Burnt Ash Farm, which was around what is now the junction of St Mildred’s Road and Baring Road, has a somewhat odd historical claim in that it was the scene of the first fatal parachute jump.
Robert Cocking was a watercolour artist by trade, but had spent years attempting to develop a parachute and on 24 July 1837 its maiden flight was planned from Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, which by that stage had been re-badged the The Royal Vauxhall Gardens.
A lot was made of the launch – the public were allowed to inspect the 107 foot perimeter parachute, there were bands and an orchestra, and the parachute was to be launched from the Great Nassau balloon which was piloted by, perhaps, the best known balloonist of his generation – Charles Green.
It was planned to get the parachute to around 8,000 feet (about 2,400 metres), but the weight of the parachute with the basket below prevented this and at less than half this height Cocking was released from the balloon over Greenwich. The balloon, without the weight of Cocking’s contraption, rapidly ascended, however the parachute plummeted turning inside out and breaking apart before crash landing in Lee.
John Chamberlain, a shepherd at Burnt Ash Farm was a witness to the crash and the events leading up to it with the rapidly falling parachute making a sound like ‘thunder’ and the sight of the the crash ‘quite turned him’. Others appeared on the scene quite quickly, including Richard Norman. the proprietor of Burnt Ash Farm, and the battered Cocking was taken to the previous incarnation of the (Old) Tiger’s Head, where he died soon after. There have been suggestions that while those finding him were from Burnt Ash Farm, that he may have actually landed in a field of a neighbouring farm – Lee Green Farm (the story of the farm was covered in the blog in 2016).
The detail of the post-mortem was published in The Lancet, which covered the horrendous extent of Cocking’s injuries in some detail. The Lancet though was damning of the enterprise, describing the parachute as a ‘suicidal machine’
The instrument of death was simply a canvas toy, constructed in ignorance, and used with the hardihood which might distinguish an unfortunate being who contemplated his own destruction by extraordinary and wonder exciting means ….
The inquest was held at the (Old) Tiger’s Head at Lee Green, the report in The Times noted that (2)
These conclusions seems somewhat harsh, the paths trodden by pioneers of most means of transport were, and still are, fraught with danger. Cocking in trying and failing with an unusual design made it easier for those who came after to learn from his mistakes and was probably fully aware of the risks of failure.
It is worth noting a comment from the coroner about the innkeeper, Thomas Sears, who had charged sixpence to see the badly injured corpse of Robert Cocking’s body; the coroner found the scheme “deserving of peculiar censure and deprecation.” Some of Cocking’s clothing and pieces of the parachute also disappeared whilst in Sear’s charge (3).
Cocking was buried in the old St Margaret’s Lee Churchyard on Belmont Hill, close to the Astronomer Royal, Sir Edmund Halley – whose grave the blog visited a while ago, whilst following the Prime Meridian.
The crash left Cocking’s family almost destitute as a ‘begging’ letter in The Times noted just after the inquest (4).
- Kincaid, D (2001) ‘Lee Races’ Lewisham History Journal No 9
- The Times (London, England), Saturday, Jul 29, 1837; pg. 6; Issue 16481
- Kincaid op cit
- The Times (London, England), Monday, Jul 31, 1837; pg. 4; Issue 16482