Harry Houdini in Australia

Geelong Advertiser Houdini

This photograph of Harry Houdini, held by the State Library of Victoria, appeared in The Australasian on 19 February 1910. Houdini (or Ehrich Weisz as he was known to his mother) was about to jump, handcuffed, into the Yarra River in Melbourne off Queen’s Bridge.

A month later, his aeronautical exploits were being reported in the Sydney Morning Herald (22 March 1910). His claim to be the first successful aviator in Australia was later challenged. This item at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney is a starting point to the discussion and mentions a short flight by Colin Defries on 9 December 1909 which went unrecognised at the time.

SMH 22 March 1910 - Houdini

Harry didn’t stop there. This poster, again from the State Library of Victoria, showed that Houdini’s capacity for self-promotion was equal to his escapology and aviation exploits.

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From the Sydney Morning Herald again on  2 May 1910.

HOUDINI IN THE AIR.

A SENSATIONAL JOURNEY.

RECORD FLIGHT AT ROSEHILL.

Houdini made a record flight in his aeroplane at Rosehill Park Racecourse yesterday.   A crowd of several hundreds had gathered, and shortly after half-past 12 they were rewarded for their patience with the sight of the weird-looking machine circling gracefully round the track at a height of nearly 160ft.

Houdini made a successful start, and his plane, driven by the powerful 60-80-h.p. E.N.V. motor, leaped to a height of about 20ft. It then dipped, and rushed towards the ground at a rate bordering on 40 miles an hour. The public gasped, while a number of women screamed, for it seemed as if the aviator were rushing to certain destruction. A neat turn of the lever controlling the planes, however, altered its direction to a nicety, and the machine soared gracefully skyward, until an altitude of 150ft was reached.

But his difficulties were not over. The machine rose until at a height of 200ft it turned and met the wind full in the face. It quivered, and fell swiftly towards the ground, as the engines had stopped. It looked as if Houdini’s last moment had come. The crowd was dumbfounded, but when only a few feet from the ground the plucky aviator managed to start his engine again, and the plane rose once more. Houdini then circled round the race track twice, finishing up by sailing over the grand stand and dropping easily to the ground on the opposite side.

It was a splendid flight. A better demonstration of modern aeronautics could not have been provided, and the public cheered heartily, many rushing to seize Houdini by the hand when he reached the earth.

“That’s my fourteenth fly in Australia,” Houdini mentioned as he landed, “and I am satisfied.” He was carried shoulder high by the excited crowd. The machine, which was practically uninjured, excepting a slightly bent tube, is now to be dismantled, as Houdini is taking it with him to America.


equestrian beginnings – Ashton’s circus

From the Illustrated Sydney News: 6 May 1854 comes this image of a circus performance at Hanging Rock Diggings.  Gold was discovered in Hanging Rock (SE of Tamworth in New South Wales) in late 1851.  The touring circus was formed by horseman James Henry Ashton who appears in the Australian Dictionary of Biography under the entry for his sons whose dynasty went on to include exotic animals in their shows.  The inclusion of exotic animals such as elephants and lions in circus is now banned across many (but not all) jurisdictions in Australia.

Aston's Circus - Hanging Rock diggings 1854

[James Henry Ashton] whose real name may have been Wild, was reputedly a clog-dancer and circus performer from Colchester, Essex, England, who had arrived in Australia in the 1840s. After success as a ‘bold and fearless’ equestrian at Radford’s Amphitheatre, Hobart Town, in 1848-49 and at Port Phillip, he performed at John Malcolm’s Amphitheatre, Sydney, in September 1851 and later at J. S. Noble’s Olympic Circus. His first wife Mary died aged 19 at Maitland in 1852, and next year at Hanging Rock, near Tamworth, he married Elizabeth Critchley. By May 1854 he had formed Ashton‘s Royal Olympic Circus and for the next thirty-five years he toured eastern Australia with his variously grandly titled circus.


reel entertainment – Pat Hanna

The hand coloured glass lantern slide below is an advertisement for Pat Hanna’s fishing reel which includes instructions for its use. Its companion slide (both are c 1924) is from the same Hanna Collection at the State Library of Victoria.

Pat Hanna was a variety stage and film entertainer as well as a keen fisherman and inventor.  In the 1920s, he was touring Australia with his troupe The Diggers.  Cairns Post – 23 July 1925.  Diggers

The photograph is from The Courier Mail of 27 February 1934.

Wintergarden Theatre Brisbane

Mr. Pat Hanna, film producer and actor (on right), greeted by Mr. E. H Pelling, manager of the Winter Garden Theatre, on his arrival at Brisbane yesterday.

Head over here for more about Pat Hanna’s life as a performer from the Australian Variety Theatre Archive site.

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