Benefactor, Philanthropist, M.P. and Balloonist.
Walter Powell was born in Newport Wales into a very wealthy family; his father was reported to be the largest coal exporter in the world. In 1867 he rented Dauntsey House, a big country house four miles south east of Malmesbury and lived there with his widowed mother. Within two years he was elected to Parliament as the conservative M.P. for Malmesbury.
In 1870 he presented to the town a reading room in Silver Street (now the King’s Nursery). This was tastefully decorated with a fine collection of Buck and other horns, skins, etc. There were two rooms; ‘the first room was set apart for the use of the upper classes and tradesmen and the inner room was provided for the lower classes.’ No euphemisms then about social position.
He had built a ‘Ragged school in Burnivale’ in 1873. The school numbered about 180 and ‘an excellent female teacher from London is regularly engaged to teach them.’
The quotes are from James Bird a Victorian clergyman who wrote a history of the town.
Walter also gave prizes for the local fatstock show and there is an account of five wagon loads of children being taken for tea at his new house at Eastcourt (two miles nor-nor-west of Malmesbury) They were preceded by the town band. History does not relate how many children to a wagon nor whether they were more trouble than a wagon load of monkeys.
He was among the first subscribers for the Malmesbury railway and paid for gas lighting in the Abbey. The combustion products of the gas, sulphuric and carbonic acids, cannot have done the delicate stone carvings any good! He distributed fifty tons of coal to the elderly poor each winter plus many other charitable acts.
He was a diligent and popular M.P.. In the 1880 election 917 votes were cast (small electorate not apathy) and he received 607 nearly two thirds, but it is as a balloonist that he is remembered.
The picture shows the balloon Eclipse about to take off from the Cross Hayes Malmesbury (little changed since save cars now rather than people). The local gas company laid a special pipe to provide the gas. Rumour has it that so much gas was needed that the rest of the town had to do without.
In December 1881 Walter Powell flew his balloon, Saladin, with two friends to take some meteorological observations. They found themselves being blown out to sea and had to make a rapid descent near Chesil Beach. They landed heavily and his two passengers and some ballast were thrown out; one of them breaking his leg. Powell stayed in the basket but the balloon, now much lighter, took off once more. Water Powell was last seen waving to his companions as the balloon disappeared out to sea.
He was never seen again.