In 1874 The worlds most famous tight rope walker, Blondin, visited Australia. Blondin was fifty yers old and had thrilled the world with his feats of daring. His visit started a craze for tight rope walking in Australia and spawned many imitators.
Jean Francois Gravelet better known as Blondin, or Chevalier Blondin , was born in 1824 in France. At an early age he had been inspired by a troupe of travelling acrobats to take up rope walking. He quickly showed an astonishing aptitude for the art. In 1851 he toured the United States with the Ravel group of French acrobats. However he wanted to be more than a member of a troupe, and in 1859 announced that he would cross Niagara Falls on a tight rope.
In June that year he made his first crossing. It took five minutes and twenty five thousand people watched the feat. He remained at Niagara until September and crossed the falls numerous times in various manners. Thus he crossed blindfolded and pushing a wheelbarrow. He also carried a man on his back across the falls. The following year he repeated the performance and topped it by crossing the falls on stilts.
By 1874 he had astounded audiences around the world and was a well known star. That year, whilst in California , he was approached by an Australian entrepreneur, HP Lyons and convinced to visit the continent. By mid year, the most famous rope walker in the world had arrived in the colonies.
Blondin made his first Australian appearance at Brisbane’s Botanical Gardens on July 25th 1874. He entertained a large crowd by crossing a long rope in armour, in a sack and by bicycle. He also carried his trusting secretary, Mr Niaud across the rope on his back. Blondin was enthusiastically received in Brisbane.
In August, posters began appearing in Sydney streets and on the 17th of that month an advertisement apeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.
THE HERO OF NIAGARA
Will arrive in Sydney
On or about the 12th August 1874.
The advertisement stated that Blondin would perform the same feats as he had shown the Prince of Wales and his extensive retinue. Blondin was being presented as a performer who was acceptable to nobility and thus an act of the highest calibre.
For those Sydneysiders concerned about the Chevalier’s non arrival, the advertisement of August 18 would have been a relief. It announced that Blondin, the hero of Niagara had finally arrived in Sydney.
Blondin set up his tent in the Domain. It was a square canvas construction measuring two hundred and fifty feet on each side. It was fifty feet high. It was open at the top, making it possible for non paying customers to catch a glimpse of the show. The tent could hold up to fifteen thousand people. It was located on ‘rising ground in the outer domain almost in front of Richmond Terrace and towards the rear of the Mint and the Infirmary.’ The entrance fees ranged in price from six shillings to two shillings six pence for adults and between three shillings and one shilling for children. These were very high prices at a time when general theatre admission ranged from one shilling to three shillings.
Blondin’s first ascension in Sydney was on August 29th 1874. At 2pm the doors to the enclosure opened and a large crowd of fifteen thousand filed in. There was some difficulty with entry but no major incidents. As they got seated the crowd stared upward at a long hempen rope stretched fifty feet above them at a length of two hundred feet. On one side was a platform with a canvas screen
At 4pm, from a small tent on the southern side of the enclosure, stepped Chevalier Blondin. He was dressed as a knight in bright metal. He slipped into a loop of rope and six or seven seamen hauled him up to the platform. As he arrived a loud cheer echoed through the tent.
Taking a balancing pole, Blondin easily walked across the rope. He paused to balance on one foot and fell on his back at one point. A band played continuously as he traversed the rope and Blondin’s feet kept time with its beat. Returning to the platform, he changed behind the screen and emerged dressed as ‘an athlete" He crossed the space and stood on his head once or twice on the journey. Then he enveloped himself in a canvas sack. Completely blindfolded he crossed the distance again. During this journey he pretended to stumble once or twice elicitiing a loud exclamation of "oh!" from the tense audience below.
Blondin changed again and emerged as a cook. He put a portable stove on his back and cooked an omlette in the middle of the rope. He flipped the omelette several times in the air. After it was cooked , it was lowered to the spectators with a bottle of champagne.
The highlight of the show was without doubt, his manipulation of a chair.
‘With an ordinary wooden chair he marched to near the centre of the rope
and there seated himself upon it…he moved the chair about with
extraordinary ease, balanced it while still seated upon it on two legs;
then he stood upon it upright, and turning it round with its back towards him,
stepped over the back and balanced himself again standing on it.
Blondin then carried his secretary Mr Niaud on his back across the rope. In the middle of the journey Blondin bowed and Mr Niaud’s hat fell off, further scaring the tense spectators below.Finally the chevalier concluded the performance by riding a bicycle across the rope. He rode it at a pace which would have been considered reckless on land.
Blondin performed each feat with a coolness and casual calm that astounded the onlookers. He crossed the rope with a ‘careful and often with a kind of jaunty air’. However he was at pains to emphasise the danger inherent in the act with his feints at falling and with the loss of Mr Niaund’s hat. It was a skilful, astonishing performance. At its conclusion the large crowd acknowledged this with ‘ringing cheers.’
On Sunday 30th August heavy winds struck Sydney and rumours flew that Blondin’s tent had been levelled. The Sydney Morning Herald assured readers that this was mere hearsay. Only a couple of splicings had been damaged, although the canvas was taken down due to the gusts of wind. The paper reassured readers that the tent would be re erected for the next show on Monday August 31st.
An advertisement that day stated that the commissioner for railways had arranged special excursion trains to Sydney for the duration of Blondin’s performances. These special trains allowed patrons to pay a single fare for a return journey. The advertisement also asked the public to provide correct change for tickets at the door. This was to avoid the confusion that had taken place at the previous show.
Blondin’s second ascension occurred without incident. It began at 4pm on Monday and attendance was much lower than on the previous occasion. The Herald estimated it at two thousand five hundred and stated the small crowd was probably due to the start of the working week. However, outside the tent there were large numbers hoping to catch a free glimpse of the show through cracks in the canvas. Some people climbed onto trees and managed to see the performance. The paper informed its readers that Blondin would probably lower his prices before leaving Sydney allowing families who could not afford the current charges to see the show.
The second performance was almost identical to the first. The chair feat gained the most applause, whilst the premeditated stumble during the blindfolded act brought a ‘subdued shriek’ from the assembled crowd. That crowd included the Governor, his wife and daughter and several distinguished friends.
Blondin’s third performance was on Wednesday September 3rd. Between two to three thousand attended officially. Many more gathered outside the tent, having discovered that it was transparent. The rope walker could be seen indistinctly from outside for free. The performance was the same as the two previous shows and the papers commented on the Chevalier’s ‘perfect non chalance’ as he risked his safety, fifty feet above the ground.
On Friday, Blondin made another ascension. Many country people, taking advantage of the government’s excursion tickets filled the tent. The crowd was once again estimated at between 2-3000. The effect that Blondin had on the spectators was curious. Most felt profound discomfort and apprehension as he walked the thin rope. The tension of the audience contrasted starkly with the casual cool manner of the performer.
Earlier that day the public had been politely informed via a notice in the papers that;
‘To prevent any misunderstanding regarding the prices charged at Chevalier Blondin’s
ascensions, the public are respectfully informed that there will be no reduction
on the present rates now charged during Chevalier Blondin’s brief stay in Sydney.
Blondin’s second week in Sydney started with a change of programme and an alteration to the venue. The canvas tent was surrounded by an eight foot high wooden fence that was designed to keep ‘larrikins’ and others from gaining free access to the show. The chevalier also added two new feats to his programme.
To his hand and feet were fastened chains attached to a brass collar around his neck
and a brass band around his waist. In this somewhat fettered condition and with
each foot in a round basket about a foot in diameter and fifteen inches in height,
he stepped gaily along the rope, balancing pole in hand.
In addition, he replaced his omelette meal with another unusual act.
Taking his famous chair on his back he strapped a small table in front of him
Going to the middle of the rope, he coolly sat down on his chair, unloosed
the strap from his neck by which he held the table, and then supporting it
in front of him with his knee under the top and his foot on the cross piece
he, with one hand, helped himself to a slight repast.
After drinking a glass of champagne and eating some light biscuits on the airy perch, he packed up and returned to the platform to a great deal of applause.
Blondin repeated this performance on Wednesday 9th September. That Friday it rained, and the show , ,advertised as the last day ascension, was postponed until the following Monday. That day September 14th , he repeated the successful feats of the previous two occasions.
Although advertised as his last day ascensions, Blondin extended his stay to include two more. They were scheduled to occur on Wednesday 16th and Friday 18th September. It was clear that the Chevalier liked to have a days rest between performances.
Bad weather prevented the show that Wednesday, so it was rescheduled to Thursday. The public were promised ‘New feats on the high rope’ that Thursday 17th September 1874.
On that day, Blondin added a wheel barrow to his act, wheeling it along the rope with ease. Eight hundred spectators attended the show and further one thousand attended on the Friday, and Saturday. It was clear that after three weeks , public interest was waning and that something new was required. This was soon forthcoming.
FOR THREE NIGHTS ONLY
THE HERO OF NIAGARA
LAST WEEK LAST WEEK
FIREWORKS FIREWORKS FIREWORKS
Blondin had decided to do night ascensions. The first was announced for Tuesday night, September 22nd and featured the amazing display called ‘The grand promenade over Vesuvius.’
That night the canvas enclosure was lit extensively by gas. Lamps stood near each of the guy ropes and stars in gas jets illuminated the main entrance. At the base of each mast stood gas lights in the shape of a cross. Two lime lights stood ready to shine on the chevalier as he walked the rope.
At 8pm, three to four thousand people had gathered inside the enclosure. In addition thousands had gathered outside hoping to catch a glimpse of the show. At 8.30pm a rocket flared and Blondin was raised to the platform.
He appeared dressed as a knight and crossed the rope from one side to another. Then he re emerged and performed his usual routine with the sack and the chair and also carried the long suffering secretary across the thin pathway.
Then it was time for the finale. The grand promenade over Vesuvius. Blondin appeared dressed as a knight. This time it was clearly a protective measure. The Herald described what happened next;
To the daring performer’s body was attached a wheelbarrow with what may be
described as a trimming of fireworks…The balancing pole was covered with a
network of the same flammable and explosive material presenting somewhat
the appearance of a two arms of a windmill, and upon Blondin’s head there was a
pyrotechnic arrangement in the form of a crown.
Encumbered with the fireworks Blondin stood upon the platform. His assistants sent up fireworks of rockets and stars. Then surrounded by explosive paraphernalia Blondin slowly made his way to the centre of the rope.
Here a very extensive pyrotechnic square, consisting of golden rain, stars, rockets
and other preparations had been fixed which in a moment became a perfect sheet
of fire. The jets of flame…enveloped the performer. The wheelbarrow and the balancing
pole also cast out jets of flame, and the occasional discharge of blue and red stars
and shooting of rockets rendered the spectacle perfectly dazzling.
Blondin stood perfectly still during this amazing firework display. When it had concluded he calmly wheeled the barrow back to the platform. The audience exploded in cheers which echoed through the canvas tent. It was an incredible spectacle.
On Thursday, September 24th, Blondin repeated the show in front of Lady Robinson, the Governor’s wife and several leading citizens of Sydney. Saturday 26th September was originally advertised as the last night ascension. Thousands gathered to see the performance. It was identical to the two previous shows.
On Monday September 28th Blondin announced three more night ascensions to take place on Tuesday 29th, Thursday October 1 and Saturday October 3rd. The Saturday show was advertised as his farewell benefit and final show in Sydney.
The weeks performances were varied by the introduction of the ‘basket’ trick into the act. In addition Blondin presented a brand new feat. He carried a harmonium to the middle of the rope and taking a comfortable seat, serenaded the audience with a selection of music. Vesuvius was the highlight of the performance. Spectacular and disturbing it engendered huge applause from the thousands witnessing it.
Thursday’s performance was cancelled, probably due to bad weather, so Blondin performed on the Friday instead. He played ‘Le Belle Helene’ on the harmonium and was once again well received.
On Saturday October 3rd, the Chevalier announced that he would give two performances on the following Monday. One to occur at midday and one in the evening. They were charity performances for the New South Wales Institution for the deaf, dumb and blind. The Sydney Morning Herald applauded his generosity saying that;
The mark of appreciation of patronage bestowed upon by the chevalier
is worthy of imitation by other professionals.
Saturday October 3rd marked Blondin’s last professional appearance in New South Wales. It was attended by a large crowd and was similar to the previous two performances.
The next Monday, Blondin performed twice for the benefit of The Asylum For Destitute Children at Randwick and for The Asylum for the deaf dumb and blind. Very few members of the public attended the afternoon performance. Their number was estimated at a mere hundred. However two hundred children from the Randwick institution watched in wonder. They applauded everything they saw and thrilled to the incredible feats of the chevalier. The evening performance was also sparsely attended with only six hundred people. Blondin looked ‘ghostly’ in the dark night and ‘went through his sensational feats with the greatest eclat.’
It was the conclusion of the Chevalier’s tour of Sydney. He travelled to Melbourne and delighted the population there. According to Harry Lyons, Blondin’s Australian agent, the rope walker was the biggest individual draw to visit the colonies.
After the Australian tour of 1874 Blondin returned to London and performed at the Crystal Palace. He continued touring the world but briefly retired in the late 1870s. He returned to active performance in 1880 aged 56 and made his last appearance in public in August 1896 in Ireland. The Chevalier had a risky profession so it is surprising that he lived to such a great age. He passed away peacefully at his home, Niagara House in Ealing England, on February 22nd 1897.
Blondin made a large amount of money on his Australian tour of 1874. However, his unique and amazing performances lived up to his reputation. He was a superb showman and a skilful artist who deserved the applause and financial success he gained. He was also a generous man as shown by his charity performances in Sydney. Above all the Frenchman enthralled, entranced and lured Sydneysiders during his stay. He also spawned imitators, the most famous being the home grown Henri L’Estrange who continued Blondin’s legacy in the colonies.