Walking a tightrope

Henri L'estrange, The Australian Blondin 1876 State Library of Victoria H96.160/2603

One of the most colourful characters to come across my desk as editor, is Henri L’Estrange, showman, aeronaut and funambulist, who brought spectacle, danger and daring to Sydney on several occasions in the 1870s and 1880s.

Mark Dunn, whose writing for the Dictionary is supported by the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts, through a partnership agreement, has written a lively biography of this rather mysterious figure.

With his origins and his ultimate fate lost in the shadows of history, L’Estrange burns all the more brightly during the 1870s as a fearless performer on the high wire.  Thousands of people came to see his shows in the Domain, where he walked the wire 12 metres above the ground, eventually moving on to sit on a chair, cook a meal and ride a bicycle on the rope.

In 1877 he organised a huge spectacle, crossing Middle Harbour at Willoughby Bay, with an audience, brought by steamer and by foot, estimated at 10,000.

Read the article to find out his later adventures, and get a real feeling for the range of entertainment available in late nineteenth century Sydney. They were certainly up for a spectacular sight!

You can keep up with Mark’s other historical work at his blog Scratching Sydney’s Surface, where he and Laila Ellmoos, another prolific Dictionary contributor, post about the quirks and facets of Sydney’s history.

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Shop until you drop

It’s that time of year, and the streets outside our office near Sydney Town Hall are thronged with shoppers trying to find the perfect present.

Christmas shopping crowd on Park St 1959, National Archives of Australia A1200, L29751

New to the Dictionary are a brace of articles on Sydney’s historic shops, to give you a selection of the shopping experiences available to the Sydneysiders of the past.

Department stores Mark Foy’s, Grace Brothers and Marcus Clark  helped to shape Sydney’s shopping experiences from the late nineteenth century, moving out into the suburbs in the mid-twentieth century, and losing ground to others by the turn of the millennium.

For furniture and homewares, well-heeled shoppers flocked to Beard Watson and Bebarfald‘s. At the other end of the scale, Lassetter’s offered lower prices and a huge range, as well as promising ‘No bogus sauce at Cheapside!’.

Finding that special something, 1949, National Archives of Australia A1200, L11558

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The Trials of Thomas Muir

Tune into ABC Radio National’s Hindsight Program this Sunday afternoon at 2 (or download the podcast) to hear Dictionary of Sydney author Dr Beverley Sherry talking about the life, letters and trial of Scottish political prisoner Thomas Muir with other historians and experts from Scotland.

'An account of the trial of Thomas Muir, Esq. younger, of Huntershill, before the High Court of Justiciary at Edinburgh, on the 30th and 31st days of August, 1793, for sedition' (1794), from the John Adams Library at the Boston Public Library, via The Internet Archive

One of the Scottish Martyrs, Thomas Muir was transported to Sydney in 1794 when he was found guilty of sedition in Edinburgh after distributing Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, escaping from the colony in 1796 on the American ship Otter.

We’re looking forward to publishing Dr Sherry’s entry on Thomas Muir on the Dictionary with our next build in March!

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Summer reading

It’s time to unveil the latest version of the Dictionary of Sydney!

Lots to read over the wet summer ahead. State Library of Victoria, H98.105/2

There are 42 new articles, covering the usual wide range of subjects and viewpoints. We’ll be taking you further into this new content on the blog over the next few weeks, but here is the whole list, divided into some new categories:

New material adding to our histories of indigenous Sydney: all you  historians out there working on Sydney’s indigenous history, we are always looking for more…

New material on Sydney’s communities, which are always among our most popular articles: if you are an expert on the history of any particular cultural group in Sydney which hasn’t been included yet, please get in touch!

New articles on work, technology and life in Sydney: a city of this size needs all kinds of builders, infrastructure, occupations, cultures and institutions, and we intend to cover them all eventually.

Douglass Baglin's photograph of Peace, from the front door of Fairwater, Double Bay. Used with kind permission of the Baglin estate

New entries on Sydney’s arts and culture, and its development over the years: including the disputes and dissent that cultural work always inspires. We hope to bring you a lot more on Sydney’s visual and performing arts next year.

New material on Sydney’s commercial life, and its cycles and changes. The emphasis this time is on the great department stores, with some great work by Michael Lech on the giants in Sydney retailing.

New biographies of musicians and performers of Sydney: individuals who kept Sydney’s performing cultures going, often at great cost to themselves. This time, most are musicians:

L'Estrange's death-defying feat of tight rope walking over Middle Harbour, from the Illustrated Sydney News, 28 April 1877 (SLNSW TN115)

but we also have a more unclassifiable performer, the great, if rather accident-prone, ‘Australian Blondin’:

New biographies of City of Sydney aldermen and mayors: there will be more next year on these founders of Sydney’s municipal governance. This time, we have:

New articles on Sydney places: these are always highlights of our new additions, and this time is no exception. Some are suburbs, some are not.

There are also two new enhancements that we are really pleased with.

Multimedia browse — now you can browse through the Dictionary’s images and multimedia on one page, sorted by our informative titles. Use Ctrl-F to find your keywords.

Cite this — now you can easily cut and paste accurate URLs, citations and Wikipedia reference code for all entries, just by clicking the Cite this link. It brings up a popup that looks like this, with all the details of the entry you are looking at auto-generated for you. These enhancements are the work of our colleagues at Arts eResearch, Sydney University. Thanks go to them, as always.

Cite this popup

You can now find the URL, citation details and Wikipedia code for citing every entry right there on the top right, under the 'Cite this' link.

In addition, we’ve been beavering away writing captions and descriptions and making thousands of links, so you’ll find the whole Dictionary much enriched.


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Changing faces

Another of the many things we’ve been working on at the Dictionary is a redesign and rearrangement of our front page and better integration of our blog site and the Dictionary of Sydney Trust site into the main project.

We’ve been working with digital agency The Nest, who have been building us a new website design, with a lot more flexibility and functionality for the different aspects of the Dictionary’s work and organisation. We hope it will get a lot more people reading the blog, following the Dictionary’s progress, and participating in the project as readers, authors, or supporters.

The Dictionary of Sydney's bouncing balls

In the new design, we'll be taking the bouncing balls off the front page, though not losing them altogether

We’re getting close to unveiling it — and this blog will be moving over to that site when we do. So keep popping back. We’ll let you know when the big ‘reveal’ will take place.

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And that’s not all…

As well as getting the material ready for the Dictionary’s regeneration (which is taking place now over at Arts eResearch), we’ve been working hard on our more academic outlet, the Sydney Journal.

The new issue has just been published, with a wonderful photo by Danny Huynh on our ‘cover’.

Midnight mass at the Russian Orthodox Church, Cabramatta, 2007 © Danny Huynh http://www.dphotographer.com.au

The issue includes work on tourism in Sydney by Richard White and Justine Greenwood, Kate Matthew‘s work on the role of governesses, and the story of the arrival of Sydney’s first ice by Nigel Isaacs.

The Greeks and the Russians, both longstanding parts of Sydney’s mix, have been chronicled by Panayiotis Diamadis and Mara Moustafine respectively.

And we showcase some suburb entries from the Dictionary: Botany, Cockatoo Island, Eastwood, Glebe, and St Johns Park.

Click over and have a look at the range and scope of work produced by Sydney’s historians. It continues to amaze us!

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Late night history (updated)

On Tuesday night on ABC Radio National’s Late Night Live, Mark St Leon will be talking about his book Circus: The Australian Story, published by Melbourne Books. Mark is a Dictionary author and recently joined the Dictionary of Sydney Trust Board, bringing his years of experience in arts management as well as his historical expertise.

Mark St Leon

Mark is the author of the Dictionary’s article on Circus, one of our most popular and lively pieces, and also provided some images and footage out of his collection for illustration. Tune in to the program at 576 on your radio dial, or via the program website, where you can download it as a podcast after Wednesday . It’s sure to be a good listen.

Edited to add:  And, here’s the podcast.

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