I wrote this article because of a story my grandmother once told. She lived on the Northern Beaches of Sydney and often mentioned the man who walked across Sydney Heads on a tightrope. I wanted to track down this story and discovered L'Estrange.
On Tuesday April 14 1877, The annual exhibition was opened at Prince Alfred Park in Sydney. The Exhibition, organised by the New South Wales Agricultural society was the forerunner of the Royal Easter Show and had been a tradition in the city for many years. In 1877 it featured a ‘long double line of carriages and buggies’ which showed ‘foreign and colonial handiwork’. It included a display of agricultural products from the other colonies of Australia and for the first time many goods from Canada and labour saving devices from the United States. By 1877, the Sydney Mail was already using the abbreviated term ‘show' to describe the exhibition.
The appearance of the exhibition was a cue for entertainers from around the colony to descend upon Sydney. They began arriving at Easter, two weeks before the exhibition opening. In early April Wilson’s circus opened in Hyde Park, Mr Bachelder presented a diorama featuring scenes from Canada and Mr Dampier presented Othello. The Exhibition itself included a series of entertainments, for example, a series of concerts featuring the Silvesters and ‘the inimitable Barlow and the artillery band.’ It was a time of celebration and activity for the town of Sydney.
One other performer was in town at that time, Henri L’Estrange. He was a tightrope walker. He had set up in the domain and was attempting to compete with the plethora of acts around him. L’Estrange was a daredevil. Reputedly born in Victoria and aged in his mid thirties, he was a man of creative mind and adventurous spirit. In order to gain publicity and fortune he came up with a scheme that would make audiences forget about his competition.
Tightrope walking had gained in popularity since the Great Blondin’s visit to Australia in 1874. The Frenchman had created his reputation by crossing Niagara Falls in 1859, 1860 and 1861. During his tour of Australia he thrilled audiences by wearing full armour, doing somersaults and cooking an omelette on the tightrope.
On March 29th 1877, a large advertisement appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.
Saturday March 31st 1877
The Australian Blondin’s
(Mr H L’Estrange)
of crossing Middle Harbour.
Henri L’Estrange was proposing to cross a section of Middle Harbour, part of Sydney Harbour, on a tightrope. He had chartered nineteen steamers and was inviting the public to pay two shillings (return) to witness the feat. He was also capitalising on the name Blondin to publicise the endeavour.
On March 29th, L’Estrange gave a private preview of a practice performance to a select group of gentlemen. The men left Circular Quay at 2pm and after an hour travelling by the steamer Britannia, came to a secluded spot in Middle Harbour. There they saw a tightly stretched rope. It was strung across a gap between two headlands, measuring 1420 feet long and 340 feet above the water. It was anchored by supports tied to trees and sunk into the harbour. Made of hemp, the rope sagged and at one spot it was spliced for about twenty feet with a rope of different width. These technical problems made the latter part of the path uphill and also caused swaying of the rope beneath the walker’s feet.
At 3pm, Henri L’Estrange stepped upon this flimsy support and carrying a sixty pound balancing pole, walked its length. It was a perilous and breath taking event ,watched eagerly by the men on the Britannia. Ten minutes later, L’Estrange was safely at the other side, having successfully completed his experiment. The success of this private demonstration was reported in The Sydney Morning Herald the next day.
The excitement for the proposed public exhibition mounted steadily. The rope became an attraction in its own right. Advertisements for visits to the rope were placed in the papers and people were invited to view preparations for the walk. Mrs Darnton advised the public that she had taken the refreshment booth on the pier and nineteen steamers had been hired by L’Estrange to ferry people to the location. Anticipation was at fever pitch. Then it rained.
Saturday was a ‘pouring wet’ day and L’Estrange had to cancel the planned walk. Meanwhile he continued his performances at the Domain. There, a large number of people gathered each night to witness his feats on the tightrope. Fireworks illuminated the sky as he performed and Professor Kelly provided a pyrotechnic fountain. All this was accompanied by music played by the Young Australian Band.
The delay in the Middle Harbour crossing was probably to the advantage of L’Estrange. He postponed the public exhibition until April 14th. This meant that The Exhibition would be open which ensured that country visitors would have an opportunity to see his fabulous feat and pay for the privilege.
That Saturday, April 14th ,dawned hot and sunny. Crowds gathered at Circular Quay waiting for the steamers to convey them to Middle Harbour. Their number gave the Quay ‘a holiday aspect.’ L’Estrange had engaged twenty-one steamers and all were filled to capacity with observers paying two shillings return for a ticket. Some enterprising entrepreneurs took passengers on their own steamers. The Sydney Morning Herald estimated that eight thousand people made their way to Middle Harbour by water.
Thousands more made their way to the location overland from St Leonards. L’Estrange had stationed toll collectors on the roads to collect their two shillings. Upon arrival, the crowds gathered at the eastern and western shores and were entertained by The Young Australian Band, the Allison Brass band and the Coppers and Baileys band. Taking advantage of the hot weather, several refreshment stalls and publican booths supplied food and alcohol for the gathering throng.
At 4 O Clock, the cause of this display, Henri L’Estrange, emerged from a tent on the eastern side of the bay. He was dressed in a dark tunic with a red cap and turban. He immediately stepped onto the hempen rope, carrying his balancing pole, and began to quickly walk above the steamers on the water below. The spectators cheered in excitement as he walked at a brisk pace of eighty steps to the minute. As he reached the spliced part of the rope he slowed his rate, then he stopped. He raised his left foot and rested it against his right leg. Then he dropped to one knee and sat down waving a handkerchief cheekily at the thousands of people watching him.
Becoming more daring, he laid on his back for a minute and after sitting up removed a small telescope and looked around at the spectators. This insouciant display earned him wild applause. He then resumed walking the rope. Getting to the uphill portion he slowed his steps, but made the distance safely. Soon he was standing ashore triumphantly. The steamers blew their whistles, the crowds roared approval, and the bands played loudly. The performance had lasted a total of fifteen minutes.
The spectators rushed the temporary piers to get to the steamers. As they did so several people were pushed into the water, but there were no serious accidents. L’Estrange reappeared in a rowboat as the steamers left and was once again enthusiastically cheered.
The newspapers joined the general chorus of approval saying
‘L’Estrange appears to lack none of the daring or skill which has made Blondin famous throughout the world.’
According to The Sydney Illustrated News
‘He performed his truly wonderful feat with the greatest coolness and consummate ability, and went through a number of daring evolutions on the rope similar to some of those he affects when going through his daily entertainments.’
L’Estrange had conquered Sydney and had overwhelmed his opposition.
One item of controversy regarding the walk was its location. In 1877, the Sydney Morning Herald pinpointed it as ‘Long Bay’. Long Bay could take in the area from Cammaray to Northbridge, although it has been taken to refer to Willoughby Bay. This contradicted notices of the time that advertised trips to see ‘Blondin’s rope.’ The advertisements noted that ‘intending visitors going by the first boat can return by the last boat leaving Clontarf at 5pm, enabling persons to view Blondin’s rope and the beautiful scenery of Middle Harbour or spending the day in fishing.’ This suggested that ‘Blondin’s rope’ was visible from the vicinity of Clontarf which lead to speculation that the walk took place around the area of the current Spit Bridge. However a letter to The Sydney Morning Herald in 1935 supported the Willoughby Bay location. The correspondent claimed to be a witness and that ‘the position of the rope was across Willoughby Bay, the arm of Long Bay (Middle Harbour)." Regardless of the actual location, the fact is that the walk was long remembered by many. It must have been a spectacular sight.
L"Estrange repeated the performance twice within the next two weeks. On Wednesday, April 18th he again took to the sky on a flimsy thread and thrilled two thousand spectators. On this occasion the Governor of New South Wales and his wife, Lady Robinson, were present. Their Excellencies were reportedly very impressed by the display. The performance was similar to the one the previous Saturday. Mr Devlin who had composed a piece of music called "Blondin’s March’ in honour of L’Estrange, conducted the Albion Band, and Henri negotiated the journey with a minimum of fuss.
That Wednesday evening, the group of distinguished gentlemen who had witnessed the private demonstration of L’Estrange’s skill on March 29th gathered at Sebastian Hodge’s hotel on Pitt Street to discuss giving Henri a momento of the occasion. The Herald reported that a large number of subscriptions were gathered for the cause.
L’Estrange’s final crossing of Middle Harbour occurred on Saturday April 21st. he was engaged to appear in Brisbane and had to leave Sydney. Prospective spectators were advised to patronise ‘Blondin’s steamers only’. The names Blondin and L’Estrange were being used interchangeably by this time.
That Saturday was a sunny but windy day. The crowds had dwindled to a few hundred and L’Estrange hired only four official steamers. Six more independent steamers joined them. At 4 O Clock Henri dressed in a close fitted tunic and tights and carrying the balancing pole, stepped upon the rope. Without hesitation he nimbly walked across the harbour with the steamers below and people lining the shores behind and in front of him. He again performed several cheeky moves in the middle of the path to the delight of those watching. Finally after fifteen minutes he arrived safely on shore having completed his fourth crossing of Middle Harbour successfully.
That night at the Royal Victoria Theatre in Pitt Street, Mr Dampier, a well known Shakespearian actor presided over a testimonial for Henri L’Estrange. In front of a packed house, Mr Dampier gave Henri a large decoration as a souvenir of his achievements. It was a large gold star, three inches across. On one side was a representation of Henri walking across Middle Harbour. On the other an inscription reading
"Presented to Mr H L’Estrange by the public of New South Wales
on the occasion of his wonderful performance of crossing Sydney
Harbour on the 14th day of April 1877.
The decoration was attached to a star that contained a large diamond. It was an elaborate and expensive item, a testament to the amount that was raised by the committee. In addition Henri was presented with an address commemorating the occasion and a purse full of sovereigns. The audience cheered loudly and the Young Australian Band played the Blondin March. Henri climbed on stage and expressed his sincere gratitude to the people of New South Wales.
According to the newspapers, he had decided to travel to Brisbane and from there to London. He was then intending to travel to the United States where he would cross Niagara. There is no record of him doing so. The further adventures of Henri L’Estrange were to primarily concern another dangerous activity, ballooning, before he returned to his original profession, the tight rope.
Part 2- The Further adventures of Henri L'Estrange