The Bookham Balloon Tragedy 1902

cycle-vs-balloon4The Reverend John Bacon was not only the Vicar of a village near Newbury, Berkshire he was a scientist, an inventor and an experienced balloonist who advised the War Office on balloon warfare. In this latter role in 1902 he organised a series of military exercises involving the Army Volunteer Force and hot-air balloons

One of the first to take place was at 4.00pm on Saturday August 30th when Bacon masquerading as an enemy spy lifted off from Stamford Bridge, Fulham in a balloon flown by Mr P Spencer, a well known balloonist. All units of the Bicycle Corps of the London Volunteer Force had been alerted by earlier announcements in The Evening Standard and were given orders to follow the balloon and capture the ‘spy’ wherever he landed.

The moderate wind took it almost due south and after passing over south London, Wimbledon and east of Kingston it headed towards Epsom all the time being followed by about fifty part time soldiers and a number of civilian cyclists who had joined in the chase on the way.

Just after 6.00pm now approaching the Surrey Hills with Box Hill and Polesden Lacey ahead Spencer decided to land in a corn field between Fetcham and Great Bookham owned by Mr Hankey of Fetcham where the crops were still being harvested.

Immediately the basket (in those days called ‘car’) touched the ground Bacon jumped out and ran about one hundred yards to hide in a stook of corn sheaves. He had not to wait long before the military cyclists arrived and the ‘spy’ was soon discovered and arrested. There followed the presentation of the prize, a pair of field glasses to the capturer and the military exercise was over.

cycle-vs-balloon2News of the landing spread quickly round the village and a number of local people joined the cyclists surrounding the balloon. After requests for ‘rides’ Mr Spencer announced that he would allow six passengers at a time to ascend in the balloon which would be controlled by the anchor rope. After ballast, grapple irons and other equipment were removed from the basket men came forward to hold the rope and the rides started. About twenty were completed when the farm’s foreman who was collecting up the corn residue approached Spencer to complain that the balloon and crowd were upsetting his horse so Spencer immediately called out ‘last ride’. Then as the passengers clambered in and out of the basket the rope came free and the balloon quickly rose with one man still desperately clinging to the rope and when it reached about sixty feet he released his grip and fell back to earth.

Many spectators including soldiers trained in first aid rushed to help the victim but it was immediately clear that he was gravely injured and was placed on a sheep hurdle and taken to his home at Flint Cottages, Leatherhead Road about half a mile away where a doctor who had been called from Leatherhead pronounced him dead.  He was John Tickner who was 42 and father of five children.

manhangingonMeanwhile the balloon had continued to climb and the four passengers which included a young boy believed it to be out of control and were terrified but much to their relief at about 100 feet the balloon stopped and gently floated back to earth landing a short distance from where it had taken off.

An inquest was held at the Plough Inn, Effingham on September 2nd where Mrs. Louisa Tickner gave evidence of identification. She said that she last saw her husband who worked for the local water company alive at their home at Flint Cottages, Bookham on August 30th at about 6.30pm. He was in the garden holding their baby when a balloon came over and he ran after it.  Shortly afterwards Mrs Tickner followed her husband to the field where the balloon came down but did not see the accident happen.

Several witnesses were called including John Tickner’s brother who saw the accident and one Thomas Humphrey, a bailiff who said he was at the scene of the accident and saw a group of people fall over after a shout of ‘leave go of the rope’ but Tickner continued to hold on. Another witness said he saw at one time as many as fifteen men holding the rope. Dr Walter Hearndew stated that he examined Mr Tickner at his home and concluded that he had died from a broken neck.

As Mr Spencer the pilot of the balloon was unable to attend the inquest it was adjourned for a week.  At the resumed hearing on the 9th Mr Spencer was called as the main witness and he stated that he had full charge off the balloon and when approached to allow spectators to ascend in the balloon he consented. The day was calm and a rope 250 feet long was attached to the basket. He stayed close to the basket so that he could always balance the balloon and had completed nearly twenty ascents when Mr Taylor told him that the balloon was upsetting his horses so he immediately called out ‘last ride’. When the balloon descended he was shocked to see three people jump out together and this action allowed it to rise again. He shouted ‘leave go of the rope’ because he knew that the men would not be able to hold the balloon down and he also knew that the passengers would be safe as the control valve was open and this would allow the balloon to descend automatically.  In his evidence Mr Spencer mentioned the safety control valve which was likely to have been a vent in the crown of the envelope which when open would allow the hot air to escape and the balloon to descend.   In spite of his warning several men hung on to the rope and were taken off their feet before letting go but the deceased was taken up much higher before he fell. Mr Spencer stated that he was aware that the victim was seriously injured and he suggested to the soldiers who were trained in first aid attending him to place him on a sheep gate and take him to hospital.

The result of the Coroner’s enquiry into the circumstances of the death of John Tickner entirely exonerated all those in charge of the balloon from blame. The Deputy Coroner stated that Mr Spencer had a wide experience as an aeronaut and his explanation of what took place showed that all reasonable care and forethought were exercised. Mr Spencer could tell exactly how many might make the short ascents in safety and but for the fact that several people left the basket unexpectedly all would have passed off well. It said much for Mr Spencer’s caution and skill that this should have been the first fatal accident in twenty nine years and we may be sure he regrets the occurrence as deeply as anyone.

After the inquest a Relief Fund for Mrs Louisa Tickner and her children was opened by the Rev Bacon with a donation of £5 and other amounts quickly followed.  In September 1902 the Reverend Edward Malleson of Great Bookham Rectory published the amounts received with a statement on the Relief Fund.

£ s d
‘Cycling’ Magazine Readers 5 2 2
Subscription List (still open) 77 9 10
Rev Bacon & Friends 30 0 0
           Total 112 12 0

Mrs Tickner received 10s per week out of the funds which continued for another two years after which she received 7s. 6p per week for another two years and then 5s a week for as long as the money lasted by which time the children would earn wages. (The total amount collected would be worth £10,848 today with Rev Bacon’s initial £5 worth £484).

Jack Watchous

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