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Everybody's heard of Blondin

Price: £15.00

By Ken Wilson

Jean-François Émile Gravelet was born near St Omar in France in 1824, changing his name to Charles Blondin in 1851. He took an early interest in tightrope walking, and at five years old was enrolled at the École de Gymnase in Lyons, a prestigious school for acrobatic training. Within six months he had made his first public appearance, billed as ‘The Little Wonder’.

When he was ten years old, Blondin’s father died, prompting him to leave school and join the circus. He performed all over Europe as part of various troupes until in 1851 he joined the famous Ravel family of acrobats and toured America.  While in New York, he met Charlotte, whom he married in 1853, and their first three children were born on tour. In 1858 he visited Niagara Falls and determined to cross the famous waterfall on a tightrope.  The stunt took over a year to plan: permission was at first denied and financing proved difficult as no-one believed the crossing possible.

On 30 June 1859 a rope was strung 340 metres across Niagara Falls, nearly 50 metres above the water. Watched by a crowd of over 10,000 people, Blondin walked from the American to the Canadian side of the Falls in 17 minutes, stopping halfway to lie down for a rest.  Over the next few weeks, eight further crossings were promoted, each incorporating various thrilling stunts: walking blindfolded, on stilts, pushing a wheelbarrow, taking photographs, carrying his manager on his back, pulling up a drink from a boat moored below, sitting down midway to cook and eat an omelette.

The Prince of Wales, on a tour of America and Canada in 1860, had watched Blondin cross Niagara Falls and invited him to perform in London. In 1861, Blondin came to Britain, recreating his famous Niagara Falls stunts at the Crystal Palace with a rope stretched across the central transept 20 metres above the ground.  He toured the provinces, performing with a sack over his head at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, pushing a lion in a wheelbarrow in Liverpool and surviving a broken rope in Dublin.

Blondin had gained considerable fame and enough money to buy a large house in Finchley Road in London, which he named ‘Niagara Villa’. His showmanship continued with tours of Europe, South America, India, Australia and New Zealand.  In 1879 an unknown financial disaster prompted the sale of his house and a move to a more modest home in Ealing, followed by further performances in Europe, Ceylon and New York.

His wife died in 1888 and in 1895 he married Catherine, who had nursed him following a back injury sustained at a performance in Blackpool. The Great Blondin’s final performance was at Belfast in 1896, aged 72. Blondin died in 1897 and is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.

96 pages 86 drawings by the author