Retro: News reports on Sheffield woman daredevil's parachute tragedy

A photograph of a similar balloon tragedy at Bingley, when parachutist Lily Cove was killed
A photograph of a similar balloon tragedy at Bingley, when parachutist Lily Cove was killed
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Your letters: News reports of parachute tragedy

I read with interest the letter concerning the fatal parachute jump of Edith Brookes on Whit Tuesday 1902 (Retro, February 23) and the uncertainty regarding where her body landed and therefore thought that the following summary account gleaned from very lengthy local newspaper reports at the time, may serve to shed some light.

The Wednesday, May 21,1902 edition of The Sheffield Daily Independent (page 6) reported that: “A shocking accident occurred yesterday evening at Mr W Brown’s open-air carnival in the Wednesday Football Ground, Owlerton. In the sight of the thousands of people who attended the spectacle Miss Edith Brookes, a lady parachutist, lost her life by a terrible fall to the ground from an altitude of from 2,000 to 3,000 feet.

“From some cause, which can only be guessed at, the parachute failed to open out, and the unfortunate lady dropped like a stone. The balloon at the moment when she left it was situated over Hillsboro’ Park, and the body of the young lady, terribly injured, was picked up only a few inches from the railings which surround Hillsbro’ Hall.

“The accident happened in full view not only of the spectators at the carnival, but also of thousands of people in the Hillsbro’ and Owlerton district who had chosen the best points for seeing the balloon ascent. Everybody was horror struck, and, of course, the programme was abandoned.

“A large crowd rushed to the spot directly, but of course it was evident to everyone who witnessed the fall that it could only have a fatal termination. Probably the parachutist was asphyxiated – certainly she would be rendered unconscious – by the momentum of her descent.

“A balloon ascent and parachute descent were successfully accomplished at the previous day’s carnival, and it was with the same parachute that Miss Brookes made her fatal attempt yesterday. This part of the carnival programme was under the charge of Lieut Lempriere, professional acronautist, of Birmingham.

“Lieut Lempriere was not himself present yesterday, the ascent being carried out under the supervision of his representative, Mr Percy Chavase. The balloon was filled on the ground at the rear of the grand stand with gas supplied by the Sheffield Gas Company. It has a capacity of 13,000 cubic feet, and was filled to the extent of 12,000 cubic feet.

“The ascent was accomplished without any hitch at about ten minutes to eight o’clock, when it was still quite daylight, the evening being fine and clear.

“Miss Brookes, who is spoken of as a young lady of remarkable pluck and self-possession, seemed in the best of spirits, and everything pointed to a successful ascent. She was wearing a blue silk blouse, with cream lace round the throat, and black velvet knickers.

“The arrangements made for her perilous exhibition were precisely the same as the previous day. She sat on a sort of trapeze under the balloon, and the parachute, the upper part of which was attached to the side of the balloon, was attached to her by means of straps round the waist and shoulders.

“It was a parachute of the usual kind made by Lieut. Lempriere, and having a diameter of about 40 feet – quite capable of supporting a person a good deal heavier than Miss Brookes, who was of light build.

“When the ascent was made on Monday the balloon travelled in an eastward direction, and Miss Brookes made a successful descent in the fields near Parkwood Springs, about a mile and a half from the starting point.

“Yesterday the direction taken was more to the west, but the wind was only light, and the balloon reached a good height without making much distance laterally.

“The air being clear, the ascent was viewed to advantage by the swarms of eager spectators in and outside the ground. The brass band was playing a lively air, and everyone was in holiday mood.

“When the balloon, on which all eyes were concentrated, had reached an altitude estimated at between two and three thousand feet, it was directly over Hillsbro’ Park, which is about a quarter of a mile away from the football enclosure.

“Although she had not reached the height from which she descended the previous day, the parachutist chose this moment for making her descent, as she intended, if possible, to land in Hillsbro’ Park.

“People who had witnessed exhibitions of this kind know that the parachutist must launch herself from a jump by a sitting position.

“If all goes well, the parachute, which hangs by the side of the balloon like a slightly opened umbrella, should open out almost instantaneously. It is attached to the balloon by a slender cord, which breaks with the weight of the parachutist. There are two rings fixed inside the parachute, which keep it sufficiently open to provide for an inrush of air when the downward motion begins.

“At most, the parachutist should not descend more than a couple of hundred feet before the parachute becomes fully distended. The motion afterwards is gentle, and generally the parachute is wafted a considerable distance before the ground is touched.

“The sensations of the spectators when Miss Brookes made her fatal leap can hardly be painted. Eyewitnesses concur in stating that the frail silk envelope to which she entrusted her safety never opened at all.

“For a moment it was hoped that it would do so just in time to save disaster, but the hope was in vain. The ill-fated young lady, firmly attached to the unopened parachute, and turning from side to side, fell headlong, and the spectators on the football enclosure saw her disappear behind the trees in Hillsbro’ Park.

“There could be no doubt as to the result of the accident, and the shocking sight caused beholders, a large proportion of whom were ladies, to scream and wring their hands with horror. There would probably be 8,000 people or so witnessing the programme in the grounds, and the number of spectators at various points outside was still greater.

“There was an instant rush of people to Hillsbro’ Park, and the body was found lying about 30 yards from the band kiosk, and close to some railings.

“There were terrible evidences of force of the impact with which the body had met the ground.

“The skull was fractured and all the limbs were broken, and the ankle bone of the left foot was broken, and protruded from the boot. A quantity of blood had oozed from the nose and ears. Life was, of course, extinct.”

“Amongst the first to reach the spot were John West, of 2, Dykes Hall road; E. Drouthwaite, 25 Leader road, Hillsbro’; and Pc Halifax, of Walkley Police; while Sergeant Slack and also Pc Weathers, of the Neepsend force, were only a very short distance away, and they were instantly on the scene.

“The lifeless body was moved to the band kiosque, a few yards away; and the parachute, which should have been a life preserver, was, for a time, a funeral shroud, stained with the blood of the poor lady.

“With commendable despatch Sergeant Slack met the emergency – not by any means an easy task with streaming thousands besieging the band kiosque from all directions – and the ambulance and medical aid was immediately summoned.

“Dr Campbell, who had witnessed the catastrophe from his home in Bradfield road, arrived a few minutes later.

“The poor young lady was beyond medical aid, and the doctor announced that life was extinct. Indeed, answering a query from our representative on the spot, he expressed the opinion that in all probability Miss Brookes would be dead before she struck the ground.

“The face of the young lady was by no means disfigured, and beyond the pallid lips and clenched teeth bore little evidence of the awful calamity.

“Meanwhile, Inspector Candlin arrived at the scene and took charge, and shortly afterwards the body was removed by ambulance, under the charge of Superintendent Frost, to the Mortuary. So dense had the crowd become that it was only with the greatest difficulty that the police forced a way through.”

The more detailed account of the Coroner’s resumed inquest held by the City Coroner, Mr D Wightman, at the Sheffield Public Mortuary during the afternoon of May 28, 1902, which appears in next day’s edition of The Sheffield Daily Telegraph.

From which one learns that: “Mrs. Gray landlady of the Station Inn, Wicker, where the deceased stayed, said Miss Brookes did not seem at all well on Whit-Tuesday. She had a little breakfast, and only ate a little dinner.

“Witness had a conversation with her, and deceased said she felt alright, though in her (Mrs. Gray’s) opinion she looked very poorly. She had nothing to drink except a glass of wine on the Monday.

“She looked a delicate girl, and had no colour. In reply to questions, she told some of the gentlemen in the house that she had no fear.

In conclusion, then, it appears that Edith’s balloon ascended from Sheffield Wednesday’s Owlerton football ground, but her body landed close to Hillsborough Hall in Hillsborough Park. Though the cause of the tragedy was not determined.

Hence readers will have to make of the evidence what they will.

From: Michael Parker, Robertshaw Crescent, Deepcar