Friday, 10 November 2017

Grahamstown Gazette: a Successful Funambulist

Woodyear’s Electric Circus and Great London Equesquiriculem paid a visit to Thames in April 1884. After an arduous journey through the Thames Valley, the circus set up shop on the reclaimed land near Curtis’ Hotel on Albert Street. Boasting wonders as unique as The Only Lady Contortionist in the World, educated dogs and monkeys, the Most Complete Troupe of Highly Thoroughbred Horses, and The Marvellous Japanese, Woodyear’s Circus was one of many which regularly made the journey to the Thames gold fields.

Woodyear’s also claimed among their many attractions a performer they called the ‘Australian Blondin,’ a tightrope walker who performed for donations each evening outside the main venue. This popular performer took his stage name from the internationally-famous tightrope walker Charles Blondin, who was no stranger to Thames himself; he had crossed Pollen Street, between Captain Butt’s Shortland Hotel and the Warwick Arms Hotel, on a tightrope in 1876. Charles Blondin’s most famous feat had been his multiple crossings of the Niagara Falls in 1859, which he completed in successive trips while on stilts, while blindfolded, while in a sack, while carrying his manager, while standing on a chair with only one chair leg touching the wire, and finally while stopping halfway across the Falls to cook an omelette. 

Blondin was so synonymous with wire-walking that by the 1880s Sydney was awash with Australian tightrope walkers referring to themselves as the ‘Australian Blondin.’ The most famous Australian Blondin was Henri L’Estrange, a successful funambulist and an accident-prone aeronautical balloonist, who to this day is the only tightrope performer ever to have walked across part of Sydney Harbour. L’Estrange’s brief stint as a balloonist also saw him become the first person to make an emergency parachute descent in Australia, but after a separate incident involving a massive fireball he quickly made a return to his original career in tightrope-walking. 

Also on the Australasian circuit were James Alexander, another Australian Blondin; Charles Jackson, a third Australian Blondin; Signor Vertelli, the Great Australian Blondin; Collins, the Original Australian Blondin; Alfred Row the Young Blondin; Azella the Female Australian Blondin; Young Morris the New Zealand Blondin; and the Blondin Brothers, as well as many more in between. 

With so many Blondins to choose from, it’s hard to know which one entertained the crowds in Grahamstown outside Woodyear’s Electric Circus. A February 1884 review of the circus from its visit to Nelson refers to Woodyear’s Blondin as Mr Alexander.  However, the New Zealand Herald report the week before the circus reached Thames calls The Australian Blondin’s Auckland show his final New Zealand performance, before ‘he leaves for America by the outgoing mail.’ Whether he decided the lure of Thames was greater than chance for American stardom, or Woodyear’s simply replaced him with yet another Blondin, is anyone’s guess.

Whoever he was, the Thames locals were impressed with his performance. The Thames Star reported the crowd ‘gave vent to their approval of his clever rope walking feats by repeated applause, and the collection boxes also seemed to be fairly patronised. Shortly before 8 o’clock his performance was brought to a close by his carrying a boy along the line on his back, and the people then began to flock into the circus tent.’ Woodyear’s Circus performed to a crowd of over a thousand that night.

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