The World's First Fatal Parachute Jump Happened in South-East London

By M@ Last edited 25 months ago
The World's First Fatal Parachute Jump Happened in South-East London
Image via the Museum of the History of Science.

A UFO makes its way over Greenwich. Minutes later, it begins to plummet, an unexplained falling object. This was the scene on 24 July 1834, when an aerial stunt became the world's first recorded death from a failed parachute.

The unfortunate jumper was Robert Cocking, a 61-year old painter and amateur scientist. Cocking, inspired by the work of earlier successful parachutists, had spent years developing his contraption. It featured a small wicker basket hanging beneath a cone-shaped chute. Like this:

Cocking launched from Vauxhall, carried into the evening skies beneath the famous Royal Nassau balloon. The weight of the chute and basket made for a slow ascent. The balloon had only climbed about 1,500 metres when it reached the drop zone over Greenwich. The sun was setting. Cocking was told to launch. It was now or never.

The parachute was released from the balloon. It fell steadily at first, but way too fast. Before long, the fabric turned inside-out, began to break apart, then separated entirely from the basket. Cocking was killed on impact, or died shortly after (accounts vary). His body was found in a field near Burnt Ash Farm, a little south of where Lee train station now stands. It was carried to the Tiger's Head pub on Lee Green. The pub's landlord later had his wrist slapped for charging sixpence a head to view the parachute's remains.

Image © Illustrated London News Group. Via the British Newspaper Archive.

The flight was doubly doomed. Cocking had somehow failed to take into account the weight of his fabric. It was too heavy to glide safely down. The chute was also badly stitched, and could never have survived the stresses of the drop.

It wasn't to be the last fatal plummet from London's skies. In 1874, a flying Dutchman by the name of M Vincent de Groof launched a bat-shaped glider from a balloon above Chelsea. The contraption overturned, narrowly missed a church spire, and crashed into the ground, killing the would-be Batman.

Running Past blog has more on Cocking's story, with images.

Last Updated 23 January 2017