner to hold the valve open while I looked out for a place to descend; he did this, but almost immediately I took the valve line and never allowed the valve to close until the line was torn from my grasp after I had been thrown out and dragged about sixty yards.

When we were about 200 feet distant from the earth Mr. Powell said he could touch the earth with his pilot line, and after a pause he said to me "Shall I part (i.e. drop) the anchor?" I said "No" as I considered it was not the proper moment to do so. I may state here that it was Mr. Powell's duty to part the anchor and any ballast that would be requisite to check too rapid a descent while I continued to keep the valve open, and he would not have appealed to me had he not felt doubtful on the point. Immediately after this we touched the earth at about 4 hours 40 p.m. in the second field, or about 500 yards from the cliff. The car was capsized and turned right over and I was thrown violently out; Mr. Gardner was thrown out at the same time, as also were several bags of ballast. Mr. Powell was, I think, partially thrown out, but, as far as I could see, he had hold of the hoop, and the car righting underneath him he recovered his position.

I retained my hold of the valve line and was dragged along the earth by it for a considerable distance. I tried very hard to get the line between my teeth, and could I have done so, I have no doubt the balloon would have been crippled. I shouted to Mr. Powell to come down the line. At this time he was close to me and about eight feet from the earth. The line was torn from my grasp by a succession of jerks, both my hands being severely lacerated. The balloon then floated along close to the earth for some 300 feet until it reached a fence, which the car grazed as it went by. I had risen to my feet and could see Mr. Powell standing up in the car.'

There follow various suggestions as to what Walter Powell might have done to save himself, such as jumping out, throwing out the anchor or opening the valve again. Captain Templer assumed that he was trying to save the balloon by either bringing it down later on the beach or flying across the Channel. His first report made immediately after the accident says here 'The balloon rose rapidly and Mr. Powell waved his hand to me.' The final report continues:'-

The balloon, after passing the fence, began to ascend and continued to do so steadily for about ten minutes when it was lost to sight in the clouds.'

Nothing more was ever seen or heard of Walter Powell or the Saladin. Back on the ground Mr. Agg-Gardner was found to have broken his leg. Several local helpers had arrived and he was left in the charge of a cottager, Robert Warren, where the family, a hundred years later, were still telling the story of what had happened. Templer, not waiting to dress his bruises and lacerations, went off to start rescue operations. He sent word to the coast guards and to the harbour master at Bridport to keep a look out and put out boats, while he himself went to Bridport to telegraph the Commanding Officer of the Royal Engineers to prepare a steamer. When he reached Weymouth the S.S. Commodore was ready waiting and there was also a telegram from Bridport saying something had been seen to drop into the sea just south of the town. The area was searched at once with no success. The captain thought the object must have been gear Walter had thrown out to lighten the car, as he doubted if the balloon itself would have fallen close enough inshore to be visible at 5.00 p.m. (It was, after all, a winter evening, and the Saladin was coloured green and yellow). They continued searching in the Commodore right across the Channel until five o'clock next morning, but nothing was found. Walter's brother Henry and his sister Mrs. Jenkins came to Weymouth and continued investigations, including dredging, for another fortnight but it was all in vain. The only relic of the Saladin was a broken thermometer found on the site of the accident and that was given to Mrs. Jenkins.he last paragraphs of Captain Templer's report say:-

'I feared that Mr. Powell was in imminent danger of coming down in mid-channel. But owing to my own knowledge of his aeronautical experience and determination, I had great hopes that he would make the French coast. He had often proved that he was a most fearless aeronaut, and had made more than twenty ascents this year, having a perfect knowledge of the whole management of a balloon.

I lament most deeply the untimely fate of my gallant friend; but I have the melancholy satisfaction of feeling that, both at the moment of the accident and afterwards, nothing was left undone which could have averted it.

A GOOD FRIEND GONE

Malmesbury was grief-stricken. The Liberal party canceled a meeting they had arranged and the Conservatives met to register in silence their profound regrets.

In the local papers there were tributes from all sorts and conditions of people - though surprisingly little in The Times; perhaps because there was no official date of death. Any member of Parliament lost in such a spectacular manner would be an item of news, but the paragraphs about Walter Powell in his own area are much more than that. There are, naturally, lists of his benefactions, but most significant are such remarks as 'his unostentatious, unknown kindnesses are beyond description' or again, 'Mr. Powell has hit the happy medium. While disposed to help a not very prosperous town with his great wealth he has done so in a way to which none can take exception,' and from a fellow balloonist, 'Upon the balloon ground Mr. Powell's fearlessness and enthusiasm in the art and practice of aerostatics have passed for a proverb.' Questions were raised too about the safety of the Saladin and why it had not had cork seats and other safety devices like Walter's own balloon, and why it had carried a passenger. Captain Templer repeated the substance of his own report in the Press. Another interesting item - so typical of Walter Powell - which came to light at this time was that he had been planning an emigration scheme for farmers' sons in the area. Enquiries were already afoot for him to take out a party of young men to South Africa and see what the opportunities were there, but all fell through, alas, at his death.

Then, after the grief of losing their friend and benefactor came the melancholy business of settling up his affairs. Walter had made a will in 1878 leaving everything to his brother Henry, and in July '82, six months after the loss of the Saladin, Henry officially took over. The gross estate was then just under �40,000 (which would have made him a millionaire in twentieth century money). All Walter Powell's property was sold. The Old Rectory did not belong to him, it was rented from Mr. Evans, but the stables, the cottages he had built in the village and the Reading Room at Malmesbury and Great Somerford were all put up for auction by Mr. W. Teagle of Little Somerford, under instructions from the Powell family solicitor in Merthyr Tydfil. Copies of the detailed notice of sale still exist and tell us exactly what the property was, but unfortunately there is no record of the buyers. The Reading Rooms had been entirely for the free use of their respective parishes. By keeping possession of them in his own hands the M.P. had retained responsibility for the upkeep, maintenance and all the other expenses which would otherwise have fallen on the users of the rooms. This great benefit was now lost. As we have already seen, the Malmesbury room was bought for that town and continued in use, and the local Methodists borrowed enough money to buy the Great Somerford room as a Chapel. All the rest went to private buyers, the cottages being sold with their tenants keeping the right to remain.

There were separate sales for the smaller items which included six hundred books from the Reading Rooms and all their furniture down to the fender and fire irons. The railway station lost the wooden hut and weighing machine which had been provided for it, and furniture from the Old Rectory was sold as well. A few of these items are still known to exist. Miss Barnes at Lea still uses Walter's kitchen table which her grandfather bought to help furnish a house for his bride. What happened to the balloon which the Little Somerford ladies so carefully stitched does not, unfortunately, seem to be recorded in this area. It would be interesting to know where it went. Henry Powell had been living in Ireland when his brother was lost, but he moved to Cirencester some time later and died here, from the kick of a horse, in 1894. Malmesbury was left with its memories - memories of parties he had given, kindnesses he had done, cottages he had built, and stories about seeing the balloon taking off from local fields or coming back home, deflated, on a farm cart after a flight. He was a much loved and most unusual man and some of the stories about him have gradually turned into legends which, as legends will do, occasionally elaborate on history. There is one sad little tale though which sounds to bear a pathetic stamp of truth; an elderly lady in Malmesbury recalls that when she was a child an old gentleman, who had lost his memory, used to walk about the town and say sadly as he stopped to look up into the sky, 'My master went away in a balloon and he hasn't come back'.

Surprisingly enough there was no memorial erected in the town itself. Little Somerford has a good clear tablet inside the church and there is an inscription on the family tombstone at Bassaleg in Gwent but that was all. Now, thanks to Mr. Hatchwell, he has a fascinating memorial in the house where he once used to live. The fallen yew tree he must once have walked under was made into a fireplace and is carved on each side with a balloon. One carries three passengers and the other shows the solitary Walter waving a friendly hand as he sailed away.

Then, in 1982, it became possible to commemorate him in a wider field. A school which the Church of England planned to build in another parish had to be given up for various reasons and the diocese used the money instead to erect one good modern building to combine and replace the two old schools of Great and Little Somerford. It stands in Dauntsey Road, Great Somerford and is named the Walter Powell School. This school has the warm support of both parishes and the great firm of Powell Duffryn has taken a friendly interest in it. Hector Cole made the weather vane, shaped like a balloon, which turns above it and Walter Powell's name is at the gate.