Vauxhall Gardens, established in 1729 by the enterprising businessman Jonathan Tyers, was the scene of a horrible balloon accident that took the life of Mr. Robert Cocking on July 24, 1837.
The day at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, named after a medieval manor called “Fox Hall”, began with a flurry of excitement. The Royal Gardens was to reveal the highly anticipated first grand ascent of Mr. Cocking in his newly designed parachute.
An artist by trade, Mr. Robert Cocking pursued his dream to build a parachute by drawing inspiration from the shape of an inverted cone. According to the Royal Air Force Historical Society, Mr. Cocking constructed his parachute from Irish linen, which was held open similar to an umbrella by a metal loop 107 feet in circumference.
Even prior to the accident, the parachute’s total combined weight of approximately 400 pounds, which included Mr. Cocking’s weight of 170 pounds, was considered excessive and risky given Mr. Cocking’s amateur experience in designing parachutes. The only balloon capable of lifting a similar weight was the Nassau, piloted by the famous balloonist, Charles Green.
On the fateful day of July 24, 1837, the Royal Nassau Balloon, piloted by Charles Green and accompanied by Edward Spencer, carried a Mr. Robert Cocking to an altitude of 55,000 feet.
At 7:30 p.m., the larger balloon, carrying Mr. Cocking below in his smaller basket attached to the Cocking parachute, ascended to 5,000 ft. (see left side of figure below). At this point, Mr. Cocking, who had been waiting in the basket, said to Charles Green, “Well now I think I shall leave you,” to which Mr Green replied, “I wish you a very good night and a safe descent.” With a final “Good night, Green,” Mr. Cocking cut the balloon’s release mechanism and began his descent.
Within seconds the fabric and metal of Mr. Cocking’s parachute collapsed from the weight, and Mr. Cocking plunged to his death.
The above image of Mr. Cocking’s fatal descent, drawn by Eyewitness London, portrays how the parachute detached from the balloon. Eyewitness reports of the event reveal that while rapidly descending, Mr. Cocking remained in the basket waving his arms.
Fatal Flaws in Mr. Cocking’s Parachute Design
During an inquest conducted to investigate the accident and the cause of Mr. Cockings death, experts testified that the greatest challenge of an umbrella-shaped parachute was the corresponding violent oscillation during descent. However, Mr. Cocking believed that if the parachute were designed in a conical (vertex downwards) shape, oscillation could be avoided. Cocking further postulated that if the parachute were larger in size, there would be enough resistance to counteract a too rapid descent. As a result, Mr. Cocking designed his parachute with a 17 feet radius at its widest point.
An important point that was believed to have contributed to Mr. Cocking’s death was that fact that prior to the public announcement of his flight, Mr. Cocking’s parachute design was said to weigh 223 pounds. Evidence presented at the inquest concluded the total combined weight of the parachute, basket, and passenger would have been over 400 pounds, when taking into consideration Mr. Cocking’s weight of 177 pounds. This combined weight of 400 pounds was considered beyond a safe limit.
The inquest also presented evidence of a prior test of the parachute design by Mr. Green on July 24, 1837 that nearly cost Mr. Cocking, Mr. Green, and his solicitor’s life. During the test, Mr. Green and his solicitor were stationed in the large balloon’s carrier with Mr. Cocking suspended in the parachute below them. When the parachute first rose from the ground at twenty-five minutes to eight in the evening, it experienced difficulty rising to 8000 feet due to the air resistance of the expanded parachute and its weight. When the balloon reached 5000 feet, Mr. Green called out to Mr. Cocking that he would be unable to ascend to the requisite height of 8000 feet. Mr. Cocking then let the parachute catch slip to liberate himself from the balloon.
For a few seconds, Mr. Cocking’s parachute descended very rapidly without oscillation, then suddenly the upper rim gave way, and the parachute apparatus collapsed, similar to an umbrella turning inside out in a strong wind. The contraption then began to oscillate and descend quickly until at approximately three hundred feet above ground, the basket disengaged from the inverted parachute and fell to the ground. Mr. Cocking was found in a field nearby with the basket smashed into pieces.
Mr. Green and Mr. Spencer also had a narrow escaped. At the moment Mr. Cocking’s parachute disengaged, the two men crouched down in the larger balloon carrier, with Mr. Green clinging to the valve-line to permit the gas to escape the balloon for descent. Instead, the balloon shot upwards, plunging and rolling, as the balloon’s gas poured from both the upper and lower valves. Mr. Green and Mr. Spencer cupped their mouths over tubes connecting to an air bag, otherwise they would have been suffocated by the gas. However, the balloon’s gas almost completely deprived them of their sight for four or five minutes. When their vision cleared, the men discovered they were at a height of about four miles and descending rapidly. Surprisingly, the two men were able to make a safe descent near Maidstone.
According to the inquest at the time, it was believed that had the ballon been constructed of sufficient strength and a larger size, the accident may not have happened. Apparently, the upper rim was composed of a light tin metal, which gave way. Mr. Wise, an American aeronaut at the time who conducted experiments on popular parachutes forms, including Cocking’s construction, found Mr. Cocking’s designs were much more steady, descending generally in a spiral curve. Thus, Mr. Cocking’s parachute design was not a complete failure and helped to advance the field of ballooning.
By 1859, the taste for such forms of entertainment began to wane and Vauxhall Gardens closed.
Read more about Vauxhall Gardens promiscuous masquerades, prostitution, and other forms of entertainment in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens Part I or one of the most popular attractions at Vauxhall, the famous Cascade Waterfall that ran for 15 minutes every night in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens Part II.
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