I spend many days scanning images. Most times they are relatively straightforward and easy to describe. Sometimes, however an odd image catches my attention and demands investigation.
This image was taken from a family photo album and at first I didn’t think much of it, and even debated whether it needed to be scanned. However after I did, I discovered that it showed a tightrope walker. Now that is interesting.
Eventually I discovered that the man was James Alexander, an Australian who was described as the ‘Australian Blondin’.
Blondin was a French acrobat whose many feats included crossing the Niagara Falls on a tightrope.
Alexander sounds quite the performer, who rivalled the Frenchman in daring and outrageous stunts.
Not content to simply walk across a tightrope, he rode a bicycle, carried small children on his back, and unbelievable as it may sound, he even carried a little stove and cooked pancakes which he flung down to members of the audience.
Who was Alexander?
Tracing Alexander is a little complicated, as at the same time Henry L’Estrange was doing the same sort of stunts.
Historians ponder whether this was the same man, or two very similar acts? The term Blondin was used by many people. There was a female Blondin and at the St Stephen’s church fair, one year, there was even an Ashburton variety.
What we know for sure is that Alexander visited Ashburton a number of times.
The first time was in 1884, where we performed on three successive nights in January. He performed in the paddock opposite Beecher’s Central Hotel.
This attracted a great number of Ashburton’s public. So much so, that a travelling circus was poorly attended and hoped their season in Rakaia would be a more profitable one.
While he may not have made pancakes, he did carry out some of his routine, such as sitting on a chair in front of a table, standing on his head and walking with his feet in baskets. His Highland Fling was accompanied by the Excelsior band and red fire was used to add even more excitement to his show.
On his second night he carried an Ashburton lady across the tightrope. The Ashburton Guardian was impressed with his act, stating that he was ‘a funambulist second to none in the colonies.’
However, the paper ‘was not so pleased with the audience’, as when the collection boxes were opened there were more buttons than coins. Alexander would perform for free but asked for donations.
The following nights were lucrative, with the Guardian further encouraging their readers to support the 24 year old as he had been very unluckily of late. Possibly this comment might refer to two serious accidents – one where he fell after the rope he was balancing on appeared to have been cut, and another where the main rope simply broke – both times his life was threatened but yet he returned bolder than ever.
A weighty stunt
Again, in 1887 he returned. This time the Brass Band accompanied his act, which was to include carrying the 15 stone proprietor of the Royal Hotel. However, it seemed that the publican (and later Mayor) Henry Davis had lied about his weight. When the time came, Alexander decided he couldn’t carry out the stunt.
We don’t know whether the Royal Hotel hosted the event in 1887, but it certainly did in 1893. At that time Alexander rode a bicycle and to supplement funds, sold for sixpence, ‘a very useful booklet full of valuable recipes etc’
The final time Alexander visited our town was in 1902, no doubt when these images were taken. Added to his act was a full fireworks display and Joey the clown.
Alexander himself rode a model horse 30 feet above the ground; and then in an ‘amusing act’ placed a bag over his head and rode back and forth on a bike.
For some reason the Monday night performance was relocated to Mona Square. Relocation was not the only setback, as a fight occurred between Alexander and Joey the clown who was wanting to be paid.
Windows and curtains in Prince Albert boarding house were damaged. It is not clear whether Joey and Alexander continued working together.
James Alexander died in 1918 after suffering a heart attack while performing in Australia. While Australian sources mention his visits to New Zealand, the team at Ashburton Museum here had no idea of his visits until I came across this image. One never knows what might turn up in this job!
By Kathleen Stringer
- ”Live at the Ashburton Domain!” James Alexander, with bag over his head, performs to an excited crowd.
- The striking appearance of tightrope performer Alexander James.
- , 4. Advertisements from the Ashburton Guardian, for performances by ‘Alexander the Australian Blondin’ in 1884 and 1902.