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 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.

on yer bike

New Swiss bicycle 1864Here are a few illustrations of 19th century bicycles and related matters via The Chronicle of 24 October 1864, The South Australian Chronicle of 31 August 1895 and The North Queensland Register of 9 February 1898 respectively.

The safety bicycling skirt demonstrates the lengths (literally) some people went to for the sake of modesty.  Note the description – “completely hiding the motion of the limbs so ungracefully apparent in an ordinary skirt”.  What would they think of today’s modern track cyclists?

Patent safety bicycle skirt

Modern street scene

trying it on – fare evasion

From the Brisbane Courier of 14 October 1879 comes this story of a mistake or deception. You be the judge.

Theological bus ticket

Note how the word bus is still used with an apostrophe to represent the missing ‘omni’ in the word omnibus.  A carriage for all indeed, especially if you used the correct ticket.

The “tanner” referred to is slang for a sixpenny piece (from the ever reliable Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable).

The “peeler” is a reference to a policeman, derived from Robert Peel, the British Home Secretary (and subsequent Prime Minister) who established the Metropolitan Police Force in 1829.

As an aside, the bus driver in this case missed a more literary calling.  His erudite response to the apparent fare evasion was much more sophisticated than one I observed many years ago from a Melbourne tram conductor when a $50 note was proferred by a man for his fare.  “I’m not a *#**@$ bank!” she said with some force while writing him a different kind of ticket.

The pain zone

When you’re naming a new product or service (or a city’s transport ticketing system), it sometimes pays to do some research into the past. Cairns Post – 31 March 1932

There is no need to feel sensitive in asking for Myzone, for chemists also recommend it for migraine headache any time of the month.

Taking the housework with you on holidays

Caravan traveling as a recreational pursuit in Australia is documented in this post from the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.

The Australian Women’s Weekly – 1 May 1937 – do you think that’s a special holiday apron?

Illustrations in pen and ink

It’s exciting to see a number of illustrated publications starting to come online via Trove Australia.   These include the Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers, and The Illustrated Sydney News. This quality drawing – Off for the Holidays – is from The Australasian Sketcher with Pen and Pencil which was printed in the offices of The Argus in Melbourne from 1873 to 1899.  17 December 1881.

Sleepless in Sydney

This letter to the editor definitely has the vibe of being written by a sleep deprived curmudgeon.

Bell’s Life in Sydney – 29 November 1851

Original Correspondence.


To the Editors of Bell’s Life in Sydney.

GENTLEMEN. – Last week you put an excellent article in your paper on the above invention. Will you use your influence with the “By-Law Committee of the Corporation” to abate the   following nuisances :-

1. Butcher’s’ carts rattling through the streets, so that no man with a decent bred horse has any chance of not being either run against, or run down-brown !”‘

2. Baker’s carts, “or turnovers,” that invariably go the wrong side, ” rolling ” over everything that comes their way.

3. Milk and “ginger beer” carts, – (also) – i.e. from bad springs, and loaded with milk cans or aer-rated bottles, being the reverse of  “a pig’s whisper” in the thereabouts of the streets of Sydney.

4. Grocers’ Carts – More furious drivers than any. Some of these have proprietors, very influential “men of the Ward.”  I will, on division of the house, leave these out rather than risk the foss-for-us influence. These carts are particularly noticed on the South Head Road, and are fair facts to be noticed and described.

5. Breaks. Not only from the vulgar jingling noise they make, but from their reckless mode of exposing themselves to the vigilance of a certain person called the V.I.N., or Vigilant Inspector (and) No mistake! I have expected this information long ago. They had better take care.

6. Night-man’s Carts that for half a mile are heard only to disturb and awake you to the sense of “ammoniacal suffocation” the rest of the night.

Yours truly,


A pig’s whisper – “A very short space of time; properly a grunt – which doesn’t take long” – Brewers’ Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.