Harry L'Estrange c1877 Pic: Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (a928408 / P1/987)

Harry L’Estrange c1877 Pic: Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (a928408 / P1/987)

There are some very colourful characters to be found in the Dictionary of Sydney. The showman, aeronaut and tightrope walker, Henri L’Estrange, wowed Sydney audiences in the 1870s and 1880s.

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The aeronaut, showman and tightrope walker, Henri L’Estrange, enthralled Sydneysiders during the 1870s and 1880s. Calling himself the ‘Australian Blondin’, after France’s world-famous tightrope walker Charles Blondin, L’Estrange made three walks across Sydney Harbour and attempted a series of flights over the city in a gas balloon.

L’Estrange was born in Melbourne in about 1842 and arrived in Sydney in 1876.

On a Saturday afternoon on 14 April 1877, an estimated 10,000 people clambered at various vantage points on the north shore to witness the ‘Australian Blondin’ in action. The rope was strung across Willoughby Bay in Northbridge from Folly Point at a length of about 433 metres and 104 metres above the water. L’Estrange successfully crossed the rope, dressed in a dark tunic, red cape and turban, as the crowds erupted in cheers.

In 1878 L’Estrange attempted another exciting feat – an ascent in a hot air ballon. His first attempt failed miserably at Prince Alfred Park in Surry Hills, when the balloon took too long to fill and he decided to discard the car and sit in a loop of rope instead. The balloon dragged him across the park before clearing the fenceline and landing on a railway truck.

His second attempt at Belmore Park, next to Central Station, also ended in failure.

Henri L'Estrange, tightrope walker, crossing Middle Harbour April 1877, Illustrated Sydney News, 28 April 1877

Henri L’Estrange, tightrope walker, crossing Middle Harbour April 1877, Illustrated Sydney News, 28 April 1877

He did make two successful flights from Cook Park in the city over the harbour to Manly in September 1880 and then another flight in Manly. In March 1881, around 10,000 spectators gathered in the Domain to watch another attempt.

Though he managed to ascend over Hyde Park to Rushcutters Bay, he suffered a mishap with the ropes and slammed his balloon into a house in Woolloomooloo. The escaping gas was ignited and exploded which destroyed the balloon, injured bystanders and caused a huge panicked rush from the crowd.

In April 1881 L’Estrange decided to return to the tightrope and chose a location close the his successful cross four years earlier. Crowds gathered again, this time to witness him ride a bicycle over the tightrope, however as he reached the centre he lost balance and fell into the water. L’Estrange’s reputation was in tatters after these failures and he retreated from the public eye.

Today he remains the only tightrope performer ever to have walked across the waters of Sydney Harbour.

Check out historian, Mark Dunn’s fascinating article on L’Estrange in the Dictionary here for more.

Listen to the podcast with Nicole & Nic here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Nic Healey on 107.3 every Wednesday morning at 8:15-8:20 am to hear more from the Dictionary of Sydney.


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