READER STORY

Vivien Con­can­non has been de­lighted to dis­cover more about her dar­ing fore­bears who thrilled the na­tion. She tells her story to Gail Dixon

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Vivien Con­can­non’s kin thrilled crowds as cel­e­brated tightrope walk­ers

ack in the mid-19th cen­tury, tightrope walk­ers were the dare­dev­ils of the en­ter­tain­ment world. Top of the bill at cir­cuses and va­ri­ety shows, such acts would at­tract crowds from far and wide who gasped in amaze­ment at their gym­nas­tics on the high wire.

Blondin, the fa­mous fu­nam­bu­list, achieved world­wide fame by cross­ing Ni­a­gara Falls, some­times blind­folded or car­ry­ing his man­ager on his back. The French­man may have dom­i­nated the head­lines, but few peo­ple know that we had our very own ‘Bri­tish Blondin’ who was equally dar­ing.

His name was Al­bert Mor­ton and he is Vivien Con­can­non’s pa­ter­nal great grand­fa­ther. “I read Roy Kneath’s ar­ti­cle in Who Do You Think You Are? Mag­a­zine about his wife’s cir­cus fam­ily with in­ter­est,” says Vivien. “I have been re­search­ing my Mor­ton an­ces­tors for some time and with great dif­fi­culty due to their itin­er­ant life­style. The seed was sown in child­hood when my father told me that my great grand­fa­ther was a tightrope walker and had chal­lenged Blondin.”

Learn­ing the fam­ily craft

Al­bert Daniel Mor­ton was born in 1831 in Wal­worth, Lon­don, and was the el­dest son of Daniel and El­iz­a­beth (née Larn). “Al­bert learnt his craft from his mother, who was a ‘rope dancer’ per­form­ing un­der the stage name of Sig­nora or Madame Rossini.

“I’ve strug­gled to find El­iz­a­beth in the records, but she pops up in news­pa­per ad­verts for her act.

“Madame Rossini used to per­form at var­i­ous venues around the UK in­clud­ing Vaux­hall Gar­dens.” This was one of the most pop­u­lar plea­sure grounds of Ge­or­gian Lon­don and thou­sands would gather to en­joy the con­certs, fire­work dis­plays and bal­loon flights. The car­ni­val at­tracted au­thors such as Wil­liam Thack­eray, who fea­tured Vaux­hall Gar­dens in his novel Van­ity Fair,r a nd mem­bers of high so­ci­ety such as Ge­or­giana, Duchess of Devon­shire.

“El­iz­a­beth was per­form­ing on a high­en­ergy stage. The at­mos­phere must have been elec­tric,” says Vivien.

Tightrope walk­ers risked their lives with ev­ery per­for­mance. Dancers would spring across the high wire and per­form ac­ro­batic moves, even the splits. Some would cross blind­folded and wrapped in chains, or bal­anc­ing props, such as hats, clubs and rings. “It was very high risk and the per­form­ers didn’t use safety nets. I’ve read of one tightrope walker who fell and died while she was preg­nant.”

El­iz­a­beth con­tin­ued her ca­reer into her late fifties, when she had an ac­ci­dent per­form­ing in Leeds. “The news­pa­pers recorded that she fell and dis­lo­cated her thigh, which must have been so painful. El­iz­a­beth is one of my brick walls. Like many en­ter­tain­ers, she lived a no­madic life­style. By search­ing through 19th-cen­tury news­pa­pers I have dis­cov­ered that she per­formed through­out Bri­tain and Eire, but trac­ing her ori­gins has been very dif­fi­cult.

“My grand­fa­ther Claude was Al­bert Mor­ton’s youngest son and he was the only one who didn’t work in en­ter­tain­ment. He chose a far safer job as a dec­o­ra­tor and lived most of his life in Hemel Hemp­stead. His sib­lings would send their the­atri­cal trunks to him for safe­keep­ing and on­ward trans­fer to their next venue. Claude in­her­ited some of the fam­ily mem­o­ra­bilia, in­clud­ing posters and pro­grammes, and th­ese have be­come trea­sured pieces of fam­ily his­tory.

Putting faces to names

“We have a da­guer­rotype of El­iz­a­beth taken in 1849 and a litho­graph of Al­bert on the high wire. It’s lovely to see what they looked like in per­son and what the per­for­mance com­prised. One day I stum­bled upon a note­book that has been a gold­mine of in­for­ma­tion as it pro­vided brief de­tails of the fam­ily and ap­pear­ances. I don’t know who the au­thor was, how­ever, there is a pos­si­bil­ity that it be­longed to Al­bert’s father, Daniel. Fam­ily ru­mour has it that he made the shoes for his wife El­iz­a­beth to per­form in and the fire­works used in the act.

“The note­book gives de­tails of Al­bert’s first pro­fes­sional as­cent, which took place at Liverpool’s Zoo­log­i­cal Gar­dens in 1846. I won­der how he felt be­fore his first pub­lic tightrope walk.”

The risks that fu­nam­bu­lists took ex­tended be­yond the high wire be­cause so many were at­tached to cir­cuses and zoo­log­i­cal gar­dens. “The note­book records that in 1847 Al­bert was mauled by a leop­ard and had to spend nine weeks in hos­pi­tal. A fel­low em­ployee was killed by an ele­phant when the troupe was in Liverpool. It’s hard to imag­ine such risks to­day.”

Vivien has combed through count­less ad­ver­tise­ments from 19th-cen­tury

Tightrope walk­ers would spring across the high wire and per­form ac­ro­batic moves, even the splits

news­pa­pers, to build a pic­ture of Al­bert’s ca­reer. It was in 1861 that Al­bert, then known as D’Alberte, re­ally es­tab­lished him­self.

“His main ri­val was Blondin and I re­mem­ber my father say­ing that Al­bert had chal­lenged Blondin to cross a ravine at Mat­lock in Der­byshire. I wanted to prove this so I con­tacted Mat­lock Lo­cal Stud­ies Group and it sent me a news­pa­per clip­ping from the Derby Mer­cury, dated Au­gust 1861.

“I was thrilled to read the news­pa­per re­port, which de­scribed Al­bert as ‘the only suc­cess­ful ri­val of Blondin’. It gave full de­tails of the chal­lenge: ‘£500 to cross the val­ley be­tween High Tor and the Heights of Abra­ham on a rope 4,000 feet long and 700 feet high. He will walk back­wards and for­wards, with his feet in bas­kets and wheel Blondin (across) in a bar­row.’

“I find it in­cred­i­ble that Al­bert was brave enough to con­sider such a chal­lenge. Any wrong move, or sud­den gust of wind, and he’d be in mor­tal dan­ger.”

Thrills at Mat­lock Bridge

Blondin didn’t take up the chal­lenge, but Al­bert wasn’t de­terred and the event took place on 21 Au­gust 1861. There was a hol­i­day at­mos­phere as thou­sands of on­look­ers ar­rived at Mat­lock Bridge on spe­cial trains ar­ranged for the day. Since the chal­lenge had been made, the au­thor­i­ties had in­ter­vened and in­sisted that the walk take place lower in the val­ley. Al­bert still faced great dan­ger, how­ever, with just the rope be­tween him and a sheer drop to the rail­way line and river.

Ac­cord­ing to the Derby Mer­cury, Al­bert “stepped lightly along” and com­pleted his first cross­ing con­fi­dently, to the thrill of the crowd below. As he crossed blind­folded, the wind be­came “brisk”, and gasps of ap­pre­hen­sion were heard. Al­bert be­gan to get ex­hausted and had to rest on his knee on the rope half­way across. How­ever, he stepped out once more, his feet in bas­kets, and com­pleted the mo­men­tous chal­lenge amid cheers of joy from spectators.

“How I wish that I could travel back in time to that day and wit­ness Al­bert’s amaz­ing per­for­mance. You would need nerves of steel to do what he did. De­spite the high-risk el­e­ment of Al­bert’s life, I get the im­pres­sion he was a calm, unas­sum­ing man, not prone to hot-head­ed­ness. He also worked as a steel en­graver for the print trade, which would pro­vide em­ploy­ment if his tightrope ca­reer ended.

“In 1861, Al­bert ap­peared at the Royal Al­ham­bra Palace, Le­ices­ter Square. Also on the bill was Leo­tard who per­formed on the trapeze and gave his name to the fa­mous gar­ment we all know and ‘ love’. His suc­cess con­tin­ued, as he per­formed with a cir­cus in Madrid in 1863 and at Wil­ton’s – one of the old­est mu­sic halls in Lon­don.

Life took a new di­rec­tion for Al­bert in July 1864 when he mar­ried the dancer Ju­lia Louise Abram. “The pop­u­lar­ity of tightrope walk­ing was be­gin­ning to wane and per­haps Ju­lia wanted Al­bert to choose a safer pro­fes­sion. He chan­nelled his tal­ent into mu­sic hall from this point, form­ing the D’Alberte troupe with Ju­lia, his brother Theodore and sis­ter Kate.”

Al­bert and Ju­lia had seven chil­dren, and de­spite this, con­tin­ued to live a no­madic ex­is­tence. Vivien has been un­able to find them in the 1871 census but tracked them down in 1881 in Greenock, Scot­land.

“It was a strug­gle to find a trace of Al­bert in the 1891 census. With itin­er­ant an­ces­tors, it’s hard to know where to start look­ing. By chance, I found Al­bert with Ju­lia and his grown-up chil­dren in Old­bury, Worces­ter­shire, where they were billed as the Dal­berte fam­ily.”

A the­atri­cal fam­ily

En­ter­tain­ing was in the blood for most of Al­bert and Ju­lia’s chil­dren. Their el­dest son, Al­bert, per­formed as a ‘coster­mon­ger’ in mu­sic halls.

“This was the ‘any old iron’ act where they would sing comic bar­row­boy songs. The mag­a­zine The Era has been a fab­u­lous source of in­for­ma­tion. This was a pre­cur­sor to The Stage and was packed with re­views and ad­ver­tise­ments for en­ter­tain­ment. I’ve used it to track where my an­ces­tors per­formed and when.”

Al­bert Jnr worked in stage man­age­ment for the fa­mous il­lu­sion­ists Maske­lyne & De­vant. Spir­i­tu­al­ism be­came pop­u­lar in the early 20th cen­tury and acts would fea­ture ap­pari­tions and magic dis­plays. “Dad was taken as a child to see th­ese shows by his father, which were his favourites be­cause he would go back­stage to meet his un­cles, aunts and per­form­ers.”

Al­bert’s brother Frank also worked with Maske­lyne & De­vant and trav­elled to Amer­ica on the Lusi­ta­nia two years be­fore it was tor­pe­doed by the Ger­mans. His three sis­ters, May, Flora and Ellen, fol­lowed stage ca­reers, as singers and dancers.

“I can’t prove it, but there was talk in the fam­ily that Al­bert Mor­ton, my great grand­fa­ther, was friends with the cel­e­brated ac­tor Sir Henry Irv­ing. He was con­sid­ered the Lau­rence Olivier of his day.

“It’s said that he was in­ter­ested in the lighter side of theatre, so that might ex­plain how they met.

“The last census to in­clude Al­bert was in 1901, where he was liv­ing in Clac­ton-onSea, Es­sex, with Ju­lia, his youngest daugh­ter Ellen and my grand­fa­ther Claude.”

Al­bert died of can­cer on 4 May 1903 and is buried in the sea­side town.

“I try not to boast about my fam­ily, but I am very proud of them, es­pe­cially Al­bert. Peo­ple talk about Blondin’s mag­nif­i­cent stunts and for­get that there was an English equiv­a­lent – my great grand­fa­ther.”

Vivien with her pro­gramme for the D’Alberte act

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