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