Flights of Fancy:
The Rise and Fall of Vincent de Groof
AUTHOR: WILLIAM ELLIS-REES
PUBLISHED: 4 SEPTEMBER 2022
On 21 June 1873 the front page of The Illustrated Police News carried an extraordinary image. A man dressed in an acrobat’s outfit, and sporting shaggy hair and a bristling beard, clings to the underside of two enormous artificial wings. The caption says it all. He is hailed as ‘The Flying Man’ and is nicknamed ‘Bat’, and for a moment he really does look rather like a winged creature flitting about in a cave. Only he is not in a cave: he is high above the land and has apparently come from across the sea. But then we notice what looks like the bottom end of a balloon — in the caption he is also ‘An aeronaut’, which in the language of the times meant a balloonist — and a probable story begins to emerge.
In the accompanying article we learn that the Bat was an ingenious Englishman of eccentric character, and that he made a number of attempts to fly over cities on the other side of the English Channel, although why he turned his back on his native skies is not exactly clear. He was obviously in the grip of a powerful delusion.
However, it was a delusion that gripped many, and there was already a fine tradition of entrusting one’s life to mechanical wings. Leonardo da Vinci was sketching designs for suitable contraptions in the fifteenth century, but the idea of an ornithopter, or man-powered flying machine, is older even than this and seems to have first emerged in the thirteenth in the work of Roger Bacon.
An ingenious apparatus
As it happens, the only source for the delightful Bat is the article in The Illustrated Police News. So was it all a hoax? The paper claims that the information was extracted from Moving Bodies in the Air, the work of a certain Mr Roffley. However, if such a work ever existed, there is no sign of it now. We at London Overlooked have scoured the repositories of nineteenth century publications and have found nothing. Even the British Library is silent on the matter of Mr Roffley, which is a shame, for Mr Roffley’s claims about the Bat would make fascinating reading.
Does the News offer at least a flavour of these claims? Yes:
it would appear, if we are to accept the authority quoted, that his efforts were attended with some degree of success, for, on one occasion, he succeeded in flying through the air by means of an ingenious apparatus invented by himself, for the space of twenty minutes.
The other aeronaut
Apparently Roffley also claimed that the Bat ‘was overtaken by death before he could bring his invention to perfection’. Exactly what form his death took is not revealed. However, when the News goes on to say that antics of the Bat can be usefully compared with those of another aeronaut, we are on safer ground because that other aeronaut really did exist and we know a great deal about him.
His name was Vincent de Groof, he was Belgian, and at one point in his life he was a shoemaker. He was born in 1838 and died in 1874, and, if you read my recent piece on the Krall family, you will be delighted to learn that his father was a Jan Baptiste, although his full name in all its glory was Jan Baptiste Napoleon de Groof. And his story, which is as remarkable as it is tragic, has a curious London connection.
Not so dangerous
De Groof, who hailed from Domburg in Zeeland, was quite a celebrity, and it was his attempted flight over Brussels on 8 June 1873 that persuaded the News to publish their article on the Bat, who was of course England’s answer to the Belgian aeronaut, or would have been if he had ever existed.
Other English newspapers succumbed to the strange allure of suicidal eccentrics, and The Morning Post prepared its readers for the forthcoming event with an impressive display of technical details. De Groof’s ornithopter consisted of two wings and a tail made from about sixteen square yards of silk. The wings, worked by means of levers, would hold the flying man aloft, or so it was hoped. The tail would allow him to steer the apparatus and keep it balanced.
The Post added that
it is reported that the attempt will not be more dangerous than the descent of a parachute.
The disclaimer — ‘it is reported’ — was a sensible journalistic precaution.
A melancholy failure
On the day of De Groof’s much anticipated adventure, which was a Sunday, a crowd of a hundred thousand or more gathered on the drill ground attached to the military school in Brussels. The Burgomaster had given permission for the stunt to go ahead, but only after contacting a colonel at the military school, who sent a lieutenant to examine the apparatus. De Groof was so confident of success that he printed and distributed a programme, according to which he would first raise himself off the ground on his wings and fly gracefully hither and thither, and then be released from a balloon at a great height in order to skim like a bird over the roofs and steeples of the city.
In the event De Groof got no more than two or three feet off the ground, flapping his wings wildly. Then he came back down, most ignominiously, and landed flat on his face. In spite of the fact that the ornithopter had been damaged, he hitched it to the balloon with a rope and attempted to take off. However, at an altitude of only a few centimetres the rope broke, and De Groof, entangled in a mass of swaying wings, came back down to earth once again.
The crowd, feeling cheated and resenting the fact that the dismal performance had been billed for three o’clock but had started only at five o’clock, tore the balloon to pieces and began to riot. Stones were thrown, ladies were hurt, and the police were forced to make arrests. The English newspapers were very unkind. The Era declared that De Groof had made ‘a complete fiasco’ of the experiment, while The Daily Telegraph branded De Groof’s untimely descent ‘a very grotesque and melancholy failure’.
Undeterred, De Groof tried again in September of the same year in Liège, but he was thwarted by his balloon, which burst on being inflated. After this further setback nothing much is heard of him until the summer of the following year, when he came over to London from his home in Brussels with a beautiful flying machine made up of roughly thirty-five feet of silken bat’s wings and eighteen of silken peacock’s tail and took off from Cremorne Gardens in Chelsea.
In fact he took off three times. On the first occasion, which was the evening of 29 June, he was towed behind a balloon by a Mr Joseph Simmons, and all went well, with the balloon ascending to three or four hundred feet and the intrepid De Groof gliding in his ornithopter down into the Essex countryside. The Graphic reported his descent as a race between the balloon and the flying machine, and, with a gesture in the direction of racing enthusiasts, announced that De Groof beat Simmons by about two fields’ length.
However, this rather romantic account was not supported by the evidence of eyewitnesses, who claimed that the machine was still lashed to the balloon when it descended. The balloon was held fast to a tree by a grapnel and the machine was bobbing up and down in a strong wind about twelve feet off the ground. The two aeronauts had asked for help in lowering their apparatus from the tree, after which they packed it up and availed themselves of a wagon and four horses to take it away. By now a crowd had gathered, and Simmons was heard to say that the ornithopter was a ‘complete failure’ and was ‘broken before we started’, that the whole enterprise was dangerous, and that De Groof’s ignorance of English had not exactly helped matters.
Look out! Look out!
The second flight, scheduled for the evening of 7 July, was aborted when Simmons pointed out that the ornithopter was swaying dangerously in the wind, much to De Groof’s fury. But the third went ahead, and at a little before eight in the evening of 9 July De Groof prepared himself for take off, first by taking his pipe from his mouth and placing it in his pocket, and then by saying a fond farewell to his wife, who was standing at his side.
He climbed into his contraption, and the balloon, which was named the Czar, took on board six paying passengers and made a graceful departure, steered once again by the doughty Simmons. Down on the ground in the Cremorne Gardens the spectators cheered, and, if we are to believe The Morning Post, De Groof danced to the tune played by the band, which must have been quite a sight.
Having hovered above the gardens for a while at about four thousand feet, Simmons set a north-easterly course, the plan being to descend to three hundred feet to allow De Groof to fly free of the balloon down into the river. But the two men could only communicate in German, and it would seem that De Groof failed to warn Simmons that he was heading straight for the tower of St Luke’s Church. A porter at the infirmary of the Chelsea workhouse reportedly heard a voice twice shout ‘Drop into the churchyard! Look out! Look out!’, at which point the ornithopter was cut free of the balloon. In order to avoid crashing the balloon, Simmons threw out three bags of ballast, which unfortunately fell against the ornithopter and forced it down into Robert Street in an uncontrollable spin.
A most painful scene
De Groof hit the pavement with sickening force. Bystanders immediately pulled him from the wreckage of his flying machine and carried him to the infirmary. His wife, who some say fainted when she saw her husband fall, hurried to see him when she recovered consciousness, but she was too late, for the surgeons had pronounced the wretched aeronaut dead on arrival. The Morning Post made the sombre observation that
the scene, as may be imagined, was one of the most painful description. The deceased, who was only 35 years of age, had no other relative in England.
Meanwhile the balloon had floated up and away, still moving north and east across the city. Simmons had fainted, and, by the time he came round, he was over Victoria Park. He took a swig of brandy from his flask, which gave him sufficient strength and resolve to bring the balloon down in the Essex countryside, although he somehow managed to land on a railway line five yards in front of a moving train.
A second fatal accident was only averted by the slow speed at which the train was travelling — it was negotiating some points — and the engine driver’s very much greater speed in bringing it to a halt. Two brave workmen, who happened to be at the side of the tracks, held on to the basket long enough for the grapnel to anchor the balloon safely.
Fallen like lead
Three weeks later an inquest was held at the Chelsea Workhouse. One of the infirmary surgeons, William Henry Wetherclift, gave a distressing account of De Groof’s injuries, but sympathy for the dead man had to compete with the uncomfortable truth that he had been obstinate as well as foolhardy. A former proprietor of the Cremorne Gardens, Edward Tyrrell Smith, recalled a previous occasion in the late 1860s when a man he thought must have been De Groof had applied for permission to fly to Battersea Park. On his insistence the applicant had launched himself from an eleven-foot platform as a trial flight and had promptly fallen ‘like a lump of lead’.
However, the poor man had to be buried, and his battered corpse was consigned to a common grave in Brompton Cemetery. There is perhaps a sad irony in this: the man who would fly above the earth is now held fast forever beneath its surface. As for the unhappy Charlotte, one supposes that she returned to Brussels with only sad memories of her husband’s final flight. Certainly she was never heard of again.
A modern Icarus
As one might expect, there was wide coverage of the tragedy in newspapers and journals. The image of De Groof falling to earth became iconic, and in one front-cover picture there is even a hint of the flailing legs in the Landscape with the Fall of Icarus traditionally attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Indeed, in an allusion to the Belgian flop The Illustrated Police News pointed out that Icarus was a sort of spiritual ancestor of De Groof.
That was in 1873, but in 1874 the News was quick to capitalise on De Groof’s death with a series of grim images showing his departure, his fall and his death. By this time, incidentally, the mysterious Bat had been forgotten, which is not that surprising, for in the cutthroat world of newspaper journalism his attempts to defy gravity, whether real or invented, would hardly have competed with the drama of the Belgian aeronaut’s untimely demise.
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