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Balloon Accident - 1881

Captain J. L. B Templer and Walter Powell M.P

Born in 1842 into a wealth industrial family, Walter Powell was educated at Rugby School. He moved to North Wiltshire in 1867, renting Dauntsey House. In 1868 he was selected as the Conservative Party candidate for Malmesbury and was duly elected later that year.

As well as taking an interest in matters of national importance raised in the House of Commons, he ensured his involvement in Bills that affected his constituents. These included supporting funds for turnpike roads being drawn from the Treasury rather than town councils and applying for a military pay station to be opened in Malmesbury. His popularity was evident in his greatly increased majority in the 1880 general election.

A large degree of this popularity resulted from his generosity to the people of Malmesbury. In 1870 he provided a reading room with a library in the town. In 1873 he established the Ragged School. In addition he and his wife frequently aided Sunday School outings and children's teas. a keen collector of magic lantern slide shows, he laid on magic lantern evenings for wide ranging audiences from children to working men, on a range of educational and entertaining topics.

Walter Powell is also remembered as a balloonist.  He had first discovered this activity through Henry Coxwell, a highly regarded ballonist of the time. Walter Powell received formal training in flying balloons and in  June 1881 made a successful flight from Cross Hayes to Spirt Hill in 'Eclipse', the balloon of Thomas Wright. By the autumn of that year Walter Powell had his own balloon and was making regular flights over the Wiltshire and Gloucestershire countryside.

In December 1881, Powell and Captain James Templer, an experienced balloonist and Mr A Agg-Gardner, an interested party, took off from Bath in 'Saladin', a War Office balloon. Their flight took them south over Dorset where according to Captain Templer's account they attempted to land. As the basket approached the ground it tipped up and Captain Templer and Agg-Gardner fell out. Captain Templer retained a grip on the balloon's valve line and was dragged for some way until the balloon, with Walter Powell still aboard began to lift once more. As the balloon headed out to sea, Captain Templer telegraphed the local commander of the Royal Engineers for help. A search which continued into the winter night failed to find any trace of Walter Powell or 'Saladin'.


This adventure proved fatal and occurred on  the 10th December 1881, when Captain Templer, Mr. W. Powell M.P., and Mr. Agg-Gardner ascended from Bath. We prefer to give the account as it appears in a leading article in the Times for December 13th of that year.

After sailing over Glastonbury, "Crewkerne was presently sighted, then Beaminster.  The roar of the sea gave the next indication of the locality to which the balloon had drifted and the first hint of the possible perils of the voyage.  A descent was now effected to within a few hundred feet of earth, and an endeavour was made to ascertain the exact position they had reached.  The course taken by the balloon between Beaminster and the sea is not stated in Captain Templer's letter. The wind, as far as we can gather, must have shifted, or different currents of air must have been found at the different altitudes. What Captain Templer says is that they coasted along to Symonsbury, passing, it would seem, in an easterly direction and keeping still very near to the earth.  Soon after they had left Symonsbury, Captain Templer shouted to a man below to tell them how far they were from Bridport, and he received for answer that Bridport was about a mile off.  The pace at which the balloon was moving had now increased to thirty-five miles an hour.  The sea was dangerously close, and a few minutes in a southerly current of air would have been enough to carry them over it. They seem, however, to have been confident in their own powers of management. They threw out ballast, and rose to a height of 1,500 feet, and thence came down again only just in time, touching the ground at a distance of about 150 yards from the cliff.  The balloon here dragged for a few feet, and Captain Templer, who had been letting off the gas, rolled out of the car, still holding the valve line in his hand.  This was the last chance of a safe escape for anybody.  The balloon, with its weight lightened, went up about eight feet.  Mr. Agg-Gardner dropped out and broke his leg.

Mr. Powell now remained as the sole occupant of the car. Captain Templer, who had still hold of the rope, shouted to Mr. Powell to come down the line.  This he attempted to do, but in a few seconds, and before he could commence his perilous descent, the line was torn out of Captain Templer's hands.  All communication with the earth was cut off, and the balloon rose rapidly, taking Mr. Powell with it in a south-easterly direction out to sea." Mr Powell and the balloon were never seen again.

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