On 9 July, Mark Dunn gave an entertaining talk about the various and ingenious forms of entertainment that made Henri L’Estrange popular in Sydney in the 19th century. Mark is a professional historian working in Sydney and is President of the History Council of NSW.
During the 1870s and 1880s, public entertainment in Sydney was a booming business. Theatres, sporting events, vaudeville, public speakers and adventurers all vied for the public’s precious spare time. My talk today is going to look at one such entertainer who specialised in dangerous stunts and spectacle, a form of entertainment that the Sydney crowds could hardly get enough of. Henri L'Estrange who performed in Sydney from 1877 until the later 1880s was a tight rope walker and aeronautical balloonist. Modelling himself on the famous French wire walker Blondin, L'Estrange performed a number of wire walks in the 1870s, culminating in three walks across Sydney Harbour at Middle Harbour in 1877. As well as his wire acts, L’Estrange was an early balloonist and made a series of flights over Sydney in early 1880s, not all of which ended well.
The Harbour Crossing
L’Estrange knew the appetite of the public for spectacle was insatiable and the more dangerous the better. To this end he was planning an event that would outshine even his hero Blondin; a walk across the harbour. Preparations were soon underway for his proposed walk. Through the latter half of March, L’Estrange had his wire rigged across the waters of Willoughby Bay on Sydney’s north shore. Many thought him crazy, and indeed he may have been, but he was no fool.
At 1 o’clock on the sunny Saturday, the steamers began leaving Circular Quay taking over 8000 people up the harbour to Willoughby Bay. A further 2000 walked in, with countless others coming in on unauthorised boats. The small bay was chock full of steamers, yachts and row boats. High above, the wire was just visible stretching out from the aptly named Folly Point - it ran a total of 433 meters across the bay and was 104 meters above the water! He would be the highest point in Sydney if he succeeded, a full 50 meters higher than the top of Sydney’s tallest structure, the clock tower of the Sydney Town Hall. A fall would mean certain death.
At 4 o’clock, with the carnival in full swing L’Estrange appeared from his tent on Folly Point, dressed in a dark tunic, red cape and a turban. Without hesitation or delay he stepped off on to his lofty hempen pathway and began his journey. His causeway was in fact two ropes, spliced together to reach across the abyss. The weight causing it to bow in the middle, while sixteen wire guy ropes attached to rocks and sunk into the harbour, held it steady.
As the crowd hushed in anticipation, L’Estrange walked fearlessly and with steady purpose at a rate of 80 steps a minute with the sun full in his face down to the centre where he slowed, crossing the point where two ropes were joined. Past halfway he stopped and stood for a moment on one foot, resting his left foot against his right leg. From here he dropped to one knee and then sat down and waved his handkerchief to the crowd below. He then lay on his back on the rope, resting briefly before returning to the sitting position.
L’Estrange returned to his feet and took a few backward steps before proceeding up the incline to terra firma on the western headland. His last steps were taken at an increased pace, as he was keen to finish and bask in the glory he so richly deserved. It was estimated that he made over £10,000 on the day.