After the Guards officers Colonel Burnaby and his friend Lieut. Westcar had stopped making balloon ascents from Goswell Gasworks, few balloons were seen over Windsor (see Windlesora No. 4).
In July 1881 Walter Powel, the MP for Malmesbury in Wiltshire planned to cross the channel to France, and asked Thomas Wright to hire him a balloon. The balloon selected was the red and yellow striped ‘ECLIPSE’, the envelope of which was made of silk reputed to come from the silk works at Malmesbury which is now an antiques emporium. The pieces of silk had been cut-out and made-up at Somerford under th supervision on Captain Templar who was the heard of the Army balloon department at Woolwich. The Capatian has come to stay with Walter Powell at Great Somerford, where the latter had a number of carboys of vitriol (sulphuric acid) and a quantity of zinc plates ready to make hydrogen of coal gas was not available to inflate the balloon. The sections were sewn together by seamstresses working in a shed at Powell’s house, which adjoined Great Somerford church, according to Patrica Hobss in her book “Somerford Magna”.
The voyage to France proved impossible, the wind being unfavourable fora channel crossing, but as it became easterly, Powell announced that hisdestination would be Malmesbury. The story of the flight is contained in theWindsor & Eton Express dated July 23rd 1881; in the “Slough” columns:
“Last Saturday evening, just as it was getting dark, a large balloon passed over Slough from east to west and attracted much attention”.
The “Windsor” columns added:
“At about 9 o’clock on Saturday evening a balloon descended on Mr Paget’s field at Clewer, the occupants of the car being Mr Walter Powell and his servant, who had started from the Crystal Palace at 6 pm en route for Malmesbury. Their aerial voyage, during which it is said they had attained an altitude of 4,000 feet was, on nearing Slough, interrupted by the apparent proximity of a severe storm, dark and threatening clouds having, in the course of the evening, passed over London, and accordingly Mr Powell descended to earth, with the intention of resting until morning. The balloon was safely secured for the night with ropes and weights, and arrangements made for a fresh ascent early on Sunday”.
Mr Paget’s field on the north side of Maidenhead Road, by the Racecourse, as been known locally as “Balloon Meadow” ever since; such is the strength of local memory.
Windsor is on the direct line from Crystal Palace to Malmesbury – if the wind is easterly. Reference to the meterological records at Bracknell shows that the wind was from the north, which was not “right” for such a flight. More research at the Athelstan Museum, Malmesbury, revealed that Powell was something of an expert at flying his balloon at various heights in an endeavour to find a favourable wind. He arrived at Malmesbury in due course, as shown by the illustration, but his memorial in the church at Somerfield reveals that he met his death soon afterwards.
On 10th Decemeber 1881 an army balloon names ‘SALADIN’ on hire for the meterological experiments was inflated at the Bath Gas Works. Captain Templar and Walter Powell were to make the ascent to measure the temperatures and snow, accompanied by Major Trollope, Grenadier Guards. The latters’ train was late, and his place was taken by Lieut. Agg-Gardener, who was inexperienced, and at the subsequent inquest there was comment concerning an untrained passenger being carried. Captain Templar sent the following report to the Meterological Office, describing how they ascended from Bath at 1.55pm to take the air temperature and to measure the amount of snow in the air. Powell was in control of the balloon, which was flown at heights from 100 feet to 6,000 feet.
Fig.1. Walter Powell, MP. The balloon “Eclipse” at Cross Hayes, Malmesbury, Wilts. 1880/81.
“At 4,200 feet we passed over Wells, the time being 2.50. At this height I worked over Glastonbury; the temperature now rose to 41 degrees, and the sky was perfectly clear. I then passed between Somerton and Landport … I asked Mr Powell to send the balloon up to 6,000 feet, to ascertain the temperature of a small bank of cirrus … I found this to be 31 degrees … I asked him to place me at 2,000 feet .. and we came into view of Crewkerne. 1 now kept a low altitude until I reached Beaminster … Mr Powell observed that we were going at 30 mph. and here we first heard the roar of the sea, and we prepared to effect our descent … the velocity increased to 35 mph. The ballon was descending most favourably near Symondsbury when Mr Powell threw out some ballast. When he told me he had done so, I immediately opened the valve. Powell 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”. I found the pace had increased. I asked Mr Agg-Gardener to hold the valve open while I looked for a place to descend.
Almost immediately I took the valve line and never allowed the vale to close until we crashed and the line was torn from my grasp after I had been thrown out and dragged for about 60 yards. We touched ground at about 4.40pm about 500 yards from the cliff edge. The car capsized and turned over., Mr Agg-Gardener was thrown out, also several bags of ballast. Mr Powell was also partially thrown out, but retained hold of the hoop as the car righted he recovered his position. I had retained hold of the valve line and was dragged along the ground by it for a considerable distance. I tried to get the line between my teeth, but failed. The balloon roase about 8 feet and I shouted to Mr Powell to come down the line, which was torn from my grasp. The balloon floated for some 300 feet, grazed a fence, and I could see Mr Powell standing up in the car. I consider that he had three courses, as an aeronaut of experience. (1) To jump out, as the car was still only about 8 feet up; (2) Throw out the grapel; (3) Open the valve again. Possibly he imagined he could save the balloon by opening the valve after the balloon has passed the edge of the cliff, and then descend in its lee, but the lightened balloon began to ascend steadily until about 10 minutes later, it went into the clouds. I took the direction by compass, and conjected that Mr Powell might attempt to cross the Channel, but I fear that this course would require more ballast than he had. He had the instrument bag, the kit bag complete, about 100 lbs. of ballast under the seat, and the balloon wrapper. The valve was in order or the balloon would not have risen, and the balloon was unscathed. I hailed a man who was 300 yards off for assistance, Mr Agg-Gardener telling me his leg was broken. I told him I must go to sdee if I could rescue Mr Powell. Though suffering terribly, he said “Go”….”.
Badly bruised, and with severly lacerated hands, Templar sent word to the Coastguard and Bridport Harbour master to go out with boats. He went to Bridport and telegraphed the C.O. Royal Engineers Weymouth to have a steamer in readiness to go in search. At Weymouth he found the S.S. Commodore with steam up, and a telegram from Bridport Harbour Master saying that the balloon had been seen to drop into the sea south of Bridport. The Commodore searched the area and that to the south as far as the Casquets rocks. They returned at 5 am Sunday morning. He considered that the object seen to fall into the sea was gear thrown out to lighten the balloon. Hopes faded that Powell had been picked up by a ship. Sir Daniel Gooch was staying at Weymouth on holiday from Clewer, and met Mr Powell’s brother and sister. He recorded in his diary Saturday 24th December 1881, ” A very fine day, but no frost. Temp 40 degress. We had 3 good walks. Poor Mr Powell’s brother and sister are staying at the hotel. New search is being made for him by dredging, but I fear there is very little hope of finding him”. Only a broken thermometer was washed up, and given to his sister, Mrs Jenkins. A wrecked balloon washed up on the Spanish coast may have been the Saladin. These reports were anxiosuly read in Windsor and Clewer, where Sir Daniel Gooch told what he knew on his return to Clewer Park.
In March 1882 the Secretary of the Meteorological Societ received a bill for £123 from the War Office for the lost balloon ‘Saladin’ “and certain stores”