Blondin at the Crystal Palace. Alan Griffin

Blondin at the Crystal Palace.                     Alan Griffin

The fashionable town of Leamington Spa attracted a host of big-name performers from all branches of the Victorian entertainment industry. One of those who came here was the world renowned tightrope walker Charles Blondin. Exactly 150 years ago the great Blondin made a tour of Great Britain and gave a series of performances.

Blondin02Blondin was born in 1824 at St. Omer in France.  His real name was Jean-Francois Gravelet. He trained as an acrobat and tightrope walker and after emigrating to America became famous for crossing the gorge below the Niagara Falls on a tightrope. He performed this a number of times always with a different theatrical variation: blindfolded, in a sack, pushing a wheelbarrow, on stilts, carrying his manager and on one occasion sitting down midway while he cooked and ate an omelette standing on a chair with only one chair leg on the rope.

On a July evening in 1851 and two years after his Niagara crossing, seven thousand people gathered in and around the Pump Room Gardens to witness Mr Blondin’s aerial walk. People were clustered on top of the battlements of the old parish church steeple, some clung to the chimneys in Dormer Place and others squatted precariously on nearby roofs. The rope was a hundred feet above the ground supported by metal tripods on either side of the gardens.

The be-medalled Blondin arrived in a carriage drawn by two horses as the Volunteer Rifle Band struck up Handel’s tune See the Conquering Hero Comes from Judas Maccabaeus. Blondin performed some of the usual feats including crossing the rope carrying a sack on his back whilst blindfolded. There were the usual theatrical feints and simulated loss of footing and the performance concluded after about forty minutes with Blondin crossing the rope with one of his assistants on his back.

Blondin died from diabetes in London in February 1897 and is buried in Kensal Green cemetery.

Alan Griffin

(Newsletter Summer 2011)