The Fanatical 18th Century Frost Fair Flyers Who Risked Life and Limb to Become Folk Heroes

By Joseph Hayes on at

On the 2nd February 1740 a living legend with a death wish, the ‘flying man’ Robert Cadman, scaled the rope in Shrewsbury.  Cadman who was known for ultra-dangerous escapades involving sliding down ropes while operating firearms and even musical instruments, would not be living much longer. A disaster struck as his rope snapped in two, causing Cadman to fall and die. The death was ultra-brutal and as Bowen notes Cadman ended up breaking his neck as a result of the fall.

Cadman was not alone. Throughout the early 18th century if you wanted notoriety and had a complete disregard for the physical welfare of yourself and others, you could use pulleys and a bit of luck to turn the landscape into your own theme park as a ‘flying man’. This even allowed you to make an income and have some of the most famous artists of the time, like William Hogarth, to commemorate your hubris.

James P. Bowen notes in the journal article “A Provincial Frost Fair: Urban Space, Sociability and Spectacle in Shrewsbury During the Great Frost of 1739”, everywhere, including fortresses, became places to glide down from at high speeds. Medieval monuments also essentially became theme park rides, something that some of the clergy themselves allowed - much to their superiors chagrin.

So what exactly were the materials these homespun hell-raisers utilised? Jacob Smith notes in The Thrill Makers: Celebrity, Masculinity and Stunt Performance that one of the necessary tools was a ‘flat board' which was used as a base attached to the cords. Those cords were then tied to cathedral steeples to enable their daredevil activities. They also needed a lot of luck and guts, which was often enough to get an enormous fan base to turn out to watch.

One person’s hero was another person’s scoundrel, however, and Cadman is referred to as a “mountebank” in one Victorian account. Though this seems a little unfair given that “mountebank” is defined as“A person who deceives others, especially to trick them out of their money; a charlatan”.  

Cadman and the other flying men were not cowardly cheats, and that was exactly the problem; they were courageous hooligans who could give any contemporary parkour streamer a run for their money. But by endangering themselves and potentially others in the process. 

Indeed, the cold weather, far from deterring these rascals, seemed to encourage them to come out. As Jacob Smith notes these flying men had a certain and quite literal escapism from the class confines at the time, the realm of the sky was at this point for them and them alone. 

The casualties of the flying men read like battlefield damage. Towers seem to have been particularly beloved to fly from, and frequent deaths were documented  all the way back from the middle ages - alongside vandals bringing down structures with them as they went and showed no respect for the people in the area. 

Yet, as Toby Huitson’s Stairways to Heaven: The Function of Medieval Upper Spaces comments one of the flying fatalities that received great acclaim was a Thomas Pelling - who died falling from a tower  in the early 1730’s. Pelling’s death was particularly gruesome with different accounts mentioning that he either died by impact with the ground or suffered a Mortal Kombat -style death by being bashed against the side of the tower. 

Even more interesting than Pelling’s death however was his costume. Pelling seemed to go a step above most of the flying men and actually created his own bat-like wings. What these devices were designed from is not known, and even I Never Knew That About Yorkshire mentions these bat wings but doesn’t give the precise materials. However, a third source does happily state  at least that they were indeed “stiffened wings, Batman-style”.

If the 18th century ‘flying men’ were like Batman, though they were much more like the original thuggish Batman who went about shooting villains on a whim. Flying men themselves frequently dual wielded firearms with no regard for public safety. 

Possession of such firearms by the rougher parts of society was  considered a major taboo by the wealthy. Naturally guns ended up in demand by the average people, who carried them in spite of this disapproval. Even by the mid-18th century, people were still flying and firing. 

James P. Bowen highlights that one ‘flying man’ ended up intoxicated and proceeded to dive-bomb while unloading two guns in the middle of a retail area. Even Cadman was known to fire such guns and also somehow managed to commit arson in the middle of his performances. Although, given that “fire-works” were also used by flyers that shouldn’t be a huge shock. 

But further compounding the possibility for public harm were the frost fairs.

Frost related festivities have always had a long violent past within England and even something as simple as  ice skating could cause pandemonium. Alcohol, more alcohol, and acting disgracefully were the order of the day after all. The central hub for this was, naturally, London where drunkenness and debauchery were commonplace - and in one cruel and arrogant act someone managed to lead an actual elephant down the Thames.

James P. Bowen reflects however that some of the festivals across the country had their own offerings. It was the Shrewsbury Frost Fair of 1739 where Robert Cadman would perform his final leap of faith. As Bowen points out, Cadman was there “to restore the damaged weathercock of St Mary’s Church” yet he took advantage of the great opportunity of the festival, causing a great upset and having fun at the expense of others  by beating a drum high in the air and generally being a drunken oaf. And you thought teenagers playing music on the bus was bad.

The temperature during that period was a shockingly low -25 degrees, which put into context how courageous/foolhardy Cadman was to go willingly up in these temperatures. Add to that the incredible height that Cadman was falling from, that of over 138ft, at a time when few other structures would have been as tall. The final ultra-dangerous aspect was a mixture of the windy icy gales and the hardened ice itself which provided absolutely no give. perhaps it was this cold that made the ropes Cadman was using less flexible as well.

Far from being a “mountebank”, Cadman did exactly what he said on the tin. As one source that Bowen has identified, one Hugh Owen, comments in his A History of Shrewsbury, Cadman informed any of the aristocracy in the area that they should send cash to him via their staff or essentially he was going to come to them. This was no pleading letter of begging it was a straightforward invoice and almost a veiled threat, Cadman certainly had no problem targeting the most affluent of society. 

Cadman died as straightforwardly as he had lived with Bowen highlighting descriptions of Cadman as “a small figure of a man, seem-ingly [sic] composed of spirit and gristle”. First and foremost, Cadman gave the audience the show they wanted even as he died crashing onto the ice. One account at the time noted that “his body ‘after reaching the earth, rebounded upwards several feet’”.

The tributes poured in with all acknowledging Cadman as brave to a fault and even today “Folk Tales” feature Cadman. Yet, as Bowen has highlighted Cadman took with his death the world of ordinary rascals taking to the air. There would be other ‘flying men’ in America, with some even performing for Presidents as Smith reflects. However, this was still a tame re-enactment of the what the ‘flying men’ of 18th century England had symbolised. 

What made the 18th century ‘flying men’ stand out wasn’t how many tricks they could do or even the considerable crowds they could draw in. It was ultimately that heavily armed and highly reckless, they were as much of a threat as they were a performance. They controlled these risky passages and could come and go as they pleased across the upper echelons of the city at the time. The powers that be had little choice but to go along with them. 

Featured image: Unsplash