The further adventures of Henri L’Estrange
According to The Sydney Morning Herald, Henri L’Estrange was in his mid thirties at the time of the Middle Harbour crossing. The paper reported that he was born in Fitzroy. A purported photo of L’Estrange published in 1982 showed a lithe man with a broad forehead, short flat hair and a moustache. Very little is known about L’Estrange’s life, although a picture at Mitchell Library could be of him and his wife. What can be surmised is that he was a man of adventurous, almost foolhardy spirit.
The challenge of flight had fascinated human kind for decades. In the late 19th Century it became an obsession for men who sought sensation. It was a natural hobby for a man of L’Estrange’s temperament.
In 1879, Henri began ballooning experiments in Melbourne. Trading off his tightrope fame, he was billed as the ‘Australian Blondin’. On April 14th 1879 he took off from the Agricultural showgrounds in Melbourne. He rose high in the air on this occasion and reached an estimated nine thousand feet before the balloon tore and began to fall. L’Estrange was prepared for disaster and a silk parachute eased his descent to the ground. It was the first recorded instance of survival by parachute in Australia.
Henri apparently made several ballooning attempts. Many of them ended in failure. In 1880 the Sydney Morning Herald described him as ‘the aeronaut, whose misadventures, pluck and narrow escapes have kept him somewhat prominently before the public.’
In September 1880, he made an ascent in a balloon from Cook Park in Sydney. Almost three thousand people gathered in the park to see him, although the whole of Sydney had their eyes on the sky. The balloon lifted smoothly and sailed over the Garden Palace, it drifted over the Pacific Ocean and then L’Estrange decided to descend before being swept out to sea by the winds. Landing seemed to be a challenge to L’Estrange. As he landed, the balloon was torn to shreds by trees and brambles. The venture was a financial failure but the aeronaut emerged unharmed.
Henri’s inability to master landing took a dramatic, almost farcical, turn when he returned to Sydney for another flight in 1881. The balloon was set up in a small enclosure in the Domain. The Sydney Gas Company spent all day filling it and as night descended a large crowd gathered. Between 7 and 9 O Clock it was estimated that ten thousand people were in the area. They pushed hard against the barricade surrounding the balloon and began to get rowdy. The barricade was soon broken down and ‘the larrikin element began to assert itself.’
L’Estrange knew that he had to make the ascent or risk injury from the mob. Around 9.30pm he decided to fly. However heavy dew prevented the balloon from rising. He begged the Gas Company for more gas, but they refused to oblige. Henri decided to fly the balloon without the basket in order to lighten the load. He removed the basket and sat down in a loop of the ropes. L’Estrange gave a signal and shortly before 10pm the balloon with the tangled aviator sailed into the air.
It drifted gracefully, half a mile high, over Hyde Park and then, caught in the wind, flew over Rushcutters Bay. L’Estrange moved to adjust the valve on the balloon, and suddenly lost his seat. He found himself hanging precariously, high about Sydney, solely by his hands. Feeling he was sure to be killed, he desperately managed to retain a seated position. Unfortunately, the escaping gas from the balloon began to make him feel dizzy, so he firmly tied himself to the ropes, ensuring that if he became unconscious he would not fall.
The balloon lost altitude and began to float over Woolloomooloo. As it did so, the many buildings in the area endangered Henri. After passing Robinson’s Lane between Crown and Palmer Streets, the balloon stuck fast on the roof of a house in Palmer Street. Henri, seeing an opportunity to escape, cut himself loose and jumping from the roof reached the street. There he was joined by a group of curious bystanders who ‘no doubt fancying that he must have received some serious hurt took him into Robinson’s Fitzroy Hotel, at the corner of William and Palmer Streets.’ Alcohol of course, being the obvious remedy for any injury the foolhardy aviator could have sustained.
L’Estrange’s bizarre evening did not end there. As members of Henri’s entourage attempted to wrangle the balloon to street level, the occupant of the house where it had landed opened the shutters on his balcony. The rush of air combined with the gas of the balloon collided with the chandelier in the next room, and an immediate explosion of fire burst like a bomb over the house. It lit up the whole suburb.
Spectators from around the city heard the explosion and saw the light. The thousands watching from the domain thought that L’Estrange had been injured. They rushed en masse to Woolloomooloo. The residents of Woolloomooloo meanwhile, ran in a panic away from the explosion, thinking they were in imminent danger. Numerous people were injured and some taken to hospital, Fortunately there were no fatalities.
It was the end of Henri L’Estrange’s aeronautical career, However there was one more adventure for Henri in Sydney. He returned to his first occupation, the tight rope.
On Saturday December 23rd 1882 a strange advertisement appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.
Unprecedented Daring, Skill Pluck and Nerve
The Australian Blondin H L’Estrange
Will perform the extraordinary feat of
crossing Banbury Bay, Middle Harbour
with a BICYCLE on a TIGHT ROPE
this Day Sat 23rd.
The notice advised that first class bands had been engaged and that several boats were leaving Circular Quay at 2.30pm. The cost was two shillings return.
Henri L’Estrange was once again indulging his spirit of adventure
That afternoon, three or four steamers left Circular Quay and travelled ‘several miles above the spit’ By Five O Clock, six to seven hundred people had gathered on shore. Many people in private boats and yachts who were eager to witness the feat joined them.
The rope was stretched to a length of 120 fathoms. However it was only raised about thirty feet high. It was tightly drawn by a winch and secured by guys carried out to boats on the water. The crews of the boats pulled hard against each other to maintain the rope’s tension and prevent swaying.
At 6pm Henri appeared seated on a bicycle and carrying a balancing pole. He slowly cycled across the rope. Suddenly, about thirty feet across, he stopped, hesitated and seemed to lose balance. He restarted but came to another halt at fifty feet from the shore. The rope began to sway, the makeshift guys were inadequate and the unequal pulling of the crews was causing it to become unsteady. Henri somehow maintained his balance and continued to cycle across the rope, he reached one hundred feet from the starting point. Then realising that he was about to fall, he leapt from the rope, feet first and plunged into the water. He managed to swim to a boat where he received medical attention, but he was essentially unscathed. It was another lucky escape for Henri L’Estrange.
The spectators returned to the steamers and sailed home. The Sydney Morning Herald noted dryly that;
This is not the first misfortune L’Estrange has met with in his attempt to perform
feats of daring
Henri was not finished with the bicycle stunt. Determination was part of his character and he resolved to try again. Thus on the following Friday, December 29th another peculiar advertisement appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.
BLONDIN HAS RECOVERED HIS BICYCLE
And will cross Middle Harbour
On Sat 30th instant and Mon 1st Prox
To this was added a warning note
The public are cautioned against unprincipled people who on
Saturday last sold tickets without authorisation
Saturday 30th December was a very wet day. Three steamers made the trip to Banbury Bay. The passengers were soaked by rain as they travelled. Some had the privilege of listening to the Fire Brigade band on the voyage. Unfortunately, the hardy souls who had braved the rain were to be disappointed. When they arrived at Banbury Bay the rope was nowhere to be seen. L’Estrange appeared on a boat and made an announcement to the waiting spectators. An unknown person had cut his rope the day before. Displaying a portion of the cut rope that looked as if it had been hacked by a knife or tomahawk, Henri explained that he had been unable to reattach it. The performance was cancelled.
The Daily Telegraph was very cynical about this development. On Monday January 1st, under the heading, ‘The Blondin Fiasco,’ the paper noted that;
Fares were very quickly called for after the steamers left Circular Quay
Clearly implying that Henri and his cohorts should have already known about the problem with the rope.
The paper asserted that those who had attended
did not hesitate to express pretty strongly their opinions,
which, it may be said, were by no means complimentary
to Mr L’Estrange.
It concluded by suggesting that the attendees had been ‘had’.
The Sydney Morning Herald was less critical, stating that the story of the cut rope;
Was true, though it was impossible to find a satisfactory reason to account
for the occurrence.
The Herald said that most people were willing to sympathise with Henri’s plight, and complimented the crowd for its patience and restraint.
It is possible that Henri lost his nerve after the fall. It is equally possible that some jealous rival cut the rope in a fit of pique. Whatever the case, the cut rope episode marked Henri L’Estrange’s last major adventure in Sydney. Under a cloud of suspicion he vanishes from the record. What happened to him is unknown
Henri L’Estrange lives on in legend. In the 1930s a fictional story was written about the first Middle Harbour Crossing. In 1935 correspondence in the Herald regarding the location of the Middle Harbour crossing appeared. In 1982 a small article appeared in The Sun newspaper. Henri’s Middle Harbour crossing is told in several local histories of Sydney’s Northern Suburbs.
Strangely, the crossing seems to be a well-known story on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. It is strange because L’Estrange had little association with the area. The story has probably gained notoriety because of the controversy over the location of the walk. The belief that it took place at The Spit, explains the curious resiliency of the story in the area.
Henri L’Estrange was a man of daring, pluck and skill, just as he was advertised. He was an adventurer whose feats thrilled Sydney. He embodied the spirit of his age and is fondly remembered as the ‘Australian Blondin’ by the Harbour City.