Roamer:Cartoonist couple were hot-air ballooning celebrities of the skies

Dunville Distillery Belfast. Circa 1893-1913.
Dunville Distillery Belfast. Circa 1893-1913.

Northern Ireland’s accolades in the history of aviation and sea-going are well documented, with many Belfast-built ships and aircraft hailed as icons of the oceans and the skies.

One lesser-recounted distinction attained by local folk was in ballooning, outlined in an intriguing account which arrived in Roamer’s mailbox recently.

John Dunville, whose family owned the well-known Belfast distillery, was an early pioneer of competitive ballooning - as well as being a successful politician, sportsman, horse-rider, fighter pilot and wing commander!

He was chairman of the family company between 1910 and 1929, though his exploits in balloons monopolised more of his time than the boardroom!

Born in 1866 in Holywood, Co Down, and educated at Cambridge University, he twice won the greatly coveted Northcliffe Cup for the longest distance travelled in a balloon.

In 1908 he held the record for the longest time in the air. Often his wife Violet and members of his family accompanied him on his aeronautical expeditions, and Violet herself was an accomplished balloonists and winner of more than a few prizes.

The sport of ballooning was popular among the wealthy from the turn of the century until the outbreak of WWI. The Aero Club, founded in 1901 and renamed the Royal Aero Club in 1910, organised ballooning competitions from the polo grounds at Hurlingham in Fulham and Ranelagh in Barnes.

Dunville’s first balloon trip was in 1906 or 1907, when flights were being offered in a War Office balloon at Aldershot for the cost of five pounds.

John Dunville’s inaugural flight from there, accompanied by an officer of the Army Balloon Corps, terminated in a tree!

The balloon was badly torn and the aeronauts climbed out of their shredded basket somewhat bruised. This did not deter John Dunville from taking up ballooning

big time!

His first balloon La Mascotte was named after John’s unusual but endearing ‘pet name’ for his wife Violet. In September 1907 he won the Northcliffe Cup, which had been presented by Lord Northcliffe to the Aero Club in 1906.

The trophy was awarded to the Briton who had made the longest flight during the year. John won the cup by flying La Mascotte nearly 200 miles from London to Wales.

In June 1908 he won a Hare and Hounds race from Hurlingham. In this type of race, basically a high-altitude hunt, the winner was the pilot of the balloon that landed closest to the ‘quarry balloon’.

An attempt by John to win the Northcliffe Cup in November 1908 was acclaimed as the first crossing of the English Channel by a balloon carrying four people - himself, his wife Violet, Mr C.F. Pollock and Philip Gardner. This flight - in the Banshee - was from London to Baelen, in the north of Belgium, when Banshee covered a distance of 260 miles in 11 hours and five minutes.

Then John won the cup in December 1908 by flying from Chelsea Gas Works to Crailsheim near Stuttgart in Germany, once again accompanied by C.F. Pollock and Philip Gardner, in 13 hours.

One of the rules of the Northcliffe Cup was that if it was won by the same person in two consecutive years it was retained for posterity by the holder, and thus it became the property of John Dunville

John and C.F. Pollock crossed the Irish Sea in a balloon called St. Louis in February 1910. Mr Short, of Short and Company, Battersea (fore runners of the Belfast aircraft plant) assisted with the launch from the Gas Works in Dublin.

Violet Dunville had hoped to travel in the balloon, but the weight of the craft had to be reduced before the launch.

She said afterwards: “I knew I displaced three bags of ballast, which they would require to throw out, and you know they could not throw me out!”

The five-hour flight reached an altitude of 10,000 feet and covered 160 miles.

They landed in Birtles, near Macclesfield in Cheshire. The Irish Sea had been crossed in a balloon only twice before, 40 years previously and on an earlier occasion by Windham Sadler in 1817. John Dunville and Violet both competed in numerous international ballooning competitions.

In Banshee II Violet won the Hedges Butler Challenge Cup for three years consecutively - in 1912, 1913 and 1914.

The cup was awarded for the longest distance flight by any type of flying machine, starting from London on a specified day. If it was won by the same person three times in succession it became the property of the holder, and so this cup became the property of Violet Dunville.

Husband and wife must have had a huge array of trophies to polish in family-mansion Redburn House! John Dunville took part in the Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett in October 1913, when it started from the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris. His balloon was Banshee and his co-pilot was Captain Corbet.

They were placed 17th out of 21 balloons, covering a distance of 226 miles. Like their father, John’s two sons Robert Dunville (1893-1931) and John Dunville VC (1896-1917) were heroes of war, and there’ll be more about the family here in the near future.

The Priory Churchyard in Holywood contains the Dunville family grave and there’s a memorial stone to John erected there.

The town’s Redburn Square War Memorial was laid out in John Dunville’s honour. Dunville’s name is one of those listed on the memorial and there’s a plaque and memorial window in St Mary’s and St Philip’s Parish Church in Hollywood.