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Port Louis, Mauritius, August 1782. The French Indian Ocean colony—highly vulnerable to British attack at the height of the American Revolutionary War—is in a state of alert. The governor, Viscomte François de Souillac, has been warned that a flotilla of 11 ships is approaching his island. Fearing that this is the long-awaited invasion fleet, De Souillac orders a sloop-of-war out to reconnoiter. But before the vessel can report, the panic ends. De Souillac is informed that the fleet has altered course and is now steering away from Mauritius. A few days later, when the sloop returns, the governor gets confirmation: the ships were actually East Indiamen, British merchant vessels making for Fort William in India.

All this is remarkable chiefly for the source of De Souillac’s intelligence. The governor had his information not from signals made by ships sailing far offshore, nor from land-based lookouts armed with high-powered telescopes, but from a minor member of the local engineering corps, one Étienne Bottineau. And Bottineau was chiefly renowned in Mauritius (or “Île de France,” to give it its contemporary French name) as a man who won a lot of bets in waterfront taverns thanks to his uncanny ability to foresee the arrival of ships that were anywhere from 350 to 700 miles from the island when he announced their approach.
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Artist's  impression of Arthur Grant Loch Ness land sighting, 1934Let’s begin with the obvious: the camera lies. And because we know it lies, we tend to doubt the things it tells us. A million gallons of ink have been spilled on analyses of classic photographic images, very often with devastating results for those who have chosen to place faith in them as “proof” of any sort. Adamski’s UFO: a chicken brooder.* The Surgeon’s Photograph: a model mounted on a clockwork submarine. The ghosts snapped from the SS Watertown: nothing but a cut-and-paste job. The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall: a simple case of double exposure.

The consequences of this home truth are profound, if obvious. Photos can’t be trusted. The stuff that does exist tends to fall broadly into two categories. On the one hand are the hazy, badly-focussed shots of “something” – which might possibly be genuine, but are rarely proof of anything. On the other are unambiguous, clear images, which look exciting at first glance but are almost always fakes. And the whole field is the Fortean equivalent of a money pit, sucking up endless resources without producing anything concrete in return.

All this means that anyone with experience in this field tends to look extremely sceptically at the photographic evidence. What about other sorts of image, though? Well, oddly enough the sceptics’ tool-kit tends to get tossed out of the window whenever illustrations get involved. For the most part that’s easy enough to understand; they’re not seriously meant to be part of the evidence. But there’s one interesting exception to this rule, and what I want to do right now is take a hopefully instructive look at the under-rated role “artists’ impressions” have played in our subject.

By artists’ impressions, I mean not generic illustrations – “Hey, this is what a flying saucer looks like” – but images that are based directly on witness testimony, and make some claim, however subliminally, to represent “what was actually there.” And what really interests me about this neglected facet of the Fortean universe is an unremarked-on disconnect: these are images that purport to show something real, something genuinely important, and there’s no question that they have played a major role in shaping the way in which we think about most things Fortean (think back to your own earliest encounter with our field. Whatever it was it was that sucked you in, I’ll bet a dollar to your dime that a compelling bit of artwork was involved along the way.) Yet, almost without exception, the images concerned are the work of everyday commercial hacks, who know little and care less about the subject, and for whom success is measured not so much in achieving the closest possible approximation to “what the witness saw,” but in selling newspapers, or books, or magazines. I’d go so far as to suggest that, in 75 percent of cases, the drawing that enticed you was the product of a fleeting afternoon’s commission. It might, with luck, have begun with the handing over of some evidence, some witness statement. But almost certainly it ended with: “Draw this. But better make it look dramatic.”

From this perspective, it’s easy to see that the vexed question of how closely pictures of this sort approximate to what the witness said, or saw, is rather a red herring. The real problem goes deeper than that. It is that commercial and artistic pressures combine to all but guarantee that these impressions will be very poor reflections of the original experience. They may be biased in all sorts of unexpected, unaccounted ways – I remember, while working at Fortean Times, commissioning a painting of the chupacabras from an illustrator who point-blank refused to depict the thing as anything other than a quadripedal cryptid. What we can say, though, is that they’re almost certain to over-dramatise, elaborate, and draw on existing imagery for inspiration – and so will inevitably tend to reduce complex subjects to simple explanations. When UFOs are drawn as spaceships, or lake monsters as dinosaurs, it’s most likely not because spaceships or dinosaurs were seen. It’s because spaceships and dinosaurs make for better pictures.

What, then, are the consequences of this dangerous-sounding difficulty? What we’re left with, I’d contend, is a plethora of highly misleading “almost-photographs”. These artists’ impressions actually have much of the authority of photos – after all, they claim to show us what the witness saw. But they can’t be challenged in the same way that we can challenge photographic images. Artists don’t draw in tell-tale clues (the sun in the wrong position, “spaceships” made from buttons, “monsters” pasted onto backgrounds). They don’t do ambiguity, either; their impressions almost always strip out all uncertainty from what was most likely quite a hesitant and speculative eyewitness report. More important still, artists’ impressions simply don’t concern themselves with the sort of problems that investigators confront in the field. You very rarely see commercial images that show an object at a distance, in poor viewing conditions – and it also goes without saying that you’re not shown it in the form of the snatched glimpse so typical of strange experiences – a “something” seen from the corner of an eye for only a second or so. No, artists’ impressions tend to show things closer and clearer than they were. Not to mention frozen in time, eternally presenting themselves for study, proffering answers that are not answers at all. They really are responsible for an awful lot of trouble.

Enough of the theory. To give you an idea of what I mean, let’s take a look at a couple of instructive examples. And since it’s pretty difficult to know just how far drawings depart from what was seen when we deal only with written statements, I’m going to confine myself to cases for which, fortuitously, we can compare witness sketches to completed artists’ impressions.  It’s relatively rare to have access to both, so I won’t go so far as to assert that what follows are typical examples. But my guess is that they may well be.

Sea serpent seen from HMS Deadalus, 6 August 1848The case that first got me thinking about the perils of the artist’s impression is a famous one, the HMS Daedalus sea-serpent of 1848. Most of you will probably be familiar with the bare bones of this celebrated incident – identified by Rupert Gould as “the locus classicus of the sea-serpent” – and remember how, off the coast of Namibia in the southern midwinter, an “enormous serpent” was spotted from the quarterdeck of the British fifth-rate Daedalus. This monster was seen by the ship’s Captain, Peter M’Quhae, by the First Lieutenant, Edgar Atheling Drummond, and by five others as well. But pretty much every subsequent description of the case has been based on the evidence of just one of those witnesses: Captain M’Quhae. He gave an account to his superior, which found its way into the columns of the Illustrated London News. According to this recollection, the monster’s “head and shoulders kept about four feet constantly above the surface of the sea, and as nearly as we could approximate it by comparing it with the length of what our mainsail topyard would show in the water, there was at the very least 60 feet of the animal á fleur d’eau [visible at the surface].” M’Quhae added the compelling detail that the monster “passed rapidly, but so close under our lee quarter that had it been a man of my acquaintance I should easily have recognised his features with the naked eye.” There followed a detailed description of the creature, which – the Captain said – had a snakelike head, a neck some 15 or 16 inches round, no fins, “but something like the mane of a horse, or rather a bunch of seaweed” washing about its back.

What’s important to remember here is that M’Quhae’s Daedalus report was made some months after the fact – not until October, actually, when the ship reached her home port – and that the famous images that everyone remembers [above and below] were not drawn by M’Quhae himself, but by an artist commissioned by the ILN – the leading illustrated paper of the day [Gould, The Case for the Sea-Serpent (London 1928) pp.94-103].

CLose up of the head of the HMS Daedalus sea serpent, Illustrated  London NewsWe have a pretty good idea how the News artist produced his engravings, since after they were published M’Quhae wrote a letter to the paper expressing his gratitude to the man, “to whom I beg to acknowledge myself greatly indebted for the patience and attention with which he listened to the various alterations suggested by me during the progress of the drawings.” [ILN, 4 November 1848] Here, then, we have an apparently ideal case – one in which a talented artist has been carefully directed by the chief eyewitness, who in turn has expressed himself entirely happy with the engraver’s labours. So far as most cryptozoologists are concerned, this makes the ILN‘s dramatic engravings pretty much as good as photographs, and there has been much excited comment over the years regarding the fine details of the drawings. Dr T.S. Traill, a Scot who addressed the Royal Society of Edinburgh on the matter, went so far as to draw some inferences from the sea-serpent’s “short obtuse muzzle,” while Gould drew attention the apparent presence of a ‘crescentic mark’ on a close-up of the monster’s head [above left] that he thought might be a nostril. [Oudemans, The Great Sea Serpent (Leiden, 1892) pp.287-8; Gould op.cit. p.104] That extrapolating details such as this from a commercial illustration might be taking things a little far was at least admitted by Gould, who ruefully remarked that “the existence of the ‘crescentic mark’… is doubtful; in the original, it might equally be a piece of fancy shading.”[Gould, op.cit., captions to plates]

So far as most anomalists are concerned, nonetheless, the Daedalus report remains among the top two or three accounts of sea-serpents, a celebrity that’s due in no small part to those elegant ILN engravings. It was with great interest, therefore, that I learned a dozen or so years ago of complimentary evidence in the form of a journal belonging to the ship’s First Lieutenant, Edgar Drummond. Drummond (1825-93), a scion of a noted banking family who traced his descent back to the time of Macbeth, in the eleventh century, had been one of the seven original witnesses on board the Daedalus, and an extract from the journal in question appeared in The Zoologist for 1 December 1848. What was not previously apparent, though, was that Drummond had also sketched the monster. His drawing of what appeared to him to be “a large snake or eel” was published, rather obscurely, in The Log of Mystic Seaport, vol.46-47 (1995-96) in the context of a letter from the sailor’s grandson, Maldwin Drummond, and picked up from there by Matt Bille’s Exotic Zoology newsletter. [Bille, ‘The enduring “sea serpent”,’ Exotic Zoology 4 (3) (1997) pp.1-6] The date of Edgar Drummond’s sketch is not given, but since we know he made an entry in his journal on or shortly after the date of the encounter, it is reasonable to suppose it is contemporary, and thus pre-dates M’Quhae’s encounter with the ILN‘s engraver by about two months. Rather revealingly, the same journal also notes that Drummond saw only a head and a “back fin,” while Maldwin Drummond’s letter asserts – presumably from the same source – that M’Quhae initially estimated the monster’s length at 120 feet, revising his estimate down by 50 percent after discussion with his officers.

Below, anyway, is the – vastly less detailed and far less dramatic – sketch that Drummond made, most likely almost on the spot. Note the presence of two small “fins”, set 30 feet apart, and the entire absence of the long, serpentine body described so convincingly and vividly by Captain M’Quhae. Reflect, too, that M’Quhae – a Royal Navy officer, remember, of nearly 50 years’ standing – is pretty much most researchers’ idea of the perfect “reputable witness”. Then compare the sketch to the ILN‘s far more detailed and dramatic engraving, and ask yourself: if two depictions are so different, how safe is it to assume that those News engravings really are “almost-photographs”, as M’Quhae’s letter to the News‘s editor implies, and most cryptozoologists have tended to assume? Bear in mind that Maldwin Drummond thought his grandad’s sketch entirely consistent with Richard Ellis’s theory that the Daedalus creature was actually a giant squid. If you know anything about the history of the Royal Navy in the nineteenth century, finally, you will also realise that an officer such as M’Quhae, who rose to the rank of commander as early as 1814, yet was offered only two minor commands as captain over the succeeding 35 years, would have been known to the Admiralty as an officer far from the very top of his profession. All these observations tend to degrade M’Quhae’s standing as the perfect witness, and so call into question the accuracy of his memory when briefing the Illustrated London News‘s man.

Edgar Drummond sketch of HMS Daedalus sea serpent

So much for the Daedalus‘s sea-serpent but, lest it be thought that this case is exceptional, I stress that it is possible to draw some not dissimilar conclusions from two other water monster cases that I have followed up on over the years. The first, dating to 1934, concerns a Loch Ness land sighting – the celebrated Arthur Grant affair, illustrated in fine style at the head of this article. [Modern Mechanix, April 1934] The second is an Irish case dating to a couple of decades later. First, though, Grant.

Arthur Grant, rather like M’Quhae, is often portrayed as an “ideal witness” – he was a trainee vet, and local, and hence assumed to be familiar with most varieties of Highland wildlife. This notion has actually been robustly challenged [Ronald Binns, The Loch Ness Mystery Solved (Shepton Mallet, 1983) pp.189-90], but certainly Grant was adamant that when, on the night of 5 January, he all but ran over something crossing the north shore road, the thing that he encountered was no ordinary animal. Said Grant:

I had a splendid view of the object. In fact I almost struck it with my motorcycle. It had a long neck and large oval-shaped eyes on the top of a small head. The tail would be from 5 to 6 feet long and very powerful… the total length of the animal would be 15 to 20 feet. Knowing something of natural history I can say that I have never seen anything in my life like the animal I saw. It looked like a hybrid… [and] entered the loch with great speed. [Constance Whyte, More Than A Legend (London, 1957) p.74]

Now, exciting though all this is, the truth is that the circumstances of the Grant sighting were far from ideal. It took place on a dark winter’s night, and the scene was only fitfully illuminated by the solitarty headlight on Grant’s motorcycle. The incident itself, if real at all, can have lasted for no more than a few seconds, and there are at least a couple of unsettling details in the vet’s account. For one thing, Grant was plainly well aware of the earlier, even more spectacular, Spicer land sighting of July 1933. [Binns, op.cit. p.91] Second, returning to the spot next day, the student claimed to have found physical evidence to back up his claims in the shape of a patch of flattened grass. [Whyte, op.cit. p.76] Both circumstances seem a little too convenient, and Maurice Burton, for one, expressed incredulity at the sheer amount of detail Grant purportedly drank in: “Arthur Grant was not only able to make a drawing of the animal, but he was able to estimate its size, describe its poise and general form, estimate the size of its head and eye, gauge the length of its neck and of the tail, note the colour and texture of its skin, and describe how the animal moved.” [Burton, The Elusive Monster (London, 1961) pp.148-9]

Arthur Grant sketch of Loch Ness Monster, Daily Mail 8 January  1934I feel some sympathy for Burton’s point of view, for the fact is that trainee vet seems to have been a good deal less certain of exactly what he saw that might be supposed from his written description. Grant made several drawings of the whatever-it-was he saw – at least six, Binns suggests – and these contradict each other in significant details. The earliest of them, moreover [right], published in the Daily Mail of 8 January 1934, is the least detailed, and exhibits what seems to be considerable uncertainy as to the shape of creature’s under-parts – scarcely surprising, one might think, given that these must have merged rather with the road in the dark, seen from the witness’s perspective. The animal in the sketch also looks much less like a “monster” than the vet’s later efforts, and quite different to the popular depictions of the creature that appeared in newspapers worldwide [top]. Burton and Binns agree it suggests that what Grant saw was probably an otter, a view that it would be difficult to embrace if one had access only to the dramatic and entirely unambiguous artists’ impressions that we have of the event. The point being that no-one who thought that such excitable drawings accurately reflected what Grant had seen would agree for a moment with the otter theory.

Lough Fadda Monster - 1954 - The Unexplained, after Georgina  CarberryMy third example differs rather from the two above, in that no witness drawings are available to us. What we do have, however, is something equally intriguing: a detailed description, given by one witness, an artist’s impression, based on it, and the remarks of a second witness, tracked down later, who turned out to be quite critical of the image concerned. The case in question is an Irish one, and it concerns the famous monster of Lough Fadda, in Connemara, seen, supposedly, by a party of angling picnickers in the summer of 1954. According to the principal witness, a local librarian by the name of Georgina Carberry, what she and three friends saw in the lough that day was a veritable monster, which approached to within 20 yards of them, so that

we could distinctly see two big humps showing behind its head out of the water. And the tail we noticed, when it swung round the rock, ’twas a kind of a fork – a V-shaped tail. And the mouth which was open when it came in quite close to us at the shore and the eyes and that I can’t really remember. But I distinctly remember the whole body had movement in it. [FW Holiday, The Dragon and the Disc (London, 1973) p.37]

Lough Fadda Monster - 1954 - after "Ann"Carberry’s interview, given 14 years after the encounter in question, may or may not give an accurate version of what actually happened – though it’s certainly worth pointing out that she, as a librarian, falls very much into the same category of “reliable witness” as do Peter M’Quhae and Arthur Grant. It is, however, certainly quite detailed, and it was enough for an artist commissioned by the Orbis partwork The Unexplained to produce a drawing [above left] in about 1982. There’s no indication, by the way, that Carberry ever even saw it, but no other depictions of the Lough Fadda monster are readily available, so The Unexplained‘s image has become, if only by default, the accepted version of what Carberry’s creature looked like. It is, thus, rather instructive to learn that when the Fadda case was reinvestigated in 2001, a second member of the picnic party took issue with that same impression. According to researcher Nick Sucik, when this witness, a woman he named only as Ann, was shown the illustration based on Carberry’s description, she insisted that the monster she had seen had had no tail, and also possessed a much thicker neck and blunter mouth. Sucik had Ann sketch her own impression of the creature over a Tippex’d print of The Unexplained‘s version [above right]. The contrast between the two images is instructive.

Finally, just in case it be thought that  the problem of artists’ impressions be confined solely to the realms of cryptozoology, let’s take a brief look at what is probably the best-known, most controversial, British UFO case of them all: the Rendlesham encounter of December 1980. In this case, as is well known, US Air Force personnel from an airbase in Suffolk reported strange lights that flashed through the forest that ran almost up to the base itself. A security detail entered the woods, and there, supposedly, encountered a triangular object, brightly lit and hovering a few feet off the ground. There is certainly much of interest to be said about the Rendlesham case, which has been explained variously as an encounter with a UFO that left physical traces and as the radical misperception of the lighthouse at Orford Ness, five miles away, but the one thing that is beyond dispute is that the case has become so celebrated that a plethora of artists’ impressions have been produced to illustrate it. Here are three, all based, however remotely, on witness descriptions, and all supposed to accurately depict the various stages of this renowned encounter:

Rendlesham UFO encounter Rendlesham Forest encounter Rendlesham UFO encounter

Note, once again, how very detailed and how unambiguous these artists’ impressions are. And consider how illustrations of this sort might impact upon the naive, the ill-informed and the credulous, with special reference to convincing them that this encounter was “real”. Now compare the objects the artists’ show to the original witness sketches, produced soon after the incident in question, archived on astronomer and sceptic Ian Ridpath‘s excellent website [and reproduced below].

If you’re satisfied that the originals could reasonably inspire the artists’ impressions, if you’re not bothered by that tell-tale – honest? havering? – question-mark on the second witness drawing, and if, after everything you’ve read and and seen, you still think most artists’ impressions are worth the paper they are drawn on, you’re a better man, I’d say, than me.

Witness drawing, Rendlesham Forest UFO Rendlesham Forest UFO - witness drawing

* Maybe. Could also be a saucepan lid with ping pong balls, or a tobacco humidor with the nipple of a baby’s bottle glued on top.

[Acknowledgements: My grateful thanks to Matt Bille, Dave Clarke and Ian Ridpath for their help in sourcing images for this post.]

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The  Saladin balloon c.1881At 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 a Fortean 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 left], 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.

Walter  Powell MPPowell 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].

The   accident to the balloon Saladin at Bridport, 10 December 1881 (The   Graphic 17 December 1881)

It was what happened next that gives the saga of the Saladin its Fortean relevance. 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.

Sightings of the balloon Saladin 1881-83

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,

Walter Powell gravestonesettles 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.

Balloon in Boer WarAs 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?

Additional sources:

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)

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