David Kirke, a flamboyant British thrill-seeker who performed — and, more important, survived — what is widely acknowledged as the first modern bungee jump, died on Oct. 21 at his home in Oxford. He was 78.
His death was confirmed by his brother Hugh Potter, who said no cause had been determined.
Mr. Kirke, an irrepressible daredevil and prankster, helped found the Dangerous Sports Club at the University of Oxford in the late 1970s. He inadvertently led this tiny band of eccentrics, plucked from the upper rungs of British society, into a historic plunge off the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, England, on April Fools’ Day in 1979.
Inspiration came in part from a rite-of-passage ritual on the South Pacific island country Vanuatu known as land diving, in which young men leap from high towers, using vines to break their fall. Mr. Kirke opted for an elastic rope used by the military to help fighter jets land on aircraft carriers.
“We hadn’t tested it or anything like that,” Mr. Kirke said in a 2019 interview with the news site BristolLive. “We were called the Dangerous Sports Club, and testing it first wouldn’t have been particularly dangerous.”
Clad in a top hat and tails, with a bottle of Champagne in hand, Mr. Kirke, who was nursing a hangover from an all-night party, was the first to take the plunge on that fateful day. The other jumpers — Alan Weston, Tim Hunt and Simon Keeling — “waited to see what would happen to me,” Mr. Kirke said in a 2019 interview with ITV News. “When I started bouncing up again, they all jumped.”
Police promptly arrested the jumpers, charged them with breach of peace and briefly tossed them behind bars before letting them off with a small fine. Jail was hardly a traumatic experience, Mr. Kirke told ITV: “They were the only police force I’ve ever known to bring half-empty bottles of red wine, from the party, in a brown paper bag and give it to us in prison.”
Little did they know that their playful prank would inspire a popular pastime around the world. A video of a plunge from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco by members of the club in the 1980s inspired a New Zealander named A.J. Hackett to develop controlled methods for bungee (alternately spelled bungy) jumping and build a thriving business that popularized the sport.
Fortune, however, was not the point for Mr. Kirke, a writer by trade whose jobs included ghostwriting a newspaper column for a politician. Instead, he would find fame with a lifetime of extravagant stunts — each seemingly more outlandish than the last.
David Kirke was born David Antony Christopher Potter on Sept. 26, 1945, in the village of Shropshire, in the West Midlands of England. He was the eldest of seven children of Arnold Potter, a schoolmaster, and Fraye (Kirke) Potter, a concert pianist from an illustrious military family. For reasons that remain unclear, he adopted his mother’s maiden name as his surname while studying at Oxford.
Complete information about his survivors was not immediately available.
While not strictly upper class by British standards, the Potters managed a more than comfortable existence. As Vanity Fair noted in a 2013 feature article, “The family wintered in Switzerland and summered in France, employed 15 servants and drove around in a vintage Rolls-Royce — all at the last moment of British history when it was possible to enjoy such luxuries and still be considered middle class.”
In 1964, Mr. Kirke enrolled in Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he studied psychology and philosophy. After graduating, he went to work for the publisher Calder & Boyars in London and edited a poetry journal.
His life took a tragic turn, his brother said in an email, when his girlfriend was run over and killed by a bus. Mr. Kirke quit his job and returned to the city of Oxford, where he fell in with a particularly colorful crowd.
The idea for the club arose, Vanity Fair reported, on an adventure-seeking trip with a friend, Edward Hulton, to the Swiss Alps, where they met a British department-store scion named Chris Baker, who was dabbling with hang gliders. Mr. Kirke cajoled Mr. Baker into letting him take a spin on the contraption, and after his exhilarating flight the men began musing over drinks about starting a club to explore new daredevil sports.
“What we hated was the way that formal sports had all these little, important bourgeois instructors saying, ‘You’ve got to get through five-part exams to do this,’” Mr. Kirke told the magazine.
Straddling the line between danger sports and performance art, his stunts included steering a carousel horse down a ski slope in the Swiss Alps; piloting an inflatable kangaroo suspended by balloons over the English Channel; skateboarding among the running bulls of Pamplona, Spain; and arranging a sit-down meal on the rim of an erupting volcano on the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent.
While his initial jump in Bristol made him famous, Mr. Kirke had little time to ponder questions of posterity. As he tipped off the bridge, he told BristolLive, “The main thing going through my mind was ‘Whoooppeeee.’”