John Stringfellow’s House
These two houses are from the 18th Century with No121, next door, being altered c1838. Number 12’s most famous inhabitant was John Stringfellow.
John Stringfellow, who came to Chard in 1820 was an important Victorian aviation pioneer who is celebrated for developing the first powered airplane which flew in the town in 1848.
John was born in Attercliffe, near Sheffield in 1799 to Martha and William Stringfellow, a stone mason. When he was a teenager his family moved to Nottingham, where he became apprenticed as a bobbin & carriage maker in the lace and weaving industry. In 1820, following the Luddite riots he relocated to Chard, Somerset. He initially worked in the lace mills in Chard producing bobbins and carriages for the lace industry, but became so successful that he started his own company. Married on the 27 February 1827 to Hannah Keetchthey eventually had 10 children, including a son who died in infancy and a daughter, Laura, who suffered with epilepsy and later, died age 29.
Alongside his everyday job in the lace making industry, in his spare time he developed a passion for aviation, experimenting initial with balloons and gliders. The diarist Arthur Hull noted in 1831 that a balloon constructed by Stringfellow landed to the east of Chard on Windwhistle Hill.
During the 1830’s he teamed up with a fellow aviation pioneer from Chard, William Henson. Whilst they were very creative, aviation technology was in its infancy and their first models were unstable and underpowered. Henson eventually emigrated to America in 1848 leaving Stringfellow to carry on alone.
Learning from his mistakes, in 1848 he developed a smaller, second design which was designed to fly inside, launched from a wire. It had a lightweight wooden frame with ten-foot bat-like wings covered in silk. It was propelled by two contra-rotating propellers to provide lateral stability. At this time, steam was the only viable form of propulsion, so, ingeniously John developed a spirit fuelled engine with a thin copper boiler weighing just twelve ounces.
The first flight of the BAT model ended in disappointment, the aircraft rising sharply, then stalling before dropping back on its tail. Following adjustments to its tail, the second attempt saw the machine fly for over ten yards before coming to a stop in the canvas screen at the end of the mill. John Stringfellow had flown the world’s first unmanned air vehicle.
His son, Frederick, had also caught the flying bug and both together and individually they built several steam-powered flying machines. At the 1868 exhibition at the Crystal Palace, John demonstrated his final design, a triplane. For good measure, he also scooped first prize for the most efficient lightweight engine able to power a flying machine.
1868 He was elected a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society, and with his £125 prize money from his winning engine design planned to erect a building 70 feet long in which to continue his experiments. Alas by now close to 70, his sight began to fail, and he was unable to make any further significant progress.
In addition to his fascination with flight, John Stringfellow had a variety of other interests. In 1856 he took out a patient for a dry cell battery for medical purposes and later in lifetook up the new art of photography, becoming so proficient that he later advertised himself as a professional portrait photographer, with a studio in Chard High Street.
John Stringfellow died on 13th December 1883 at the age of 84. He is buried in Chard Cemetery, Somerset, where there is a commemorative family monument.
More information available at Chard Museum or on Chard Museum website.