LynWeirParticipant19 Apr 2021 at 2:43 pmPost count: 3
I have been researching my family history which includes a wire walker, performer, actor, photographer and agent/manager ‘James Perkins’ also known as ‘Mons Daziane’ ‘Daziane’ and ‘Arthur Elton’ and later ‘Arthur Elton’ or ‘Arthur Elton James Perkins’. His story is quite complicated and difficult to condense easily his personal life intercepts with his public/performance life so I will outline a little of both.
I note that in your list of Routes it include an entry for ‘James Perkins – 16 Nov 1878 – Bathurst – Perkins, James, Tightwire Artist, at School of Arts’.
I have corrected numerous newspaper articles in Trove from 1877 to 1921 when he died. His performances as a wire walker seemed to be reported on regularly, especially 1877-1881. Henri L’Estrange was said to have viewed one of his performances and was ‘demonstrative in his applause’ in June 1877 at Clontarf. There was a wire walk challenge between him & Carl Grand in 1878 which is widely reported and it was 1879 when he seemed wot work in circuses.
I have seen little mention of James Perkins in any circus or performing news but he appears to have been a very talented wire walker. There is one reference in Aus Stage of ‘Mons Daziane’ performing with the Hayes and Benhamo’s English Circus in Jul-Oct 1879 – https://www.ausstage.edu.au/pages/event/86337 There are 3 advertisements for Daziane performing with the English Circus in October 1879 near the end of their season for the International Exhibition.
What I do know is that at the end of 1878 and early 1879 when his wife Sarah stated that he was travelling in Victoria performing, he was working with St Leon’s Circus. An advertisement on 25 December, 1878 in the Wagga Wagga Advertiser lists ‘JAMES PERKINS, Agent’ this role continued into the end of March 1879 on advertisements for St Leon’s. In Sept 1879 he was performing as a wire walker with Ashton’s Circus.
The period 1877 – 1882 James was performing widely across mainly NSW as a wire walker. He had been a builder who found he had exceptional balance then trained himself as a wire walker. This is outlined in a newspaper report: Goulburn Herald 18 July 1877 ‘Combination of Talent’. The walk across Mossman’s bay in a challenge with Carl Grand was reported with much fanfare in newspapers in NSW, VIC, QLD & SA as were other of the events he held around the state crossing rivers in places like Inverell. In 1880 he was performing at ‘Attwater’s Theatre Royal’ in Grafton where his mother was living and many of his family, again it was another challenge this time between him as a ‘funambulist’ wire walker and another ‘pedestrian’ walker.
I have been trying to track if anyone has any more information on James, I have pretty much tracked a lot of his life/work through Trove newspapers etc.
James Perkins performed with his sister Emily Clara Perkins and Frederick Hobbs (stage name ‘Lloyd’) as ‘Elton-Lloyd’. Fred Hobbs and Emily Perkins married in 1892. They formed the Lloyds circus and later the Lloyd Sisters Circus. Their daughter Alma Hobbs married Vincent Ashton in 1931.
It appears James was also was a manager for the Payne Family Singers as ‘A J Perkins, Manager’ (Arthur James) in 1888.
PERSONAL LIFE – complicated!
In 1902 my great grandmother married Walter Arthur Perkins, he recorded his parents as James Perkins (Professional Actor) and Sarah Ann Bishop. They had one child before Walter Arthur deserted my grandmother by the end of 1903. Walter Arthur went on it seems to have another relationship and 2 more children and when this broke down, he then married a second time having another 4 children. There appears to be no divorce record so far but my great grandmother did file a missing persons report and many years later remarried. I am still researching this part of the story. I do know that in Court records in 1906 Sommerville Matthias Perkins brother to James and Emily Clara Perkins, stated Walter Arthur Perkins was his nephew which ties him back to the family. He also spent time with James Perkins brothers/family after he left my grandmother and was living near Grafton before he married where many of James family were living.
James Perkins and Sarah Bishop had married at Patrick’s Plains on 24 April 1872 and had 3 children registered, Walter Arthur was apparently the fourth chid but there is no birth record I have yet been able to find. The reason for this may be linked to what happened with their previous 3 children. In 1879 James was in Victoria with St Leon’s and according to Sarah sent no money to her. She was living in Sydney, behind in her rent and unable to work with 3 children so she placed the children into care at the Benevolent Society, they were moved to Randwick Asylum for Destitute Children and were eventually ‘Boarded Out’. The Superintendent stated that given the mother never visited nor contributed any money towards their care, and the father had according to Sarah left them, that it was a case of ‘deliberate desertion by both the mother and the father’. It is difficult to know the full circumstances with just snippets of information. In her later Divorce records Sarah states she did regularly visit the children but that is not reflected in the Asylum records.
In 1881 there is a newspaper reference to a performance in Clarence Town of ‘Mr and Mrs Perkins (nee Bishop)’ indicating it was Sarah Bishop performing with her husband James Perkins. There are are references to other women’s names singing or performing with James including ‘Clara Bishop’ performing with him in Crookwell in 1882, and the ‘Mr Perkins Happy Family’ troupe performing in Stroud/Tumbarumba in 1884. A Mr and Mrs Perkins were living in Crookwell in 1883 performing at local concerts with singing and comedy routines very similar to later performances that James did. It seems likely after the 1881 account that it was Sarah performing with him with other stage names. As he got older James did less rope walking and more comedy singing and drama performances often enlisting locals to perform alongside his troupes.
Meanwhile the marriage had broken down between James and Sarah some time before 1890 and they had split up. He married Catherine Byrne Rendalls in 1890. At this stage James Perkins had adopted a stage name and added to his birth name, becoming ‘Arthur Elton James Perkins’.
Sarah Perkins nee Bishop finally filed for divorce (with James in absentia presumed dead) in 1896-1898.
James and Catherine and sometimes her sisters, and later their son (born in 1891), performed with them under a variety of Troupe names – ‘Elton Stray Leaves Company’ ‘Arthur Elton Company’ but James became ‘Arthur Elton’ in much of the advertisements and newspaper reports after the second marriage. In the early 1900’s he was touring with a Biograph and Vitascope also listing his occupation as a photographer. He died in Dalby Qld in 1921 with his death certificate stating he was ‘Arthur Elton James Perkins’, his mother as ‘Jane Pinteaux’ (which is correct but different spelling) and father ‘Perkins Elton’ – his father was Samuel Perkins. His sister Emily Clara (father Samuel Perkins) contributed to his headstone so we know it is our James Perkins.
I have documents from the NSW archives about his children and the Randwick Asylum where they were sent and of his divorce from Sarah 1896-1898 so have been piecing it all together. I have still at this point not been able to track a birth record for Walter Arthur Perkins but given they had 3 children placed into care it makes sense they did not officially record Walter Arthur’s birth.
I wondered if you had any records or information about ‘James Perkins’, ‘Arthur Elton’ or ‘Mons Daziane’ as he was also known? I live in hope of finding a photograph.
Given he did work with St Leon’s circus and you have written about the circus in Australia extensively and along with the routes note re James Perkins, I thought you may have some leads.
Lyn WeirMark St LeonParticipant20 Apr 2021 at 9:45 amPost count: 16
Many thanks for your message which I have read with interest. The name of James Perkins was already known to me as he was associated with my family’s circus (St Leon’s) in 1878-79.
I don’t know if I will be able to provide you with any information that have not already uncovered but here are some items of possible interest:
Wagga Wagga Advertiser
21 December 1878
30 Start Artists, 40 highly trained horses and diminutive ponies’, 12 new star artists from Europe – The company comprised ‘The Great Leopold’, Hadj Hamo, Charles Bliss, The Great Bungaroo, Joe Kitichie and Little Kitichie, Little Victoriel Matterlina, Mankitichie, Robert Taylor, Masters A. King and L. Pittman, the St Leon Brothers, Gus, Alfred, and Walter. The agent was James Perkins.
2 January 1879
The Greatest Circus in Australia … 30 Star Artists. 40 Highly-trained Horses and Diminutive Ponies. 12 New Star Artists, from Europe. The Great Leopold, Champion Battoute Leaper of the World. Hadj Hamo, The Arab Wonder. Charles Bliss, The Great Clown. The Great Bungaroo, Joe Kitichie and Little Kitichie, The Japanese Wonders. The Victoriel Matterlina, The smallest Child Equestrienne ever seen in Australia. Mankitchie, The Wonderful Japanese Wire Walker. Robert Taylor, Late of Burton and Taylor’s Circus. Masters Albert King & L. Pittman, The Great Pony Riders. The St Leon Brothers, The Great Bareback Vaultigeur Equestrians. M. St Leon, Proprietor. James Perkins, Agent.
6 January 1879, p.3 c.6
The Great Leopold, Hadj Hamo, Charles Bliss, Joe Kitichie, Little Kitichie, Little Victoriel Matterlina, Mankitichie, Robert Taylor, Albert King, L. Pittman, The St Leon Bros and James Perkins, Agent.
Daylesford Mercury & Express
14 January 1879
… there was only a moderate attendance. The company although not numerous are excellent … Mr James Perkins was very successful on the wire rope, in fact his exhibition was a welcome surprise to the audience …
23 January 1879
… the astounding and elegant performance of Mr Perkins on the wire rope … (all) the best entertainment of the kind advertised here …’
29 January 1879
… A new feature presented yesterday evening was the invisible wire walking of Mr James Perkins. The artist, which must be possessed of wonderful balancing powers, performed a variety of startling feats on a slack wire which was so thin that it seemed impossible for it to bear a man’s weight. The wire is of the kind found in pianos and from the ground it was invisible, yet without any aid from a balancing pole Mr Perkins played a violin, drank water etc. with a deftness that excited the astonishment of the audience …
You could consult my biography of the famous Aboriginal tight wire artist, Con Colleano “The Wizard of the Wire: The Story of Con Colleano” (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1993). A chapter of this book is devoted to the rope and wire walking tradition which I reproduce below (note mention of James Perkins):
St Leon (Aboriginal Studies press, Canberra, 1993), pp.69-81
The Rope & Wirewalking Tradition
Rope walkers and rope dancers had been known since antiquity. Their history
stretched at least as far back as the days of ancient Greece. They had frequented the
outdoor fairs of medieval Europe. With the establishment of the circus in a modern
form by Philip Astley and his contemporaries in London late in the 18th century,
the rope walkers and rope dancers found a new outlet for their energies and their
acts became popular within the confines of the circus arena. Although the wire had
been used to perform upon as early as 1781, it did not gain custom for more than a
century. Rope artists, or funambulists , the French term by which these performers
were commonly known, patiently developed their craft during the course of the
19th century, just as circus bareback riders and trapeze artists developed theirs.
Gradually there was a shift from the graceful art of dancing upon the rope to the
more sensational aspects of balancing upon it. Balancing upon a chair on the rope,
walking blindfolded or riding a bicycle across it were popular presentations.
Another popular act was for the performer to make several changes of costume
during the course of his or her act. Some performers began to abandon balancing
poles, at least for the’low wire’ acts. Female performers sometimes carried only an
open parasol to assist their balance.
Genuine, unassisted feet-to-feet backward ‘summersets’ (the old fashioned term for
somersaults) appear to have been turned upon the tight rope as early as 1830,
although performers were turning the simpler crutch-to-crutch or feet-to-crutch
variety earlier than this. The first genuine backwards somersault on the wire, a
much more difficult task than on the rope, was achieved by the Spaniard, Juan
Caicedo, in Paris in 1885 although hand assisted ‘summersets’ had been performed
in Sadler’s Wells as early as 1781.
The English tightrope performer, Hugh Patrick Lloyd, toured Australia in 1907
with Wirth’s Circus and again in 1913 for the Fuller-Brennan vaudeville circuit. It is
more than likely that Lloyd’s astounding performances during his second
Australian tour were witnessed by the curious young Con Sullivan. Lloyd had
perfected his tightrope act in the 1880s, playing the violin while turning a back
somersault without losing a note. In 1913, Lloyd claimed to be the only bounding
tightrope performer in the world to perform without the aid of a balancing pole. He
even performed back somersaults while blindfolded, while still playing his violin,
or while jumping through a hoop or over a skipping rope.
The American tightwire artiste, Bird Millman, became an established ‘center ring’
attraction with Bailey’s Circus in 1914 and later with the combined Ringling Bros
and Barnum & Bailey’s Combined Shows. Disdaining the use of the customary
parasol, Millman presented a spectacular act of almost hypnotic charm. In a
departure from established rope and wire walking traditions, Millman danced and
ran back and forth along a wire that was an exceptional 36 ft long. Accompanied by
a singing chorus of eight voices, Millman, too, sang at certain points in her beautiful
The slack rope and slack wire were referred to as the corde volante in early circus
literature. They required their own discipline for, as its names applies, the cord was
allowed to hang loose between its two ends. This prevented dancing or
somersaulting but did facilitate balancing acts such as juggling, performing a
headstand or comedy work upon it as it swung to and fro. There is a fundamental
difference between the tightwire and the slackwire. While walking the tightwire the
performer must keep his centre of gravity over the wire; on a slackwire the wire
must be brought under the performer’s centre of gravity.
By the early 1830s, there were references to the corde elastique which must have been
akin to what today would be called the bounding tightrope or tightwire. The corde
elastique was affixed in tension with springs at either end. By bouncing astride the
rope or wire, the ‘spring’ gave the performer additional lift for performing tricks
such as somersaults. Colleano’s own bounding tightwire, with a spring affixed to
one end of the wire only, was but a variant of the corde elastique.
Rope and wire acts could be presented within a circus, inside a theatre or in an
outdoor exhibition such as a fair. Usually, the execution of a rope or wire act
required the effort of the performer alone. On the other hand, a circus equestrian
act required a heavy investment in trained horses, grooms, a specially constructed
ring or stage. A circus acrobatic act also required a ring or stage and the
employment of a troupe of men. It was probably these aspects of economy that lead
to the tightrope being the first of the circus arts to be introduced to colonial
Australia for the appearance of individual tightrope artists pre-date the
establishment of the first colonial circuses by some years.
As early as December 1833, George Croft gave tightrope dancing performances at
Sydney’s Theatre Royal. His performances on the tightrope marked the
commencement of the development of the circus arts in Australia. From where
Croft obtained his expertise is unclear, for he was a ‘cook and confectioner’ when he
was transported to New South Wales as convict in 1827 for stealing. Croft remained
active as a tightrope performer until the goldrush period of the early 1850s. He was
best known for his outdoor exhibitions but performed in Australia’s early theatres
and circuses. He even established, albeit a short-lived enterprise, one of Australia’s
first circus ‘amphitheates’, in Brisbane in 1847.
In 1838, the young John Quinn, a pupil of Croft, was licensed to perform feats of
tightrope walking in New South Wales. The origins of Quinn are obscure but
certainly he won well-deserved popularity during the course of his colonial career.
In May 1848, Quinn performed in Robert Radford’s circus in Hobart, the first
succesful colonial circus enterprise. Later in the same year, and again with
Radford, he performed a ‘basket dance’ on the tightrope, dancing on his tightrope
with his feet tied in baskets. Quinn may have been taught these acts by the
renowned British tightrope performer, James Hunter, who had been transported for
a term of imprisonment to the island colony of Tasmania in 1839 for the theft of a
coat. A few weeks later, Quinn performed the remarkable feat of walking along the
forestay to the main topmast of an American sailing ship lying at anchor in the
Hobart Town harbour, perhaps the first display in the colonies of a high, as distinct
from a low, rope or wire act. In Melbourne the following year, 1850, five thousand
people watched spellbound as Quinn walked a tightrope across the Yarra River.
The Royal Australian Equestrian Circus, Sydney’s first successful circus
‘amphitheatre’, opened in York Street in October 1850 under the proprietorship of
Edward La Rosiere and John Jones. La Rosiere, the pseudonym of Edward Hughes,
had given slack rope performances in Sydney as early as December 1841, shortly
after arriving from England. Like most performers of that age, La Rosiere was
‘multi-skilled’, being adept as a contortionist, bareback rider, acrobat, clown and
stiltwalker as well. The circus was conducted in a makeshift building erected
adjacent to the Adelphi Hotel. The ropewalkers that appeared in the Royal
Australian Equestrian Circus were of both the tightrope and slackrope varieties. A
Mr Clark walked the slackrope and turned ‘somerseats’ (somersaults) on the rope.
These somersaults were most likely the crutch-to-crutch variety rather than the
more difficult feet-to-feet type. Some of Clark’s displays on the slackrope were to
the accompaniment of the humour of clowns in the ring, while in one act he posed
on the rope as fireworks were set off and rained about him. The other ropewalker
to be found in Sydney’s first circus was a London-born performer of all-round
ability, John Jones. In contrast to Clark, Jones danced on the tightrope but, again, to
the accompaniment of gestures and humour from the circus clowns. The brief
descriptions that survive of these performances indicate that the rope performing
styles then prevalent in England had been effectively transplanted to colonial
The discovery of gold, the movement of the population on to the goldfields and,
subsequent to the goldrushes, the growth of the interior townships and the cities,
lead the early Australian circuses to travel beyond the coastal cities and appear in
the new settlements under calico tents. These early troupes rarely covered more
than 20 or 30 miles in a days travelling, such were the limitations of horsedrawn
covered wagon transport. In this fashion, the pattern of Australian circus life
became set for years to come, an almost idyllic life in spite of the hardships
entailed. Roadside camps in the bush, campfires at night, band concerts after the
evening meal, encounters with tribes of Aborigines, with bushrangers and
goldminers, enthusiastic and appreciative audiences in isolated towns and infant
cities alike are amongst the facets of colonial circus life that were recalled. At
camps between towns, young and budding performers practised their acrobatic
and other routines. Circus skills were not only developed but shared and passed
from generation to generation. A ropewalker might sling his rope between two
eucalypt trees and practise upon it as the evening meal was prepared, melodies
from cornets and euphoniums filling the air as if in accompaniment, as the circus
bandsmen also practised upon their instruments.
In the 1850s, 1860s and 1870s, colonial audiences saw several fine slackrope and
tightrope performers. Sometimes these ropewalkers performed as members of
circus companies and sometimes as sole itinerant entertainers. If a ropewalker was
attached to a circus company in those early days it was customary to entertain
singlehandedly, an expectant crowd in the afternoon before the evening’s
performance. This often involved walking with the aid only of a balancing pole,
along a very long rope stretched at a sharp angle from the ground to the top of the
protruding centre pole of the circus tent.
The famous British Negro tightrope dancer, Pablo Fanque, whose real name was
William Darby, came to the colonies late in 1854 to pursue a career that was marked
at times by notoriety and occasional scuffles with the law. His inaugural
appearance with a new circus establishment in Melbourne called Astley’s
Amphitheatre (named after the famous London venue), was announced in The Age
of 1 January 1855. Pablo Fanque, the advertisement said, was ‘the First Rope Dancer
in the World’ (the word ‘first’ meaning ‘leading’ or ‘premiere’) and that he would
‘…throw back and forward somersets [sic], feet to feet, on the tightrope, a feat
which astonishes those in the profession much more than those who pay to visit the
arena…’ An advertisement in The Age of 23 January 1855 might just as well have
been referring to Con Colleano himself when it spoke of Pablo Fanque as:
‘…The incomparable tightrope dancer…The style, spirit and gracefulness of this performer
have been both the theme of universal admiration, combining the finest effects of the poetry
of motion, with the most daring feats of aerial somersaulting…’
In 1859, Pablo travelled the colonies with the National Circus of John Jones, a circus
that, in spite of the hindrance of flooded creeks and rivers, managed to visit Wagga
Wagga in that winter. Outside Jones’ tent each afternoon, ‘Master Pablo’, probably
Pablo Fanque’s son, ascended a rope, reportedly three hundred feet long, to the top
of the circus tent and then descended it backwards. By the end of 1859, Pablo
Fanque had formed his own circus with some of the members of Jones’ company.
Called Pablo Fanque’s Celebrated National Circus, it appeared in Brisbane in
In the early 1860s, Pablo Fanque travelled the colonies with his own troupe,
ostentatiously entitled at one stage the ‘Alhambra Waggish Marquee’, Pablo giving
exhibitions of the tightrope dancing and walking for which he was celebrated. The
Alhambra Waggish Marquee, appeared in Tamworth in September 1860. Under the
heading ‘Pablo Fanque in Difficulties’ the Tamworth Examiner of 15 September
….This somewhat celebrated individual paid a visit to Tamworth in the early part of
this week, but had scarcely been an hour in town when the blues were down upon
him, and under a charge of larceny confined him in the lock-up. The ‘Waggish
Marquee’ and ‘gigantic’ troupe of which this gentleman is the sole proprietor and
manager was advertised to have appeared in Tamworth shortly, so that his
appearance was looked upon by some – ourselves in particular – with interest. It
appears from what we can learn that a charge of stealing some wearing apparel at
Muswellbrook appeared against him … and this is the offence for which he now
Pablo Fanque’s appearance at Sydney’s Cremorne Gardens in April 1868, is the last
known mention of the name in Australia. He returned to England in about 1870
and was apparently conducting a circus at the time of his death at Stockport in
In the 1860s and 1870s also, the tightrope walker Vertelli gave many open-air
exhibitions of perilous ropewalking throughout the colonies. Like many
ropewalkers of the day, Vertelli billed himself as ‘The Australian Blondin’, in
deference to the famous French performer of that name. In August 1865, he
astounded the people of South Australia by walking a wire over the waterfall at
Mount Lofty. The wire, some one hundred feet in length and stretched between
two trees on opposite sides of the falls, was about forty feet above the waters and
jagged rocks of the creek below. To the applause of spectators, he crossed the wire
twice. At Rockhampton the following year, Vertelli executed the dangerous feat of
ascending a long rope one evening, even wheeling a barrow up its taut and wellsecured
length, the only light provided for him coming from a wood fire lit below.
A brass band played fine music to accompany Vertelli on his hazardous ascent. In
the years that followed, Vertelli repeated similar performances throughout the
Australian colonies. The real identity of the gentleman remains a mystery
however, but presumably the name ‘Vertelli’ was a pseudonym adopted for show
Although ropewalkers were evident in the earliest English circuses from Astley’s
time onwards, it was a Frenchman who did most to reawaken universal interest in
the art. His name was Jean Francois Gravelet. He was better known as Blondin.
Born in 1824, Gravelet adopted the surname of the artiste to whom he had been
apprenticed as a child. In 1859 Blondin made his famous crossing above Niagara
Falls, inching his way precariously across a rope 1100 ft long and stretched 160 ft
above the raging waters. The spectacular feat was performed in the presence of
some 50 000 spectators and established Blondin’s fame and reputation for years to
come. In 1860, Blondin made six more crossings over the Niagara Falls. Sometimes
he accomplished the feat blindfolded, sometimes he did so while trundling a
wheelbarrow. He balanced on chairs, turned a somersault above the waters and
even carried a man across on his back. From a radius of 100 miles, the railroad
companies brought people to Niagara to witness Blondin’s exploits. Blondin
provided a climax to his feats over the Falls by walking across his tightrope while
perched on stilts. In the years that followed, Blondin gave exhibitions of his
unfailing nerve and skill in most of the European capitals, as well as in Java, China
and The Philippine Islands before visiting Australia.
Blondin made his first Australian appearance in Brisbane on 25 July 1874 and a
month later gave a series of performances in Sydney. At each place, Blondin and his
twelve assistants had to labour for three days to unravel the five and half tons of
equipment they had brought with them. A pavilion was erected on Sydney’s
Domain, not a marquee of the circus type but a huge enclosure of canvas sidewalls.
From the recorded dimensions of Blondin’s main tightrope – 800 ft in length, six and
a quarter inches in circumference, and strung up at a height of 90 ft above the
ground – it is little wonder that his astounding performances could only be given in
the open air and not under canvas. Special excursion trains were run to Sydney
from the outlying suburbs and towns during Blondin’s appearances.
So successful was his Australian tour that Blondin returned to Sydney from
London to inaugurate a second tour late the following year, 1875. The Frenchman
cleared 18 000 pounds from his two Australian visits, an enormous sum for the
time. During his career, many tried to emulate Blondin including a number in the
Australian colonies. Besides Vertelli, one of the more successful attempts was that
of Harry L’Estrange who, inevitably billing himself as ‘The Australian Blondin’
crossed Sydney’s Middle Harbour on a tightrope on 18 April 1877.
Blondin and the host of imitators that he spawned, some good and others not, soon
faded from the scene, in Australia at least. Exhibitions of tightrope walking once
again became incorporated within the circus performance and no record has been
found of any public exhibitions of the calibre of Blondin or L’Estrange until the
appearances here of the Frenchman, Phillip Petit, in the early 1970s. There is no
clear reason for such a long hiatus because high tightrope walkers have continued
to entertain audiences in American and Europe in that time. Nevertheless, a
tradition of rope and wire walkers continued to develop within the circus in
Shortly after Blondin’s visit the wire, as distinct from the rope, appears to have won
a wider acceptance amongst the colonial performers. Exactly when ropewalkers, be
they slack or tight, high or low, gave their ropes away for good in favour of coiled
wire is not known but the trend seems to have been well underway by the latter
decades of the 19th century. The Mr Brame who gave an ‘open air wire ascent’ to
the flagpole of Burton’s Circus in Sydney in 1879 seems to have been one of the
earliest references to the use of the wire in Australia although, as we have seen,
Vertelli walked a ‘wire’ as early as 1865 at Mt Lofty. Certainly, from the early 1880s
onwards the mention of wirewalkers performing in circuses steadily replaces that
The ‘invisible wirewalking’ of James Perkins, who performed with the St Leon
company for a brief period early in 1879, involved a variety of startling feats on a
slackwire that was so thin that it seemed impossible that it could bear a man’s
weight. The wire was of the kind found in pianos and from the top of the tiered
seats of the circus tent it was barely visible. Without the aid of a balancing pole,
Perkins deftly played a violin and drank a glass of water while balancing upon the
‘invisible’ wire without the aid of any balancing pole or other device.1 A Japanese
performer, Ewar Decenoski, and an English youth, Llewellyn Banvard, also
performed on the ‘invisble’ wire in Australian circuses during the 1880s.
Because the family circuses of the Australian bush increasingly ‘amalgamated’ after
about 1900, a greater degree of cross-fertilisation of performing skills between the
various families was brought about. These amalgamations, casual partnerships
1 Geelong Advertiser, 29 January 1879.
that required no attention to formal arrangements or legalities, sometimes lasted for
only a brief ‘run’ through a prosperous rural district, sometimes for periods as long
as a year. When the Sole family united with the Gus St Leon family for a three year
stint in 1909, there was ample opportunity for one family to learn from the other,
and Mary Sole recalled how her best act became a wirewalking act taught to her by
one of the St Leon boys.
The Ashton family, whose circus still tours Australia, has a circus history in this
country as far back as 1848 when James Henry Ashton presented feats of intrepid
horsemanship to audiences at Robert Radford’s amphitheatre in Hobart. The
Ashton family produced at least two outstanding rope and wirewalkers in its early
generations. By 1875, James Henry’s twelve year old daughter, Annie, was
entertaining audiences with her performances on the tightrope in outback New
South Wales and Queensland. These consisted of feats such as skipping across the
rope, wheeling a barrow, or elegantly dancing across to the accompaniment of a
lively tune from the brass band of the circus. Sometimes Annie performed on the
wire with her older brother James and, starting from opposite ends of the wire they
would motion towards each other without the aid of balancing poles, meet in the
centre and then perform the extraordinary task of passing around each other on the
rope, although precisely how this was done has not been recorded.
A granddaughter of James Henry Ashton, Ethel, entertained the next generation of
outback circus audiences with her captivating performances on the tightwire. By
the late nineteenth century, female circus artistes had made the transition from long
flowing skirts to leotards. This apparently afforded greater ease and surety of
movement, not to mention a more striking performance. To the accompaniment of
the band, dressed in leotards and carrying a parasol for balance, Ethel Ashton
danced and ran along her tightwire with perfect ease.
Bernard Dooley performed sensational feats on the swinging trapeze, such as
balancing on his head, and on the bounding tightwire, such as somersaulting
backwards crutch to crutch, crutch to feet, side-seat to feet and feet to feet
backwards. With a repertoire like that, it could only be assumed that a young Con
Colleano must have sat in the Gus St Leon Great United Circus audience some
evenings to watch Dooley in admiration and gather inspiration. Dooley came to
Australia under special engagement to the St Leons early in 1913.
In the Gus St Leon circus around 1917, young Golda Honey, Gus’s granddaughter,
worked on the wire. Most wirewalkers will walk with their feet down the wire but
Golda walked with her feet along the wire ‘pigeon’ fashion. She performed ‘the
usual’ tricks such as rolling a hoop on the wire. Occasionally, she did a somersault.
Reflecting the vogue made fashionable by the American tightwire artiste, Bird
Millman, Golda used to sing a song as part of her act. Her favourite was a song
called Cuba that came out about that time that. Golda, with her family of acrobatic
brothers and sisters, like Con and his siblings, eventually gravitated to the United
States of America and the infinitely greater show business possibilities it offered.
Golda’s wirewalking career was to be cut short however when she suffered a
serious fall from her wire while performing in vaudeville in the US in the 1930s.
Here are some other references I have:
James Perkins at School of Arts, Bathurst, 16 November 1878
Elton Lloyd’s Merry Moments with James Perkins, Gundagai, 21 December 1887
Theatrical licenses were issued to Perkins by the NSW Colonial Secretary. There may be other references and you should be able to consult relevant correspondence at the State Records Authority, NSW:
Perkins James NSW 1877 No. 284 Merriwa
Perkins James NSW 1878 No. 6850 Singleton
Perkins James NSW 1878 No. 8351 ?
Perkins James NSW 1881 No. 1232 ?
I see that you have already established the connection between Perkins’ sister and the Ashton family. My notes indicate that members of the Perkins family married into the Holden Circus family which was mostly active around Victoria in the 1910s, 20s and 30s.
I am afraid that I don’t have any photograph of James Perkins but you may well find something as CDV’s were in vogue by the late 1870s.
Hope this helps, a bit. Let me know how you get on. Of course, I would be interest if find anything about the St Leons.
If you have any other queries, just send them along.
Mark St Leon
Long Jetty NSWLynWeirParticipant21 Apr 2021 at 3:14 amPost count: 3
Thank you. That’s terrific.
I am waiting on your books to arrive which I have reserved from my local library, should be great reading!
I have gathered some of the information you have added here which has confirmed what I have gathered. Great to have a bit of the wire walking/tight rope history as well.
I am in the process of ordering all the information I have gathered and then I will write up the full story of James Perkins, Sarah Bishop, Catherine Byrne Rendalls and their families. I can let you know when it is all done.
Thank you for the offer of help with any additional queries.
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