A chance conversation about how we seem to be taking up more extreme sports, sparked by news of people BASE jumping from Canary Wharf, made me jokingly say that perhaps someone should try the age old one of tightrope walking across the Niagara Falls. This led me to wonder – who was the first to do this?
Off I went to begin my search, of course, via a search engine. As I read into the subject I found it and the first person to do it (in 1859) more and more interesting. Although born in France and with this major exploit being played out between Canada and America, Jean Francois Gravelet (renamed and known forever more as Blondin) had a lot to do with my own local area (Ealing) and indeed Westminster.
Of all the sources it was the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log in with your library card) which contained the best article. Reading around this, I found it fascinating to see what else was going on 150 years ago (I browsed through articles in the Illustrated London News and other newspapers from the time about copycats such as the Female Blondin). I had always thought of extreme sports and insane stunts as a modern craze. However, it would seem that the dangers of what people get up to these days would pale into insignificance when compared to what went on in the 19th century.
Indeed, it is Monsieur Blondin’s antics over the Falls which really highlight this. He completed this challenge in 1859 and after that seemed to want to add a bit more excitement… more people (such as his daughter!), different venues (eg: Crystal Palace) and adding a bit more to his tightrope tricks.
Blondin amazingly kept working into his seventies living in what is now Westminster and Ealing (where he now has two streets and a house named after him). Indeed, having passed away due to ill health in 1897 he is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.
If you are interested in finding out more then…
- Perhaps try to find him listed in the Censuses and other records from the time (have a look in Ancestry when you visit one of the Triborough Libraries).
- Find articles and pictures from the 19th Century in The Times, The Illustrated London News, The Guardian or the Observer – or more recent ones about the extreme sports we get up to now: www.westminster.gov.uk/newspaper-magazine-links
- History Today
- BBC: Madness in Victorian days
- Well known in Canada
- From the V&A
- Victoria tells us off: The Queen and the Late “Female Blondin” Catastrophe. Illustrated London News (London, England), Saturday, August 01, 1863; pg. 111
- He even visited Australia (at the age of 50)
- And his memorial trust meets once a year
All sparked from a chance conversation and a curious mind!