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 my 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 right], 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 – 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 resonance. 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 phantom 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?
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)