LONDON’S FORGOTTEN FALLEN WOMAN
I’ve always found something fascinating about women in the sky. It may have been an early fascination with the aviatrixes Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson or possibly the memory of my older sister standing over me on a hilltop in West Wales, hair blowing in the sea breeze. So whenever I get chance to go to the circus, I am always keen to see the aerial artistes.
Circuses and fairs were a big deal in Regency and Victorian London. Samuel Pepys was a big fan of Bartholomew Fair held down the road from here at Smithfield. He was particularly fond of the freak show attractions: the woman with a third breast, the man with three legs, the midgets, the fat boys and the Siamese twins. Personally, I would have loved to have seen “Madame Gobert, The French Female Hercules” swinging anvils and picking people up with her teeth.
I was down the Chelsea Embankment the other day and remembered it was once the Cremorne Pleasure Gardens where there was a mid-nineteenth century amusement park with a continual variety of such Burleseque attractions. In the early 1860s a certain Miss Selina Young caused a sensation there when she crossed the Thames from Battersea on a high wire. She was immediately dubbed ‘The Female Blondin” (the male version then being a huge star) and was snapped up by a circus manager.
“The performance was decidedly sensational, and attracted a great crowd; besides having the advantage of being much less risk to the performer than any exhibition ever given by the cool-headed intrepid Frenchman whose name she borrowed. If she had fallen into the river, she would have found it soft, and so many boats were on its surface that the risk of drowning could not enter into the calculation… it would have been well for Miss Young if she had confined her rope-walking feats to localities in which she had the water beneath her..”
The last remark refers to the fact that the Female Blondin shortly afterwards fell during a performance at Highbury Fields. She was crossing a tightrope 100 feet up wearing a suit of armour and pushing a wheelbarrow when the fireworks attached to the support poles exploded causing her to wobble and lose her balance. She plunged headfirst to the ground accompanied by the screams of those present and although she was later revived, was crippled and earthbound for life.
Still, better to reach for the sky and fall than never to try I believe.
Speaking of theatrical women, this week’s Salon for the City at Westminster Library features two: Amber Jane Butchart and Susie Ralph. And they will be talking about others – the Gaiety Girls and Hollywood stars who so influenced the way fashionable Londoners have dressed. More here.
And, speaking of Amelia Earhart: