Surveying the listless occupants of the near-empty chamber of the House of Commons on summer evening in 1837, Benjamin Disraeli idly scribbled a note informing his wife that: “There is no news today: everything is rather flat and the room is thin as the world have [sic] gone to see the monster balloon rise from Vauxhall.” The monster balloon in question was the Great Nassau, a huge hot air balloon which undertook flights from Vauxhall Gardens every evening during the summer season. The Vauxhall balloon was the biggest aircraft in existence at the time and had recently smashed the world record for the longest ever flight, travelling almost 500 miles from London to the German Duchy of Nassau in a time of 18 hours. The balloon itself was spectacle even when it was not airborne, standing 80 feet tall with a circumferance of 150 feet when inflated, it towered over the crowds of awed spectators that thronged to the gardens to see it ascend silently into the heavens each evening.
The Nassau was the brainchild of the pioneering British balloonist Charles Green (1785 – 1870). Green completed his balloon ascent in July 1821 and would undertake hundreds more during the course of a 30 year career in aviation. By the time Green retired in 1850, he had designed and built dozens of balloons of various sizes and was credited with the introduction of several innovative new features that made ballooning a safer and more efficient mode of transport. The Nassau differed from his previous creations in that it was purpose-built to undertake long range flights a greater altitudes than its predecessors.
While Green was undoubtedly a serious pilot and aeronautical engineer, he also possessed a flair for the theatrical and recognised that the public’s fascination with flight provided a means of funding his experiments. By 1826 he had entered into an agreement with the proprietors of Vauxhall Gardens which resulted in him being offered a nightly slot in their programme of entertainment. His stunts included using his balloon as a floating platform from which to launch firework displays and completing an ascent while mounted on the back of a horse. He also began offering pleasure flights for groups of paying guests, with customers queuing up to pay £21 each (the equivalent of around £2,000 today) to take a short flight across London. This element of the business proved to be so lucrative that Green was able to fund the construction of the Great Nassau using the proceeds.
In July 1837, the proprietors of Vauxhall Gardens announced a Grand Fete that would climax with another of Green’s unusual aerial spectacles. The inventor Robert Cocking would test his design for a homemade parachute by leaping out of the Great Nassau from several thousand feet above London and returning safely to Earth. Cocking was a professional watercolourist by trade but was also a keen amateur scientist and had spent decades working on a new parachute design. His fascination with the parachute had begun in 1802, when he had watched the French balloonist Andre-Jacques Garnerin successfully complete a descent of several hundred feet using a silk canopy parachute. Cocking had noted that although Garnerin had landed safely, his descent had been erratic and he had touched down several miles away from where his jump had started. Cocking believed that he could do better and argued that a parachute based on an inverted cone design would allow for a smooth and accurate descent. After constructing several test models Cocking eventually put his plan into action in 1837, constructing a huge cone-shaped parachute constructed of canvas stretched over a wooden frame. A small basket was then suspended beneath the cone to carry the parachutist. The whole contraption was much larger and heavier than Cocking originally anticipated and he turned to Charles Green for help as the Green Nassau was the only
balloon in London large enough to be capable of lifting it off the ground. This was a fact which should have set alarm bells ringing its inventor’s head.
Thousands gathered at Vauxhall Garden’s to watch Cocking test his parachute on the evening of 24th July 1837. The parachute was hung below the basket of the Great Nassau and at 7.40pm, to the sound of thunderous applause and a chorus of ‘God Save the Queen’ from the Vauxhall Gardens band, the balloon and its cargo slowly began their ascent. Ten minutes later they were lost in the clouds above. Cocking had initially hoped to reach an altitude of 8,000 feet before releasing himself from the balloon to begin his descent. However the weight of his parachute was such that the balloon had only reached 5,000 feet by the time the sun began to set. With the light fading fast, Green leaned over the edge of his basket to yell down to Cocking and inform him that they would be unable to go any higher if the jump was to be made in daylight:
I asked him if he felt quite comfortable, and if the practical trial bore out his calculation. Mr Cocking replied “Yes. I never felt more comfortable or more delighted in my life.” Shortly afterwards Mr Cocking said “Well, now I think I shall leave you.” I answered “I wish you a very Good Night and a safe descent if you are determined to make it and not use the tackle” [a rope ladder which would have allowed Cocking to climb out of his parachute and up into the car of Green’s balloon]. Mr Cocking to this question made no reply other than, “Good-night Spencer, Good-night Green.
With that he pulled the release mechanism and cast himself off into oblivion. Green had no time to consider what happened next as the balloon, suddenly freed from its heavy cargo, shot upwards like a rocket, eventually reaching a height of 15,000 feet before Green and his co-pilot Mr Spencer could bring it under control and make a safe descent. Robert Cocking and his parachute traveled in the opposite direction with even greater rapidity, dropping towards the Earth like a stone. The massive canvas and wooden superstructure of the parachute was far too heavy and simply disintegrated above Cocking’s head. The basket in which the terrified inventor sat detached itself from the mangled remains of the canopy shortly before it smashed into a field in the village of Lee, eight miles south-east of Vauxhall. Although the farm labourers who rushed to Cocking’s aid reported that he was still breathing when they found him, he had sustained massive head injuries and died within minutes of being pulled from the wreckage.
Despite the apparent lunacy of Robert Cocking’s actions, his bravery and the public manner of his death caused an outcry of sympathy amongst fashionable Londoners. The young Queen Victoria even headed a public subscription fund to provide for the eccentric inventor’s widow and children. On 31st August 1837 the episode also provided the Irish caricaturist John Doyle with the inspiration for a new plate in his long-running Political Sketches of HB series. In Figurative Representation of the Late Catastrophe!, Doyle depicts the radical MP Joseph Hume in the guise of the unfortunate Cocking. His parachute has been detached from the balloon Middlesex and as he plummets uncontrollably towards the town of Kilkenny, he cries “Now unless some friendly dunghill receives me, I am lost forever”. Hume was a committed radical whose outspoken advocacy of trade unionism, democratic constitutional reform and Irish Home Rule had made thoroughly unpopular with many in the conservative upper and middle classes. When he was ousted from the constituency of Middlesex in 1837 his friend and political ally Daniel O’Connell was able to have him stand for and win the Irish constituency of Kilkenny. Doyle’s print reflects the prejudices of conservative English audiences who typically viewed MPs holding Irish seats, particularly those with large numbers of Catholic voters, with disdain.