03 July 2024


Sandra Davies

Funambulist, aerialist, gymnast, these words have been used to describe the occupation of the man born Jean-Francois Gravelet in the Pas de Calais region of France on 28th February 1824. His father was also a gymnast and it was no surprise that he enrolled his son in the École de Gymnase, Lyons. Jean-Francois was just six years old when he began performing under the name ‘The Little Wonder’. Having lost both parents during his childhood, he took up performing professionally as a means of supporting himself. During his twenties he adopted the stage name Charles Blondin (apparently it had been his fair-haired father’s nickname, translating as ‘blondie’). It was while he toured America with the Ravel Troupe in 1858 that he became obsessed with the idea of crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope.   

He eventually had permission to make an attempt on the last day of June 1859. He made several crossings that day, while his audience held their collective breaths and watched through their fingers. This apparently fearless performer made more than three hundred crossings of the Falls during his career, sometimes on stilts, or riding a bicycle, perching on a dining chair, carrying a very trusting friend on his back and other daring feats.


Charles Blondin carrying his faithful friend Harry Colcord across Niagara Gorge, 1859.

Wikipedia Commons

This venue was clearly the highpoint of his career as he named his house in Marylebone, ‘Niagara Villa’. A later move to Ealing led to the naming of the family home as ‘Niagara House’, the address at which he died a week short of his 73rd birthday in 1897. The Niagara story was one which I read, as a teacher, to classes several times. What I had not realised is that barely two years after this tremendous event, Blondin actually came to Neath to entertain people who had travelled from far and wide.

Several newspapers reported on the event, which took place on Saturday, 24th August 1861. The Swansea & Glamorgan Herald took a negative view of proceedings. The article told of how preparations had been made at the railway station (organising special trains, erecting barriers and importing ticket collectors and porters from neighbouring stations) to receive an influx of between thirty and forty thousand visitors to the town, especially as it was to be Blondin’s one and only appearance in South Wales. In actual fact, closer to three or four thousand actually turned up. It was, apparently, a ‘sad falling off of worshippers of an iron-nerved rope dancer’, with the journalist venturing to state that if M Blondin was to return to the area, he would not attract even a quarter of this number as they had seen feats of this kind before in the ‘travelling circuses’.

However, other newspapers that week – the Cambria Daily Leader, the Cardiff Times and the Merthyr Telegraph – differed in their analysis of the event. What follows is a blend of the columns dedicated to it by these three. One journalist reported that the crowd, though slow to arrive, came with ‘a terrific rush at each entrance’ towards half past three and was estimated at around twelve thousand – even if only about eight thousand paid to watch from the enclosure! (The huge canvas screens had failed to stop the remaining third from having a bird’s eye view from adjacent fields and thoroughfares.) Much had been done to prepare an arena for the spectacle.

As to the location, this was in a large field, or meadow, facing the Vale of Neath Brewery. ‘A considerable space at the side of the mountain, which runs parallel with the Cadoxton road, had been cleared of its brushwood and was speedily covered with expectant spectators. Below, the field was thronged ...’ Refreshment marquees had been erected at either end by Mr Williams of Newport and Mr Kerr of Neath’s Victoria Hotel. Also delighting the audience was a group of five talented Ethiopians (though we are not told the nature of their performance) as well as two bands: the Cyfarthfa and that of Captain Evans’ Vale of Neath Brewery Rifle Corps, with the captain himself being mounted on a fine charger.

Blondin’s favourite rope – a hundred yards long, six and a half inches in circumference and weighing nearly half a ton – was already in situ, elevated seventy feet from the ground and attached to ‘two immense baulks of timber’ each of which included a small platform shaded by the Tricolour and the Union Jack. 

Dark clouds in the morning had given way to sunny intervals and not a drop of rain fell. There was eager anticipation of seeing the man himself who had arrived late morning by train from Halifax, where he had given an exhibition on Friday and been taken straight to the Castle Hotel (we cannot claim an overnight stay in Neath as he left for London by the 7.00pm train; his next performance was due at Crystal Palace on the Monday). At this point, M Blondin was thirty-seven years old, of a muscular build and stood five feet eight inches tall. Estimates of his weight, however, varied between ten and sixteen stone. Quite a range -  though there can be little doubt that muscle accounted for most of it!

‘Exactly at half past four a carriage, drawn by a pair of horses, conveying M Blondin and two friends, was seen speeding through the crowd; and the celebrated Cyfarthfa Band struck up ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes’, while loud cheers arose from the people. It was five and twenty minutes to five when M Blondin stood with his balancing pole (made of ash, tipped with two feet of iron at each end and more than forty pounds in weight) in his hand; and stepped onto the rope. He was attired in a close-fitting acrobatic silk dress … slightly ornamented by blue silk ribbons about the neck, while round his loins he wore trunks of blue silk with white stars.’

His costume was adorned with several gleaming medals, one of which had been presented to him by the inhabitants of Niagara. He quickly captured the attention of his audience, ‘some assisted by race-glasses’. As he ran to the centre, ‘the hoarse murmuring of the people became suddenly hushed in breathless anticipation’. Poised on one leg, he knelt and lay flat on his back on the rope, ‘imitating the actions of a swimmer’. He turned several somersaults in rapid succession. For another of his journeys he was blindfolded with his head in a sack. He had barely left the platform – his legs trembling, his whole body quivering and swaying like a tree in a blast – when one foot dropped below the rope. This happened repeatedly, the crowd at first letting out ‘an involuntary exclamation of horror’ – until they realised that these ‘feints’ were all part of the act, causing loud laughter. His final crossing involved a miniature wheelbarrow, evoking

‘deafening cheers of an admiring multitude’. Then bowing to the audience, who responded with ‘yells of delight’, he descended to terra firma by means of the pulley-rope and jumped into his carriage which returned him to the privacy and quiet of his temporary apartments in town, ‘cheer upon cheer being taken up the whole line of the route’.

Undoubtedly there were some who went away disappointed that M Blondin had not cooked omelettes, or pushed his American friend in the wheelbarrow and other such feats. However, his three quarters of an hour on the rope ‘ought to have sufficed even for the most unreasonable appetite.’ All things considered, the event had been a great success, ‘with not a single case of picking pockets’. Many stayed at the venue, where the evening’s amusements were concluded with a good display of fireworks.


Portrait of Charles Blondin (undated)

Wikipedia Commons

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