‘Whoops, She went up in the big Balloon.’ This was a song on an old record, probably 1920s, now lost without trace, which we used to play on an old wind up gramophone in our aeromodelling clubhouse, the disused Air Raid Shelter in my friends garden. I cannot remember any more words of the song, which may be just as well. We were having fun with a model hot air balloon at that time.
The Montgolfier brothers successfully flew hot air balloons carrying men in 1783. After this developments went ahead with gas filled balloons. Previously I have mentioned Bridport Gas Works extending supply to West Bay (Bridport Harbour) and an attempt was made to fill a large balloon with coal gas there, with some difficulty. An attempted launch on August Bank Holiday 1874 was unsuccessful according to the Bridport News.
Another launch ended in tragedy on 10th September 1881, as told by Rodney Legg in his Book of Bridport. 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.
By 1908 in Germany Zeppelins were being built with a metal framework containing gas bags filled with hydrogen, and driven by engines and propellers, which provided the ability to change height and direction. These were able to bomb London and other towns from 1914. Nevil Shute wrote in his autobiography Slide Rule that Britain built rigid airships during 1914–1918, based on the design of German airships which had been shot down, copying the girder size but without adequate design consideration.
Our airships were operated by the Royal Navy. One, a new “Zero” crashed at Loders in the summer of 1917. Used for anti-submarine patrols, it flew from the main station at Mullion, near The Lizard in Cornwall, to a sub-station at Powerstock, and turned in from the coast towards Bridport. A report in the Dorset County Magazine said “Zero” passed low over a building painted with “Bridport Laundry” on its roof when tall trees ripped off the starboard elevator. The crew released two bombs which did not explode, presumably in an endeavour to regain height, but its guy ropes caught in overhead telegraph cables causing it to veer to the left. It crashed into a hillside at Loders, narrowly missing a Sunday School party in a nearby field. All the airship fabric was ripped into fragments. A young girl, Emily Barnes from Loders Mill, brought goat’s milk and cheese to the crashed airmen. There was no report of the crash in the Bridport News of the time, presumably because of wartime censorship.
Powerstock (known as Toller), Bude and Laira (Plymouth) were all Royal Navy sub-stations with three or four airships which patrolled the Channel for German submarines, and escorted British convoys. The Toller Admiralty Airship Station covered the Portland area but was actually in Powerstock parish.
After the 1914-1918 War Britain decided to catch up with the German passenger-carrying airships, and funded two, the R100 built by Vickers Ltd and the R101 built by the Air Ministry at Cardington in 1930. The R101 crashed in bad weather over France. Subsequently the German Graf Zeppelin was consumed by fire in America. These occurrences deterred further immediate airship development.
Nowadays there is a hot air balloon festival in Bristol annually. Gas bottles and burners are used so that height can be changed and flight length determined, preventing disasters like “Saladin”. We regularly see paragliders soaring gracefully like birds over the Jurassic coast and annually there is a kite festival on Eggardon Hill, for the enjoyment of the earth bound.
On 10th February Bridport History Society will hold a second “Show and Tell WW1” session at 2.30 pm in Bridport United Church Main Hall, East Street. All welcome, visitors entry £2.50.
Cecil Amor, Chairman, Bridport History Society. Tel : 01308 456876.