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Carlos Trower visits the Palace

Next week Bristol Beacon plays host to ‘A Fine Balance – In Carlos’ Footsteps’, an exhibition which celebrates the remarkable story of Carlos Trower – a man who escaped slavery to become one of the world’s greatest tight-rope walkers, who performed in front of thousands at what was then Colston Hall and for a time, lived just a stone’s throw away from us at Christmas Steps.

Ahead of the exhibition, historian and Carlos Trower expert Dr. Paul Green recounts a second episode in Carlos’ life. Now 36, having drawn a reputation and audiences of thousands, ‘The African Blondin’ as he was known is asked to perform at Blenheim Palace.

The Palace

At the age of 36, Carlos Trower had fame but not fortune. Carlos’s high-rope performances as ‘The African Blondin’ drew thousands but his growing Family shared a small row house at 101 Stamford Street in South London. In the year 1886, an invitation to perform at Blenheim Palace requested Carlos appear as the headline act of a benefit ‘in aid of the widows and orphans of the Court.’[1] The Event Organizers desperately needed ‘The African Blondin’ to draw a large paying Crowd to the Palace.

Carlos and his pregnant wife Annie, with their 10 year old daughter Celia, 5 year old Jynetta, and 3 year old Harry boarded a 3rd Class Carriage headed north. The train pushed through the big smoke of London until it was just a stain on the sky far behind them. They rode towards the green parks and clean air of the Duke of Marlborough’s estate.

Dropped at the gate house by a carriage from the station, Carlos’s tired Family walked the long tree-lined approach to the distant Palace. But it wasn’t the Duke that had invited Carlos to perform for those in need outside the Palace walls. It was the Ancient Order of Foresters that had persuaded the Duke to allow a charity event to take place in the Blenheim Palace gardens. The Duke had his own financial worries.

On the same bank holiday weekend as the charity event, the Duke auctioned off paintings and china from The Blenheim Collection to raise money for the upkeep of palace and grounds.[2] The Duke sold works by Sir Peter Paul Rubens, an extravagant Flemish painter in the Baroque style. One of the Rubens paintings from the Duke’s dining room, ‘Madonna and Child’ goes for 1300 guineas. ‘The Child, with face in profile, stands upon a parapet in front of the Virgin.’[3] From the sale of this single painting by the 17th century master, the Duke raised for his estate the equivalent of 27,300 people attending the Forester’s event if they had each paid the admission fee of 1 shilling per adult.

Carlos and his Team spent the three days prior to the performance fixing his high-rope across of the lake.[4] By rowing away from the reed banks of the shallow lake, Carlos knew that if something caused him to fall, he would almost certainly become stuck underwater in the mud. The long legs of the high-rope towers rose above the steep banks of the Duke’s man-made lake. The Grand Bridge over the water ran parallel to the high-rope, giving the Crowd clear views of Carlos’s exciting progress along the rope.

About 4,000 attended the charity fundraiser despite the weather starting off damp.[5] The day cleared and brightened with the spirit of the occasion and the Visitors enjoyed the gardens, amusements and dancing provided by ‘the very best London Star Artistes.’[6] Other performers included young acrobats Ali and Beni, upside-down boxer acrobatic team the Brothers Lauraine, plus singers, dancers, comics, jugglers, and a three-piece band.

The sight of water below Carlos offered the Crowd an illusion of safety, but nothing could keep Carlos safe if the rope broke. Those watching from the bridge observed Carlos’s aerial feats 50 feet high from closer than usual.[7]

They cheered and gasped as Carlos ran backwards along the rope, or walked ‘enveloped in as sack and blindfolded, and also with his arms and legs manacled. The cooking of an omelette on a stove, which Blondin conveyed along the rope also excited hearty applause.’[8]

The Visitors enjoyed their entertainment with a light heart, their faces upturned like a child on their Mother’s lap as Carlos performed high on the rope above the vibrant gardens and English Baroque palace nearby. Some stayed to dance freely into the evening and dispersed without ‘a single case of drunkenness or assault.’[9]

Only 3 years later, at about the age of 39, Carlos Trower died in poverty from a painful illness. His wife Annie and their Children were left ‘unprovided for.’[10] Their Family had travelled together to the Palace to help widows and orphans. Without him, they were the ones in need of such charity.

For a brief moment, one of England’s grandest households and one of its most humble met in aid of a common cause when ‘The African Blondin’ selflessly stepped onto a high-rope to raise money for the widows and orphans of the Duke of Marlborough’s court.

copyright © 2021 Paul Phillip Green.

Main picture: Willis, J. of Manor Road, ‘African Blondin at Rosherville Gardens,’ Gravesend, Kent, 1881-1882. (Reproduced with permission of the local studies collection at the Gravesend Library)

Second image: Baxter print of Blenheim Palace by F. Morris.

A Fine Balance – In Carlos’ Footsteps opens on Wed 26 May at Bristol Beacon and runs until Sat 5 Jun. The exhibition is free, advanced booking is required. Click here for more information and tickets.

[1] ‘Foresters Monster Fete,’ Oxford Journal, July 24, 1886, pg. 1.
[2] Morris, F.O., ‘Baxter Print of Blenheim Palace,’ 1880 (Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Doman).
[3] Sharf, G., A List of Pictures in Blenheim Palace.  Dorrell & Son, London, 1861, pg. 28.
[4] ‘Foresters Fete,’ Oxford Journal, July 31, 1886, pg. 7.
[5] ‘Foresters Grand Fete,’ Oxford Journal, August 7, 1886, pg. 8.
[6] ‘Foresters Monster Fete,’ Oxford Journal, July 24, 1886, pg. 1.
[7] ‘Friendly Societies Fete at Tunbridge Wells,’ Kent & Sussex Courier, July 15, 1887, pg. 6.
[8] ‘Friendly Societies Fete at Tunbridge Wells,’ Kent & Sussex Courier, July 15, 1887, pg. 6.
[9] ‘Foresters Grand Fete,’ Oxford Journal, August 7, 1886, pg. 8.
[10] ‘Mr Editor,’ The Era, February 2, 1889, pg. 17.

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