Ball Lightning at Watergall

19th century engraving depicting ball lightning.
Originally uploaded to Wikipedia by Dencey

Charles Hoy Fort, (1874-1932), collected notes upon many subjects, including ball lightning. This is an expanded version of one of his notes, of a “fireball” in Nature, to which I have added the account in the Banbury Advertiser.

“Mr. E.A. Walford read a note ‘On the occurrence of a Fire-ball at Watergall.’ He quoted from articles by Professor Tait in ‘Nature,’ shewing how this form of electric discharge, called ball lightning, might probably be caused by the formation of a kind of natural Leyden jar, the rupture of which was often disastrous in its consequences. He said it was distinguished from ordinary lightning by the slowness of its descent and its spherical form.

In answer to Mr Walford’s queries, Mr Fessey, jun., had sent an account, as follows:

Watergall, Leamington, August 30th, 1881.

Dear sir, — As regards the fire-ball, I was about 200 yards from it, in a waggon hovel. I saw it directly it left the sky, as I was looking in that direction at the time. When I first saw it, it looked like ball of fire, about as large as a dinner plate.

It slowly descended, and I have no doubt I could have run 20 yards from the time I first saw it until it struck the ground; but when about 15 to 18 feet from the ground it exploded with loud crash, quite as loud as a cannon, distinctly before the thunder, which was very loud also. The explosion shook the whole buildings. I certainly thought the slates were falling in, but when it exploded, one part struck the hedge, making a hole in the ground about a foot deep, and laying all the roots bare, but not damaging them. For some time, the place looked all on fire, and there was a considerable quantity smoke when it hit the ground, lasting for a second or two.

It was seen by myself and four men. They also agree with me that this is as near as possible a correct explanation of it. We dug the hole yesterday, but found nothing. The soil was blackened for several deep.

Hoping this will meet with your approval, I am, sir, yours truly, Johnson Fessey.

The President, commenting upon the paper, said he did not see how a spherical mass of electricity could be accounted for under the condition’s name, nor that it could ‘explode’ in the manner described. He doubted Professor Tait’s conclusion, and thought that such phenomena were really meteoric. Messers J.H. Beale, J.R. Davis, and A. Boulton spoke upon the subject.


August 22nd 1881. “Watergall Banburyshire? Fireball exploded near earth.” Nature 24-476. [V; 610.

September 15th 1881. “Notes.” Nature, 24, pp.475-477. Watergall, Leamington, Warwickshire, (not Banburyshire).

25th August 1881. “Watergall.” Banbury Guardian, p. 8 c. 6.

“Banburyshire Natural History Society.” Banbury Advertiser, September 8, 1881, p. 5 c. 1.

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