Felix Tanner was, if nothing else, a showman.
He knew the value of a good picture and a story, and it was clear he liked the limelight.
Born in Berrima, New South Wales on March 23, 1863, as Charles Jackson, he would go on to have quite a few names, including Henri le Strange, Professor Jackson and the Australian Blondin.
But he was best known in New Zealand as Captain Felix Tanner.
He saw great tightrope walker Charles Blondin - best known for walking across the Niagara Gorge - as a young child
So he became a tightrope artist himself as well as a balloonist, parachutist and deep sea diver. His first visit to New Zealand in 1884 included several trapeze acts.
He returned to Australia and as a tightrope walker he walked over the famous Kiama Ocean Blow Hole in New South Wales on a wire stretched high up in the air.
Then in Melbourne, in 1890, he began a show that would forever leave him called Fasting Felix. He began fasting in public. Weirdly inspired by the story of a man convicted of cannibalism, Tanner wanted to show how you could survive long periods of time just on water.
So he charged people to watch him fast. It lasted 40 days and he did it several times that year and many times in later years, especially to raise money.
He married the first of his three wives, Sarah Anne Watson (which ended in a divorce) and ended up living in Waihi where he took advantage of the public’s horrible fascination with executions by creating a device for a mock hanging. It plunged him seven feet leaving him dangling in a gruesome display.
Later he moved to the Taranaki district where he held regular employment with the New Plymouth Harbour Board as a diver.
He drew up plans for an aerial balloon ship that he would take to Auckland but it never got made. He built a model but was unable to come up with what he estimated was £2000 to build it.
Tanner was then contracted to find the ship Elingamite which had gone down near the Three Kings Islands with gold on board. He found the wreck, but not the gold.
But Tanner’s life would change when a modified dugout canoe came into Taranaki port in 1903 on a world tour.
He formed an idea of a new world tour - in a barrel boat which he called the Ark. He designed plans and began building it in his backyard, putting it on display.
He managed to launch it but within days vandals bored holes in it and sank it.
But Tanner thought a new shape was needed.
After moving to Whanganui he began working on Ark no 2. It was launched on April 5, 1904, but despite making it to the entrance to Wellington harbour he beached in Ohau Bay.
Now living in Wellington, Tanner created Ark no 3 - 25 feet in length - his biggest yet but while he managed to get it across Cook Strait, a westerly gale all but ruined it and it had to be abandoned.
Tanner wasn’t done yet though. The New Zealand International Exhibition of 1906-07 set him to making Ark no 4. He said it was a new type of lifeboat, strong as a barrel and unsinkable.
It was built at his home in Arrow Street, Wakefield, 18 miles from Nelson, and had to be taken to the port by truck. At thirty feet long, it weighed over two and a half tons.
This went better. It sailed to Lyttleton and later was on display in Timaru where Tanner beached it. He said he would come back and sail it to Sydney but instead sold it.
He continued to invent - making good money for a device that prevented the racing of marine engines and then in 1913, a type of crane for getting goods onto a boat.
Tanner disappeared from view - some said he went to America - then came a newspaper report on January 2, 1919 of Felix Tanner’s death in San Diego, California.
It was just the identity, however, of Tanner who died then. Tanner was still alive, but going by the name of Charles Jackson. Tanner/Jackson died for real in 1943. He had fathered 12 children by three women and committed daring feats.
He is buried in the Rookwood General Cemetery in Sydney.
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