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John D Dunville (1866-1929) – Aeronaut
by Gordon Bruce



Redburn House, Holywood, Co Down

John Dunville Dunville was born in 1866, at Redburn House, Holywood, Co Down, the son of Robert Grimshaw Dunville, owner of the Belfast firm of whiskey distillers of that name. After education at Eton and Cambridge he followed his father into the family business – eventually becoming Chairman – but, in the early part of his career, he was political Private Secretary to the Duke of Devonshire between 1890 and 1908.

Dunville was brought up as a sportsman – he hunted with the Meath Hounds at the age of ten and was Master of the Cambridge Draghounds for two years – so that it is surprising that he did not take up the Edwardian sport of ballooning until 1906. The Aero Club of the United Kingdom ("Royal" from 1910) had been formed in 1901 by the Hon CS Rolls and Frank Hedges Butler (the wine-shipper) to promote the sport and, by late 1905, when establishment of the Gordon Bennett series of International balloon races was announced, ballooning had become socially acceptable for both aeronauts (as the balloonists were called) and for spectators alike.

Rolls recognised that the Gordon Bennett contests would require the services of the country's best balloon-builders and, in much the same way that he had selected Henry Royce as the premier car builder, he sought out Eustace and Oswald Short at their balloon factory off London's Tottenham Court Road. Early in 1906 Rolls asked the Shorts to build the balloon "Britannia" (80,000 cu.ft.) as his entry for the first Gordon Bennett and also ordered through them the French-built balloon "Venus" {42,000 cu.ft.). "Venus" was delivered in May 1906 and played a part in introducing Dunville to ballooning. There are two accounts of how Dunville made his first flight – the first that he flew with Rolls in "Venus" and the second that he paid £5 for a flight in an Army balloon at the Royal Engineers' Balloon Factory at Farnborough (a trip which ended with his climbing down a tree with the CO – Colonel Capper – when the balloon became entangled). Both events actually happened (the "Venus" flight was on 13 June 1906 and took two hours 16 minutes to cover the 45 miles from Shorts new balloon factory at Battersea to Liphook in Hampshire) but, whichever came first, Dunville had found his métier and soon made up for his late-coming to the sport.

There were three further flights with Rolls (some in "Britannia") and others with other aeronauts before Dunville took delivery of his own first balloon from Shorts early in 1907. This was "La Mascotte" of 50,000 cu.ft. which he owned jointly with V Ker-Seymer, a distinguished pioneer motorist ("La Mascotte" was the pet name given to Dunville's wife, Violet Anne).

The usual price of a balloon of this size was about £200 and each ascent cost about £10 so that, as Eustace Short said in 1906, Dunville would have found that:

"… ballooning is an expensive sport and balloons are costly toys. More so than motoring and motor cars even – which is saying a good deal."

Rolls acted as aeronaut for the first flight of "La Mascotte" from Battersea on 1 August 1907 but, over the next few months, Dunville trained for his own aeronaut's licence – sometimes flying thrice in a week – and, on 3 December 1907, he was awarded the ninth licence to be issued by the club. Dunville may be regarded as a pioneer in this field for his eight seniors included CF Pollock, an aeronaut of at least ten years standing, Rolls himself and JTC Moore-Brabazon, who had a distinguished career in aviation from 1903, much of it under the title Lord Brabazon of Tara. Another pioneer met by Dunville as a competitor was TOM Sopwith who founded his own aircraft company in 1911 after several years as a keen balloonist and as a customer of Shorts.

A few months before Dunville was awarded his licence the Short Brothers were appointed "Official Aeronauts" to the Aero Club and were given charge of all ascents by Club members: the careers of Dunville and of the Shorts were accordingly inextricably linked over the following years, the Shorts building and launching most of Dunville's balloons.

"La Mascotte" flew for three seasons and was the mount on which Dunville trained himself in the exacting skills of long distance flying and precise use of the air currents. Long distance flying was perhaps the most difficult of the aeronaut's skills for it required searching for favourable air streams at various heights – rising by jettisoning ballast and descending by valving the gas which inflated the balloon's envelope. Dunville's balloons were typically varnished cotton envelopes inflated by coal-gas, unlike to-day's balloons of man-made fabric inflated by hot air from their own propane gas burner, but the basic skills of husbanding gas and ballast for the longest possible flight are the same.

Like most aeronauts of the period Dunville used a length of heavy rope – the trail rope – which dragged along the ground or the surface of the sea to control the height of the balloon. The practice of "trailing" was not popular with those whose tiles or chimney pots might be in the path of the balloon and Dunville preferred not to be reminded of either how the telephone wires came to be severed over a large part of Essex or of how his rope broke precisely 87 panes of glass in a conservatory and he was presented with a bill for both the glass and a quantity of ruined tropical plants.

In May 1908 Dunville competed in the Aero Club's International Competition at the Hurlingham Club, London and in June he won the CS Rolls Cup for Hare and Hounds flying ("Hare and Hounds" was a sport introduced to the Club by Rolls in which a quarry – usually Rolls himself – was given a head start before pursuit by his colleagues – the winner was the aeronaut who landed nearest to the "Hare's" own point of descent).

On 11 August 1908 Dunville flew "La Mascotte" on his first crossing of the English Channel from Battersea to St Omer – a distance of 115 miles which, as he later proudly related, he covered at a speed substantially in excess of Bleriot's on the first powered crossing in July 1909. Statistics are incomplete but Dunville's was probably about the fiftieth Channel crossing since Blanchard and Jeffries' pioneering flight in 1785. Dunville continued the year by winning in September the Northcliffe Challenge Cup for the longest flight starting in the United Kingdom – on this occasion "La Mascotte" took him 190 miles from London to Wales, then the second longest flight ever achieved wholly within the United Kingdom. This was Dunville's last major flight with "La Mascotte" but the balloon survived to be flown by Mrs Dunville in the 1909 season. It appears that Mrs Dunville's own enthusiasm for ballooning dated from flights with CS Rolls and Mrs Assheton-Harbord (the first lady member of the Aero Club to own a balloon) in May 1907. In the following years Mrs Dunville joined the Aero Club, became a founder member of the Ladies' Committee in September 1909 and was a frequent competitor in balloon contests until the First World War.

Dunville's acknowledged skill as an aeronaut brought him election to the Aero Club's Executive Committee in 1908 and nomination as aeronaut for one of the three balloons entered by the United Kingdom in the third of the annual Gordon Bennett contests. "La Mascotte" was too small for the coming task and was accordingly replaced by "Banshee" (Short-built, 77,000 cu.ft.) which flew at Battersea in September 1908. As was customary the whole of the cost of his entry to the race came from Dunville's own pocket.

Banshee served Dunville well and, but for a perverse reading of the race rules, her flight should have won him first place in the Gordon Bennett. Leaving Berlin at 3.13 pm on 11 October in a field of 23 balloons representing eight countries, he passed over Hamburg at 8.30 pm and crossed the Kiel Canal at 10.30 pm but a fog at dawn left him uncertain of his location in relation to the North Sea. Prudence required a landing and Dunville came down on the German-Danish border a mile from the coast (many competitors were less fortunate and fell into the sea). Dunville had stayed in the air for 36 hours and 54 minutes (then the longest duration attained by a British-built balloon) and he reckoned to have sufficient gas and ballast remaining for a further 24 to 30 hours. Of "Banshee" Dunville said:

"… she proved of very exceptional quality …"

and, although he had spent the best part of 37 hours in a wicker-work car measuring no more than 5 ft 3 inches long, 4 ft 8 inches wide and 3 ft 6 inches deep, he was full of praise for its carpeted and padded comfort – and for the convenience of electric lighting.

Dunville's flight, however, was not the longest in the race for a Swiss competitor travelled about 700 miles before "ditching" off the Norwegian coast; ordinarily descent into the sea, or accepting a tow to the nearest port, as the Swiss aeronaut did, would have resulted in disqualification but the race was awarded to Switzerland despite an appeal by the Aero Club on Dunville's behalf – the grounds for the adverse decision were never made clear.

Dunville crossed the Channel twice again with "Banshee" before the end of 1908; on 21 November when he took three passengers 260 miles from London to a landing in complete darkness, at a point east of Antwerp and again on 11th and 12th December when he covered 485 miles from Shorts Works at Battersea to Crailsheim, Germany, in the space of 13 hours. Mrs Dunville accompanied her husband on the November flight and – according to a claim made at the time – became the third lady to make a Channel crossing; the flight also appears to have been the first time that a balloon had made the crossing with four aboard.

The Crailsheim flight – it was Dunville's 55th – won him the Northcliffe Cup for the second year running and, according to the rules, it became his absolute property. Sportingly, Dunville presented the Aero Club with a replacement prize for long distance flying – the Aero Club Challenge Cup – for which competitions were run from 1909 onwards. A few years later he also presented the Club with the John Dunville Cup for Hare and Hounds navigation.

"Banshee" flew well in the 1909 season: Dunville won the Hurlingham International in May but bad weather caused the cancellation of many of the races planned for later in the summer. "Banshee" should have survived until 1911 but her envelope split in a gust of wind in January 1910 at the start of an attempt to cross the Irish Sea from Dublin. Dunville tried again on 15 February 1910 using the "St Louis", a French-built balloon flown by a United States competitor in the 1908 Gordon Bennett and this attempt was successful. The five-hour flight carried him from Dublin to Macclesfield at an altitude up to 10,000 ft. and a speed of 34 mph; some accounts have it that this was the first crossing since Windham Sadler's pioneer journey from Dublin to Anglesey in 1817.

"St Louis" was used in July 1910 for yet another crossing of the English Channel – this time from London to Boulogne in 4 hours 7 minutes – after bad weather had caused the cancellation of an Aero Club race. Tragically Charles Rolls, the Dunvilles' mentor in ballooning, was killed a few days earlier when his French-built Wright biplane crashed at the Bournemouth flying meeting.

From August 1908 onward (when Wilbur Wright started a series of flying demonstrations in France) flight by powered aircraft came to occupy an increasing proportion of the efforts of both the Aero Club and of Shorts but Dunville remained faithful to balloon flight apart from helping to organise flying meetings on both sides of the Irish Sea and in conferring (unsuccessfully) with the Army Council in 1909 on the development of military aviation. The Dunvilles' names continued to be associated with the Royal Aero Club's diminishing band of ballooning enthusiasts in the years before the First World War: Dunville's new balloon "Banshee II" (80,000 cu.ft., Short-built) flourished between 1911 and 1914 – especially in long distance competitions – while he is also known to have flown "Dunlop I" (50,000 cu.ft.) in 1912 and "Polo" (a1so 50,000 cu.ft.) in 1913 and 1914.

In March 1915 Dunville joined the Royal Naval Air Service as a Flight Lieutenant and, with his old colleague CF Pollock, was appointed instructor at No.1 Balloon Training Wing at Roehampton, South-West London, to train Naval airship pilots and crews for Army and Navy observation balloons. For a time Dunville was Commanding Officer at Roehampton with the rank of Squadron Commander and, in the opinion of his contemporaries, his skills as a "master of ballooning" and his ideal blend of kindness and strictness were of inestimable value to the Allied cause. Apart from his work on free balloons at Roehampton, for which he was awarded the CBE in 1919, Dunville also contributed to the development of the SS series of small Naval airships (the Submarine Scout type) which did so much to protect the United Kingdom's coastal waters from incursions by U-Boats.

Dunville became an officer of the newly formed Royal Air Force in April 1918, when the RNAS was assimilated into the new force so that, already a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Meath Militia, he became one of the few to have held commissioned rank in all three Services. Dunville's sons also served with distinction: in 1917, his second son, John, was killed in France in an action for which he was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

Dunville resumed competitive ballooning after demobilisation in September 1919 and he flew in the 11th Gordon Bennett (Geneva, 1922) with Banshee III and in the 12th (Brussels, 1923) but his days of primacy were over: the end of his competitive career was effectively marked by the entry of his son, Robert, in the 1926 Gordon Bennett at Antwerp. A few years later Robert presented his father's photograph album to the Royal Aero Club: the album, which contains a small piece of the fabric of the envelope of the origina1 "Banshee", is now in the safe-keeping of the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon.

By a quirk of history Short Brothers' factory moved from Battersea, where many of Dunville's balloons were built, to Shellbeach on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent (where Shorts built six Flyers for the Wright brothers) then a few miles to Eastchurch, then to Rochester on the Medway and then, by stages between 1936 and 1947, to a site on the shore of Belfast Lough two miles away from Dunville's family home at Redburn, Holywood.

In his later years Dunville, who was a Deputy Lieutenant for County Down, spent some time big-game fishing in New Zealand but his principal efforts went into the formation of No.502 (Ulster) Special Reserve Squadron as the first of the newly created Special Reserve and Auxiliary Squadrons of the Royal Air Force. Dunville was the "Father" of the Squadron (he was appointed honorary Wing Commander in 1926) with special responsibility for recruiting and he worked so effectively that between May 1925, when the Squadron was formed, and June 1928, when it reached full strength, that there were over 20 applications for each place available. So keen were Dunville's part-timers that, a few months before his death, their return of flying hours brought a letter of commendation from Air Vice Marshal ACT Dowding, Director of RAF Training. Ten years later Dowding was architect of victory in the Battle of Britain and 502 (Ulster) Squadron, as part of Coastal Command, was heavily involved in the war At Sea as successors to Dunville's airships of the First War.

John Dunville died in London on 10th June 1929 after a long illness and is buried in Holywood. In the last 19 years of his life, and as a Founder Member of the Royal Aeronautical Society, he offered prize funds through the Society for the first aeroplane pilot to take-off and land on a ship (1910), contributed to a premium fund for the training of aeronautical patent agents (1912) and also contributed capital to the Wilbur Wright Memorial Fund. The income of the Fund is used to endow the Wright Memorial Lectures which are delivered annually in London before the Royal Aeronautical Society so that, paradoxically, John Dunville, aeronaut, shares a memorial with the very pioneers of heavier-than-air flying who were responsible for the decline of the gas-filled balloon to whose sporting and military development he had contributed so much.

Gordon Bruce
Short Brothers Limited

10 October 1978

Gordon Bruce is a former company secretary of Short Brothers Limited, an aviation historian, and the author of "Charlie Rolls – Pioneer Aviator", published by the Rolls Royce Heritage Trust in 1990, ISBN 978-1872922010. Gordon Bruce's biography of John Dunville was very kindly provided by Sam Christie.

See also:

The Dunville Family of Northern Ireland and Dunville's Whisky

Photographs of John Dunville Dunville CBE DL (1866-1929)

The Distillery Line of the Dunvilles

Family Tree