Death of The Flying Saucer Boy

Please don't try this at home

John Jesty
John Jesty
Photo taken from a (unknown) newspaper cutting

Fourteen year old John Jesty, of 125 Chadacre Road, Stoneleigh, was fascinated by the moon, flying saucers and space travel. Naturally he wanted to build his own working rocket. John was also interested in chemistry and realised that he needed some fuel to power his rocket. On 25th June 1953, in the garage of his parents' home, he tried mixing several chemicals. His experiments preformed far better than he expected but one resulted in an explosion that not only shook the garage but landed John hospital. He was badly injured and his left hand needed plastic surgery.

Unsurprisingly his father, Police Constable Robert Harvey Jesty, laid down the law and forbade John any further experiments with chemicals.

A boy conducts an experiment while playing with a chemistry set c1955
Image source: Getty Images

Neither the accident nor his father's words diminished John's interest in chemistry and space travel. Six months later, on 29 December 1953, John told his father that he was going to the garage to work on his bike with a school friend, 12 year-old Derek Bullock, but this was not what the boys got up to.

Derek had brought round some chemicals, not only from his chemistry set but also some red phosphorus, potassium chlorate and sulphur he had got a couple of days earlier from another boy, 17 year-old Gerald Brown. Gerald had bought his supply from a local chemist quite lawfully, but warned Derek that the chemicals were dangerous and even spoke to Derek's father about them the same day.

John and Derek mixed the chemicals outside before taking the mixture into John's garage where John cut some cycle handlebars in half and sealed one end. He then packed the chemical mixture into the tube using a spindle before inserting a piece of paper. It was at this point that the pipe suddenly exploded, severely injuring both boys who were rushed to Epsom District Hospital.

The blast inside the garage had been very powerful and had blown out 5 window panes, while spraying the inside with metal shrapnel, breaking a cast iron vice and splintering the handle of a hammer (presumably used with the spindle to force the paper into the compacted chemicals).

Luckily, Derek had only a cut leg, which was treated before he was sent home but John's injuries were far worse and he needed surgery to his abdomen and left hand. After surgery, although John's wounds were not regarded at life threatening, as was usual for the time, he was kept in hospital. As a matter of routine, John was given an anti-tetanus jab and appeared to be making normal progress.

But on the 10 January 1954 John condition suddenly deteriorated. Despite having had the anti-tetanus jab, he was diagnosed with a severe tetanus infection that could only be treated with a special anti-tetanus drug. The closest source for this drug was a chemist shop in Piccadilly. Epsom District Hospital contacted Scotland Yard at 7.05pm and a relay of 3 police cars rushed the drug via Chelsea Bridge and Tooting Broadway to the hospital where it was received at 7.48pm. Sadly, despite this special drug, John died of hypostatic pneumonia, as a result of the tetanus infection, on the 15 January 1954.

An inquest a few days later returned a verdict of 'Accidental death'. The Coroner, Dr. J. M. Robertson, said that he hoped that the case would be a warning that there were grave dangers in letting children play with chemicals, which in themselves could be harmless but in a combination might be mortal.

Main Sources

  • Epsom and Ewell Advertiser
  • The Times
  • Daily Express
  • Daily Mirror
  • Manchester Guardian

Peter Reed June 2016
Following a suggestion from David Brooks.

Chemistry Set
A 1940s Gilbert chemistry set
Photo by Joe Mabel source Wikimedia