“Chevalier Blondin” – from Niagara Falls to Southbank

“Chevalier Blondin” – from Niagara Falls to Southbank
Robin Grow

It’s a long way from Niagara Falls in the USA to Southbank, via numerous other spots in the world.  Yet that was the journey taken by “Chevalier Blondin”, born Jean Francois Gravelet in 1824, an adventurer who specialised in walking on tightropes, a skill developed in his native France.

Perhaps his most famous walk was across the gorge below Niagara Falls in 1859. The tightrope was 50 metres above the water and stretched for nearly half a kilometre. Remarkably part of his performance involved carrying an accomplice on his back!

Through the 1860s he performed his walks around the globe (including in the snow in Moscow) before arriving in Australia in 1874 and performing in Brisbane and Sydney. In November of that year, he was engaged to undertake his daredevil activities in Melbourne. The site chosen for his performances was in the Domain Precinct, near the new site for Government House, currently nearing completion, where a large tent was constructed.

His first show was an event supervised by the Police Superintendent and Blondin could not begin until the afternoon wind had abated. Finally ready, Blondin carried out his final checks and supervision of the tightening of the ropes, held in place by a series of steadying guys.

The rope was fixed about 12 metres high, between a couple of masts, each containing a platform. The rope was four-stranded, 15cm thick, about 60 metres long, and capable of holding weights of 20 tonnes. When he was satisfied, the gates to the tent for spectators were thrown open to admit an excited crowd of about 3000, including the Governor and his suite.

At around 4.30pm, the star of the show emerged from his tent, dressed in a suit of silver chainmail, and wearing a helmet with plumes. Seizing his balancing pole, Blondin was run up to his platform from where he tackled the rope, crossing and recrossing in tune with the band below. He then performed a number of other tricks, including laying down at full length on the rope, turning a full back somersault and standing on his head, and others where he was blindfolded or where he pretended to be falling!  He then carried his agent Monsieur Niaud on his back along the rope.

Then the rain that had been threatening all day started and the astonishing show had to be cut short. But what a performance had been witnessed by the admiring crowd, all of whom felt that they had received full value for their half-crown admittance from one of the master showmen to visit Melbourne during the 19th century •

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