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Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)

DAVID KIRKE, aged 78


Born in 1945, he was the oldest child of 7, born to Arthur Potter and Fraye St. George Kirke.

His mother came from a distinguished military family. They added the name ‘St. George’ to their own when the eldest son of 4, fighting in the First World War, was decorated.

His father, Arthur, was a Cambridge University student in the 1930s. A keen Alpinist, Arthur was known for having no fear. He was one of the founder members of the original ‘Cambridge Night Climbers’, who terrorized the university authorities, climbing over the roofs of colleges and up the chapel spires.

Arthur went on to become a Mathematics teacher at Wellington College. The Headmaster was not pleased when Arthur insisted on going to join up in the Second World War. He became a navigator in Lancaster bombers.

At the end of the war, Arthur was given his job back at Wellington College. The family had 15 servants, wintered in Switzerland and spent their summers in France.

David eventually became a pupil at Wellington College. By now his father was a Housemaster.

He proved to be a difficult pupil. He was finally expelled at the age of 16. It didn’t seem to upset Arthur. The very afternoon he was expelled, father and son were seen playing tennis on the school’s courts.

David went off to Canada to become an encyclopedia salesman. It was now he changed his surname from Potter to his mother’s maiden name, Kirke, to avoid any embarrassment to his father.

Then he was offered a place at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, to study English and Philosophy. He added Psychology to this later, but yet again proved not to be a great student. He admitted he enjoyed the social life too much – he loved a drink. He ended up with a third-class degree.

He then went to London to work for the publishing company Calder and Boyar. He also edited a poetry journal. And he found love.

It ended tragically. David’s girlfriend was run over and killed by a London bus, in front of his eyes. He was absolutely traumatized. He quit his job and moved back to Oxford.

There he mixed with the student body and dedicated himself to a hedonistic lifestyle.

One particular friend was a man called Ed Hulton.

David and Ed travelled to St. Moritz in Switzerland to see the Cresta Run and the bobsleigh. Expecting excitement, they were a little bit disappointed with the strict safety precautions – the lack of jeopardy.

Back in Oxford they decided to create the ‘Dangerous Sports Club’ (DSC). The two men were joined by Ed’s brother Kirk and Chris Baker.

David had witnessed a land-diving ceremony on the Pacific Island of Vanuatu. It was called ‘Gol’ and was used as a rite of passage for young men, to test their bravery and strength. The men would dive off a platform wrapped in vine leaves. Sometimes the vines would snap, and they would fall to earth and sometimes the vines would spring back and throw them into the air.

It had once been demonstrated to Queen Elizabeth 2nd in 1974 – with fatal results.

David decided the Dangerous Sports Club would base their first stunt on ‘Gol’. They would throw themselves off the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which had been designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It was 240 feet high.

The DSC would be attached to ropes, which would (hopefully) spring them back up. They needed specialized ropes (elasticated cords) so used ones which were used on aircraft carriers, which were suggested to him by a friend, Alan Weston, an Englishman who worked for NASA). But they refused to test the ropes first, saying this would remove the jeopardy – “Testing it first wouldn’t have been particularly dangerous. NASA told me it would be OK.”

Alan Weston had told his sisters about the projected jump and they phoned the police.

The DSC planned to do the jump on April 1st 1979, coming ‘fresh’ from an all-night party. When they arrived, the police were swarming over the bridge. After chatting with the students, the police were convinced it was all an April Fools’ joke.

Suddenly, David went over the side first – and consequently did the world’s first ever bungee jump. He was dressed in top hat and tails and held an open bottle of champagne. His top hat flew off and was never seen again.

The other three members of the DSC followed him, and all survived. They were hauled back over the side of the bridge by friends. David shouted, “Whoopee, nobody’s dead!”. Then the police promptly arrested them.

Whilst they were in the cells, the policemen who had arrested them brought in their half-drunk bottles of wine for them to finish. They were fined £100 each. In court, David described his jump as, “an almost beatific moment.”

He said he was, “weightless – in space. It’s the closest I’ll ever be to being an angel.”

A law was promptly passed making it illegal for anybody to jump from the Clifton Suspension Bridge – and bungee jumping was banned in the UK.

Bungee jumping (courtesy Secret London)

Nevertheless, word spread throughout the world.

The Dangerous Sports Club jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and from the Royal Gorge Suspension Bridge in Colorado. Both of these jumps were televised which instantly increased the popularity of bungee jumping. The DSC started jumping from cranes and hot air balloons.

In New Zealand, A.J. Hackett was inspired by the DSC and introduced bungee jumping there. It soon became a national sport and is considered the centre of the sport in the world today.

Meanwhile, David and the other members of the DSC move on to other activities. They got hold of plans for a proto-type hang glider, originally built in 1903. The original had crashed off a cliff, killing its pilot.

The DSC rebuilt it, but it had about as much success as the original.

David then did a bungee jump from Cheddar Gorge.

The group went back to St. Moritz and took a grand piano down the Cresta Run. They were all dressed in top hat and tails.

Cresta Run with piano (courtesy Vout-O-Reenees)

It was so successful they returned each year with a different mode of ‘transport’ – table and chairs (holding wine glasses), a rowing eight, a Sinclair C5 and on a carousel horse (with David dressed in hunting pinks).

David lost control of the C5 – and it ended up landing on top of him.

The bemused owners of the Cresta Run allowed the eccentric Englishmen to do this each year – but drew the line when the DSC arrived in a red London Double Decker bus, expecting to slide down in it.

David then took up hang-gliding (using modern equipment). He was the first person to glide over Mount Kilimanjaro (at 5,000 feet).

He was also the first person ever to hang-glide down from the summit of Mount Olympus in Greece. As he came down, “I asked myself, is this better than sex? It possibly is but may not be quite as good as the best passage in a Joseph Conrad novel.”

He was also the first person to introduce the microlight to the UK.

Microlight (courtesy PrezzyBox)

In 1986, David flew the channel, tied to a kangaroo-shaped cluster of helium filled balloons, sponsored by Foster’s lager. He was arrested and prosecuted for flying without a pilot’s license.

He increasingly enjoyed the publicity attached to the stunts and loved the corporate hospitality that emerged as his club gained international attention.

He called himself an ‘anarchic buccaneer’.

David once broke a leg and both arms on a failed bungee jump.

Increasingly, the DSC were having themselves thrown from catapults and trebuchets. Their membership grew – and included a young undergraduate called Nigella Lawson.

In the year 2000, David repeated his jump off Clifton Suspension Bridge to mark the 21st anniversary of the sport of bungee jumping.

Then disaster struck. He was fired from an aircraft launcher from a cliff in Ireland and broke his spine in 3 places. It marked the end of his dangerous sports career.

In 2002, two of his colleagues from the DSC were prosecuted following the death of 19-year-old Oxford University student Kostadin Yankov. They had organised an event when members were fired from a trebuchet – and Yankov missed the safety net and was killed.

David was not involved in this event so escaped prosecution. He told the press, “It was an extraordinary test case about the right to experiment, at personal risk verses social responsibility.”

In another interview David was asked if he regretted not having made much money from the invention of bungee jumping. He replied, “The real reward is in creating a sport that made people happy and gave them fun.”

David loved living the life of the aristocracy, enjoying the glamour and attention his life brought him. However, one of his friends said, “He was kind and generous, with an iron constitution.”

David died peacefully, in his own bed. A family member said, “It was not the way he would have wanted to have gone.”

They added, “He was a free spirit who would never have changed the life he led…He led from the front and went where many feared to tread.”

A friend said in tribute, “David upturned apple carts, always. He wanted to do things that diverted and disrupted and stretched the imagination. He dared – and sometimes dare-devilled and paid the price.”

RIP – Risky Invented Past-



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