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.

20 August, 2014

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