Ernest Willows – the aviator
Ernest Willows constructed a number of airships, the naming of which probably didn’t take up too much of his time. Willows 1, powered by a motorbike engine, was constructed in his workshop in East Moors Cardiff in 1905 when he was just 19 years old.
In 1910, in Willows 2, he succeeded in flying it to the city centre and landing near the City Hall netting him a £50 prize for the first aerial voyage in Wales. Buoyed by his success and now with a bit of publicity behind him, he did the same three days later, this time in front of a crowd of 40,000.
A new local hero was born. Ernest advanced airship design in that he made his steerable, something that is no doubt a great advantage if you are trying to get somewhere in particular.
His next notable achievement was to fly from Cardiff to London in Willows 3 and become the first person to fly an airship over the Bristol Channel, something he could hardly avoid doing as it was on the way.
Channel hopping became all the rage and in November 1910 he was the first person to fly an airship from London to Paris and the first to fly an airship over the English Channel at night (and no I don’t know who the first person to do it in daylight was but it probably made for a better spectator sport). The flight wasn’t without mishap and he had to put down soon after reaching France for repairs.
You would have thought by now that fame and financial success would no doubt follow but I’m afraid not. A number of things happened which stopped this, most notably the outbreak of WWI and the invention of the aeroplane. Ernest did however play a role designing the tethered barrage balloons which prevented enemy planes getting too low over London to seek out their targets. He spent much of WWI managing the building of barrage balloons in Westgate Street, Cardiff.
The technical achievements of Ernest Willows and his airships are well covered in Alec McKinty’s biography entitled ‘The Father of British Airships’. and also in a number of other blogs such as Then and Now. and Phil Carradice. What interests me maybe more is his family history.
Ernest Willows – Family History
Ernest Willows was born on 11th July 1886 at No.11 Newport Road in a row of houses known as Brighton Terrace. The houses became part of Cardiff University and were eventually demolished to allow for the expansion of the university. It seems fitting that the Cardiff University School of Engineering now occupy the space where Ernest Willows was born.
His father, Joseph Willows, was a dentist who originated from Hull and his mother Evaline Willows, nee Garrett, was born in Bath. By the age of four Ernest and the family had moved to Queen Street in Cardiff. Young Ernest started school in Richmond Road and may even have gone to Cardiff High for a short period of time but most of his education was in Clifton College, Bristol where he lived with an aunt. He was all set to follow his father’s career and started training to be a dentist but evidently didn’t take to it and soon working on airships became his passion, one his parents it seems fully supported.
In 1908 Ernest marries sixteen year old Irene Davies from Haverfordwest in Lambeth, London. Their first two children Evelyn and Clifford are born back in Cardiff. Evelyn dies on the eve of her first birthday in Deri Road, Penylan, Cardiff in 1910. Poor Clifford was to die in 1932 aged 22 in a motorcycle accident on his way to work as a draughtsman in Whitley aerodrome, Coventry. They have two more children; Dorothy who was born in West Bromwich in 1912 and died in 1980 and Ernest Joseph Denman Willows born in Hendon, London in 1914 and died in 1989, neither of whom married. So unfortunately it appears there are no living decedents of our hero Ernest Willows. Ernest did have two sisters, Daisy who died in infancy and Doris. It is from this line where it gets interesting from a local history point of view where one of Doris’s daughters marries into the Crouch family, the famous Cardiff jewellers.
Anyway, I digress. What of Ernest himself I hear you ask. Unfortunately he doesn’t have a lot of luck either. He never seems to make a lot of money from his airship business. In 1921 he loses all his worldly belongings overboard from a ship off the Isle of Wight and ends up living, with his family, in a schooner moored up in Chiswick on the Thames. His post-war career appears to be based on giving people joy rides in balloons. One night in 1925, his balloon escapes from its mooring in the Wembley Exhibition and crashes into the house of Sir Hector Rason, a former Premier of Western Australia, wrecking the porch, knocking off the chimney pots and filling the house with hydrogen gas.
Ernest Willows life is cut short at the age of just 40 when he died in a ballooning accident in Bedford when taking two others for a ride in the balloon. The basket gets detached from the balloon and plummets to the ground. He is buried in Cathays cemetery in Cardiff along with his parents and infant child Evelyn.
The Ernest Willows Pub
The name of Willows is remembered in a number of places around Cardiff including Willows school and the Ernest Willows pub on City Road. Here the walls of the pub are lined with pictures of famous Cardiffians, including of course our hero after which this pub is named.
A Wetherspoons pub never is never small and cosy with a real fire burning in the corner. Many are in large old buildings of notable architecture. I wouldn’t describe the Ernest Willows in City Road, Cardiff as being of notable architecture. Art deco would even be stretching it. The building apparently used to be a garage and also a bicycle shop. It is however friendly, spacious and has an outside area with its own mini-Gorsedd Circle feature around the side.
What the pub lacks in charm is more than made up for by its fabulous award-winning toilets. Before you men get too excited, I’m mainly here talking about the ladies toilets, not that I’ve seen them firsthand of course.
The opulent ladies toilets are full of marble and mosaic tiles with a central feature that wouldn’t be out of place in the middle of an Italian town. I’m not sure of the history of the ladies toilets but I imagine the builder was told ‘If you do a good job for us here then we’ve a 1000 more for you to have a go at’.