For those of you who have seen the film Man on Wire (about the French high wire walker Philippe Petit who daringly crossed between the pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and then the towers of the World Trade Centre in New York in the early 1970s) and marvelled at his derring- do, he wasn’t the first,  Sydney’s history is full of such nut cases.

Public entertainment in Sydney in the 19th century was an often raucous spectacle. Dangerous too, for spectator and performer.  People had been killed in rioting crowds when stunts failed, balloons did not rise, or the show did not go on.  It was a tough game.

Professor Henri L’Estrange, who visited Sydney in the 1870s and 1880s, was one entertainer who knew how to stand out from the crowd. L’Estrange first appears in 1877, at Easter, performing tight-rope tricks in the Domain. Many such acts were in Sydney at this time, taking advantage of the crowds of people in town attending the Royal Easter Show. Tight rope walking had surged in popularity in Australia after the visit of world famous rope walker, Chevalier Blondin in 1874.

In April 1877, L’Estrange performed a number of walks across Middle Harbour, somewhere in the vicinity of Long Bay/Salt Pan Creek.  L’Estrange hired 19 steam boats to carry his audience, and advertised in the local papers to drum up business. And so it was, over 10,000 people flocked to see Australia’s answer to Blondin walk a tight rope across the harbour. His cable was suspended 340 feet above the water and stretched 1420 feet across.  L’Estrange did not fail to impress, crossing back and forth above the crowd, performing tricks, lying down, standing on one leg and the like.  three times he performed on the wire for Sydney and was hailed a hero by the town.  Balls and dinners were held in his honour. 

 

L'Estrange crosses the harbour, Illustrated Sydney News, April 28 1877
L'Estrange crosses the harbour, Illustrated Sydney News, April 28 1877

In 1880, L’Estrange returned once more to entertain Sydney, but this time with a balloon.  Balloons were the new craze in Australia, science meets entertainment.  The first balloon lift in Sydney in 1856 had ended in disaster.  Not only had the balloon failed to lift off, but the 10,000 strong crowd in expressing its disappointment rioted, burnt the balloon and the surrounding pavilion’swith a boy of 10 being killed in the process.

L’Estrangehad also had some trouble with balloons.  His first attempt in Melbourne in 1879 had resulted in him also being the first person to successfully use a parachute, having to bail out almost 3000 metres above the ground!

His first Sydney attempt did not rise.  His second in 1881 did, but ended in farce.  L’Estarngefilled his balloon with gas, and rose above the expectant crowd in the Domain in the early morning.  Unfortunately the basket in which he was to ride was too heavy so he cut it loose, sitting instead in a loop of rope.  He rose gracefully above the heads of the crowd and ascended to approximately 800m, heading over the Harbour and Rushcutters Bay, when as he reached to adjust the value,  he slipped hanging by just his hands.  Desperately he regained his seat, only to become dizzy from the escaping gas of the balloon.  In desperation he tied his hands to the ropes to ensure he did not fall if he passed out.  All the while the balloon, now heading over Woolloomooloo, slowly descended, until it snagged on the roof of a terrace house in Palmer Street.  Seeing his chance, L’Estrange cut himself loose, jumped to the roof and down the street, where a crowd had gathered and  escorted him to a nearby pub for a calming drink.

Meanwhile, the occupant of the house, hearing the thud of the balloon and the hullabaloo, opened her window to see.  Sadly the rush of air sucked in gas from the stranded balloon.  The gas combined with the open flame of her lamps, igniting, and kaboom, blew the roof of her house clean off.  Amazingly no-one was killed, the only casualty being L’Estrange’s reputation.

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