On April 10th 1733, a man leapt from the top of the steeple of Pocklington parish church. He was Thomas Pelling, the Flying Man. A rope had been attached to the top of the tower, with the end wound into a windlass near to the Star Inn on Market Street. Straps had been inserted into iron rings on the rope and wrapped around his chest and one leg, leaving his arms and one leg free for balance, and he was wearing a set of wings designed to make him look like a bat.
An eccentric choice of activity, perhaps, but flying men were a popular form of entertainment at the time. It is likely that Thomas Pelling was in Pocklington to exhibit as part of a large fair or market. Unfortunately for Thomas Pelling, as he began his descent the rope became too slack. He called out for the windlass to be tightened but his instruction was misunderstood and the rope was loosened further. The Flying Man plummeted onto the battlements at the east end of the chancel and fractured his skull. He died two days later, and was buried at the exact spot he fell.
April ye 16th: Thomas Pelling from Burton Strather in Lincolnshire a Flying Man who was killed by jumping against ye Battlement of ye Choir when coming down ye Rope from ye Steeple.
The 1730s experienced a craze for rope dancing, walking and sliding. William Hutton in his History of Derby wrote “No amusement was seen by the rope; walls, posts, trees, and houses, were mounted for the pleasure of flying down: if a straggling scaffold pole could be found, it was reared for the convenience of flying.”
Unfortunately, accidents during Flying Men shows were not unusual. In the same year as Thomas Pelling's untimely fall, in December, a flying man flew from the top of the castle at Newcastle-upon-Tyne into Baileygate. He escaped without injury, but afterwards decided (for reasons best known to himself) to try flying a donkey down as well. The Newcastle Courant reported that “several accidents happened – for the weights tied to the ass’s legs knocked down several, bruised others in a violent manner, and killed a girl on the spot.” The fate of the donkey is unknown.
There were also close escapes: a ‘sailor’ who flew from Greenwich church suffered injuries so severe that they caused false reports of his death; and a showman pulled down part of Chesterton steeple in September 1732 - on that occasion he was prevented from continuing with his act.
One of Britain’s most famous flying-men was Robert Cadman or Kidman who became famous in the 1730s as “the famed Icarus of the rope”. He slid head-first down ropes attached to some of the highest steeples and towers in England on a grooved wooden breast-plate (for an idea of what this looked like, see Hogarth’s Southwark Fair from 1733, in which he makes a surprise appearance). In 1735 he too brought down a steeple, at Bromham in Wiltshire, although he suffered only minor injuries when, as a result, he crashed into a tree. He couldn't escape the danger of his career for ever, and eventually he was killed during a flight from St Mary’s Shrewsbury on 24 January 1740. It was reported later that “he found the rope too tight, and gave the signal to slacken it: but the persons employed, misconceiving his meaning, drew it tighter. It snapped in two... and he fell amidst thousands of spectators.” This is a mirror-image of the accident which killed Pocklington's own flying man. Robert Cadman is commemorated by an ornamental plaque at the church where he died.
So, Thomas Pelling was simply one of a number of men using a popular carnival act to earn his way. But the story of Pocklington’s Flying Man has been retold many times over the centuries since his death. The intriguing monument still evident in the church catches the attention of successive researchers, and Pelling has become a local legend. With the advent of Pocklington’s Flying Man Festival, returning for the ninth year this weekend, there is renewed interest in the tale, and the man.
I haven’t been able to establish anything more about Thomas Pelling than his remarkable death. It has been suggested that he might have been a former sailor or waterman. Such men were used to perilous rope climbs and descents. Robert Cadman was a steeplejack, an occupation which would have given him a good head for heights and a fearlessness in the face of long falls in an age long before harnesses, hard hats and health and safety. However, rope-dancing was a profession in its own right at the time, with formalised training agreements. Marcel Laroon’s The Criers and Hawkers of London records a Middlesex apprenticeship dispute in 1671 between the “spellbinding Jacob Hall” who promised to teach his pupil “the art of music, dancing, and vaulting on ropes”, and a disgruntled father who claimed his son had been abandoned by his tutor. Was Pelling then a professional Flying Man, rather than a down-on-his-luck working man risking his life out of desperation?
It would be interesting to consult the parish records for West Halton in Lincolnshire (to which Burton Strather belongs) to see if anything more can be discovered about Thomas Pelling. Was he ever married? Did he have any children? Did he leave family behind in Burton Strather when he hit the road, who waited and waited for his impossible return?
To write this post, I have tracked the story of the Flying Man of Pocklington back through various documents in the parish records of Pocklington, held here at the Borthwick Institute. These sources include Some notes on the history of Pocklington Church by Canon Graham Christie, 1976 (PR POCK 47), Pocklington Parish Church: Guide for Visitors, 1924 (PR POCK 46) Guide to All Saints Church, by the Very Revd Henry Stapleton, 2002 (PR POCK 140), and Alexander Leadman’s history of Pocklington church, published in the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal in 1896 (PR POCK 166). It is clear that the earlier sources in this list have informed the later, but I haven’t been able to find a record of the story in our records which predates Dr Leadman’s.
It's probable that the story would have been recorded in the newspapers of the time, which had a liking for the gory or unusual. The York Courant was publishing in the early eighteenth century although the Borthwick only holds microfilmed copies up to the 1720s. A full run of the newspaper is available at the York Explore Centre in the city.
If anyone has any information about earlier records of the Flying Man stories - or if you have found Flying Men in other parts of the country - please let us know!