A terrified man is falling through the sky, desperately clinging to a tangled winged apparatus as the hot-air balloon from which his flying attempt was launched can be seen hovering above.
Vincent de Groof was a Belgian shoemaker who styled himself the “Flying Man.” On July 9, 1874, he had his ornithopter launched from a balloon in an attempt to fly across the London sky. He met his death in Robert street (now part of Sydney street).
The caption reads in the original French:
Chute de l’homme volant, à Londres.
Death of the “Flying Man”
It was announced yesterday that, at 7.30 p.m., M. de Groof, the “Flying Man” would repeat at the Cremorne Gardens “his astounding performance of flying through the air a distance of 5,000 feet.” True to this announcement, the Flying Man did endeavour to repeat the exploit which he had accomplished in safety ten days before, and perished in the attempt. M. de Groof was a Belgian, who had expended years in constructing for himself an apparatus with which he believed it possible to imitate the flight of a bird. The general outline of this apparatus was an immitation of a bat’s wings, the framework being made of cane, and the intervening membrane of stout waterproof silk. The wings were in all 37 feet long, with an average breadth of 4 feet, while the tail was 18 feet by 3. These wings were inserted into two hinged frames that were attached to a wooden stand upon which the aeronaut took his place. Here he had three levers which he worked by hand to give his machine propulsion or guidance as might be required; his theory being that having started from a given height, he could manage his descent so as to reach the earth by a sort of inclined swooping motion, without risk of concussion. About a year ago M. de Groof made an attempt, of which our correspondent at the time telegraphed the particulars. to descend from a great neight on the Grande Place at Brussels. The effort was a failure, but l’Homme Volant as he was then called, escaped unhurt, though his network was afterwards torn in pieces by the crowd. On Monday, the 20th ultimo, however, M. de Groof repeated his experiment at Cremorne Gardens, with success. Mr. Baum, tho proprietor of the gardens, had, it seems, after making an engagement with him, felt some uneasiness as to the result, and at first refused to allow the trial to be made. The “Flying Man” protested the absolute feasibility of his scheme, and insisted on the contract being carried out; and this was done. The wings and stand were attached to a balloon guided by Mr. Simmons, who, after drifting over London towards Brandon, in Essex, released his companion at a considerable height—three or four hundred feet, it is said—and the flying apparatus was immediately set in motion. “For a time” it is stated, “it was a race between the aeronaut and the flyer, De Groof winning by two flelds’ lengths, and attaining the ground in perfect safety.”
How the accident occurred last night cannot be clearly ascertained. The apparatus, previous to the ascent, seemed in satisfactory order, and De Groof—though, according to custom, he took an affectionate farewell of his wife—appeared fully confident of making a successful ascent. About a quarter to 8 o’clock the balloon was cut loose, and rose slowly in the air, bearing with it the Flying Man and his gear. There was hardly a breath of air, a circumstance which might have been supposed to be favourable to the performance of an aeronautical feat of the kind. Be this as it may, however, when the balloon had attained a height of three or four hundred feet, the unfortunate performer seemed either to mistrust his own powers or the capability of his apparatus, for he was heard by the spectators below shouting to the man in the balloon to bring him nearer the earth. This request was complied with, and the balloon descended slowly towards Robert-street, which lies a quarter of a mile or so to the north of Cremorne Gardens. On approaching St. Luke’s Church, Mr. Simmons, the balloonist, was heard to say: “Yon must cut loose now, or you’ll come on the church roof.” The answer was, “Yes; let me drop into the churchyard,” and these were, no doubt, the last words De Groof uttered. He cut the rope when about eighty feet from the ground, but, to the horror of the spectators, who must have numbered many thousand, the apparatus, instead of inflating with the pressure of the air, collapsed, and, turning round and round in its descent, fell with great violence in Robert-street, a yard or two from the kerbstone. Assistance to the unfortunate man was instantly forthcoming. Although still breathing, he was insensible; but the despatch with which he was extricated from the wreck of his apparatus and conveyed to Chelsea Infirmary proved in vain. He never recovered consciousness, and on his arrival at the hospital the surgeons pronounced him dead, Madame oe Groof, who witnessed her husband’s fall, fainted at the sight, and a still more painful scene took place a short time later at the hospital, when she learned the whole sad truth. The apparatus was carried off in shreds by the crowd before the police could secure it. From the hospital the body was removed to the dead-house, where it now awaits the inquest. It only remains to add that the balloon, on being freed from the weight of De Groof and his flying machine, soared away over the metropolis in a north-easterly direction; and, at dark, was seen at a great height above Victoria Park, where it was watched with much interest by large numbers of people, who were, of course, ignorant of the shocking tragedy in which it had played a part.
From the Daily Teleqraph, July 10, 1874.
The Shocking Death of the Flying Man
The most dramatic event involving St. Luke’s and the Burial Ground came in 1874. From its early days as a pleasure garden, entertainments at Cremorne Gardens (near to where Lots Road Generating Station now stands) had featured parachutists and balloonists. The need for increasingly spectacular displays brought the “flying man” M. Vincent de Groof, variously described in contemporary newspapers as a Frenchman and a Belgian, and his flying machine to Cremorne on June 29th.
The flying machine was in fact a glider of cane and waterproof silk, “flown” by operating the wings and tail from a caged platform slung in the centre. Initial ascent was achieved by attachment to a balloon, and de Groof intended to cast himself loose from the balloon at a suitable height and fly back down to the Gardens. On June 29th, however, the balloon—the “Czar”, flown by Mr. Simmons—was carried away to Brandon in Suffolk where de Groof was supposed to have made a successful descent. Another attempt was organised, with much publicity, for 9th July, andagain de Groof and his machine were hoisted from the Gardens by the “Czar”. After hovering over the Gardens the balloon was blown close to St. Luke’s Church, and the crowd was then treated to the awesome spectacle of de Groof and his machine plunging out of control to crash on to Robert Street, now the part of Sydney Street by the church. De Groof was rushed to Chelsea Infirmary where he died from his injuries.
The balloon, suddenly freed of the weight of man and machine, rose so sharply upwards that Simmons lost consciousness. When he came to, he was again being carried eastwards over London, this time towards Springfield in Essex. Simmons attempted to land but his grapnel dragged and he came down on the Great Eastern Railway line. A passing train stopped to avoid collision, and the engine crew helped Simmons in the last few feet of his descent.
Public opinion and the Press were much exercised over the affair, and the desirability of people risking their necks to experiment and to entertain. Simmons felt the need to write to the main papers, thanking the Great Eastern Railwaymen and denying any responsibility for de Groof’s fall: according to Simmons, there was never any communication between the two men except for bi-lingual confirmation of their altitude and the signal de Groof was supposed to give when he was about to sever contact with the balloon. At the public inquiry, Simmons said his first intimation of the turn of events was a sideways pull on the basket; when he looked over the side he saw de Groof and his machine commencing their fall, already hopelessly tilted and out of control. Later in the inquiry, estate workers at Brandon cast doubt on the successful flight on June 29th, and it is possible that the flying machine had never been properly tried at the time that de Groof met his death. The verdict was death by misadventure, no blame being attached to Simmons or the Gardens’ managers.
More skilled men than de Groof were later to die testing gliders in the development of manned flight, men like Otto Lilienthal and Percy Pilcher; there was, however, a prophetic footnote to the sensational affair in the Daily News, July 11th 1874:
“Flying Machines, properly devised and driven as they must be driven, if they are to fly at all, at enormous speed, may be among the most advantageous modes of conveyance of future times.”
From the Penny Magazine, July 18, 1874.