Four lions escape from a village circus

lion tamer

A vintage lion tamer image from Wikimedia

This is one of my favourite true stories, discovered from a newspaper cutting at Helston Folk Museum. What a brilliant tale!

[Illustrated Police News, Thursday 14th May 1931]

Four lions escape from village circus
Exciting hunt seen by crowd • One lassoed in a pond, another on pony’s back

Four fully grown lions had a brief, but hectic spell from captivity during a circus performance in the Cornish village of Helston. While about 700 people were watching the beasts performing in an enclosed arena, one of the lions slipped through a gap between two pieces of the iron railings. The remaining three followed, and all four trotted out by the performers’ entrance.

The escape occurred so quickly that there was no actual panic. As one of the lions slunk back into the big tent and advanced towards the audience, a few women screamed and rose from their seats, but the noise so scared the animal that he turned tail and walked straightway into his cage.

Another lion, a fully-grown beast, had been followed from the tent by a coloured attendant, who saw him bolt into a cattle shed in a field, and promptly shut the door on him. A third sprang into a tent where a pony was tethered, jumped lightly on the pony’s back and off again. The pony broke it’s halter and rushed out. The flaps of the tent were closed by an attendant and the ropes cut so that the canvas collapsed. The lion in this way was secured with comparative ease and hauled back to his cage.

The fourth lion sprang across a road into the park, whre there were several people including Mr. and Mrs. Garfield and two girls. The girls ran away screaming, and Mr. Garfield shotued to his wife to run also.

“But I could not move. I was rooted to the spot with terror,” she related afterwards. her husband dragged her down behind a bush, just as the lion leaped overhead and went plunging into a small lake.

Capt. Pinder, the owner of the circus, with attendants, lassooed the lion. It was dragged snarling from the water, and, as it was impossible to approach it closely, Capt. Pinder felled it with a heavy iron bar. The stunned lion was then bound and carried into the enclosed part of the arena. It soon recovered.

Meanwhile, members of the audience with attendants had dragged one of the cages on wheels to the shed in the field where the most ferocious lion was trapped. With iron railings they made a tunnel from the door of the shed to the entrance of the cage, and the animal was driven into the cage by a long iron rod called a “scoop”.

“The lion that jumped into the lake,” said Capt. Pinder, ” was the only one which really gave any trouble. I found him in 6 feet of water with his forepaws on the pathway. I roped him, but he was excited by liberty and became nasty and made at me. I side-stepped and he tried to jump a wall, but as I was still holding the rope I dragged him so that he became jammed between the wall and a tree. I got the rope around his neck and forepaws and we were able to capture him.

“All the lions are in their fifth year and fully grown. They have been accustomed to human beings since they were two months old and there was no danger in their liberty. If they saw human beings, they would turn away from them, although they might attack horses.”

Local Helston boy Ernie Whear (born in 1916) recalled the incident in an interview on the Cornish Memory website: (26:02 onwards):

Down on the Porthleven Road, right opposite the park there’s now a row of bungalows all the way along there, but that used to be a field and I can remember very distinctly a circus in there one night, or well he was there for two nights I believe, and they had a big lion display and everything on there. I forget how much it was to get in but it was too much for we boys to pay so we was all outside and then half way through, when they had the lion show on, the lions broke away, broke the thing down and they went out. Some of them went in the park, some went up the top of the field and went in the shed up there and some went down cassowary[?] but they had some job to catch them, but when they caught them they had them all back again and they said now we’re alright we can open up again now. But where they only had about say 50 people in the circus, now the circus was packed from end to end – all we boys went in and said look we lost our tickets you know and they couldn’t say nothing so we all went in and had a real good time.

The story of the escaping lions travelled far and wide – it was retold in newspapers in Launceston and in Singapore! It even prompted a question to be asked in Parliament, asking the Home Secretary whether he would be investigating the incident using his powers under the Performing Animals Regulations Act (see this extract in Hansard).

Other newspapers covering the story for future reference:
Cornishman, 7 May 1931 (story) and 21 May 1931 (question in Commons)
Dundee Courier, 6 May 1931
Western Times (Devon), 8 May 1931
Western Daily Press, 6 May 1931


A shady tale from the Stannary Courts

From the 13th century all matters relating to tin mining in Cornwall and Devon were dealt with by the Stannary Courts. Between 1836 and 1896, the Stannary Courts also dealt with other metalliferous mines, including Trenow Consuls Mine, a copper mine at Perranuthnoe. This story is from Stannary Tales: The Shady Side of Mining, by Justin Brooke (Twelveheads Press, 1980):

Opened by a cost-book company formed in 256 shares about the second half of 1843, the mine made its first sale of copper ore in December of that year. In 1845 it began paying dividends, and at one time its shares, on which £20 per share had been called up, reached a price of £190. In January 1846 an 85 in. pumping-engine was erected. The following month the mine reached a depth of 4 fms. below the 65-fm. level at Angove’s shaft, and the 50-fm. level was driven easterwards up to the boundary with Carn Perran mine. In June 1846 Dr Johnson, the mineral lord of Great Wengre (a field whose name may be derived from the Cornish whennegow, weedy ground), which was part of the area leased for mining, tried to have the lease revoked so that he could renew it at a higher rate of dues. This he did by pasting a notice to this effect on the capstan. His representatives then ordered the labourers to stop work, and promised them a good dinner as soon as the affair was settled. A large bottle of brandy was produced and served out, and attempts were made, both by threats and promises, to seduce the men from their employers, as a preliminary step to regaining possession of the mine. The next day was sampling day, but sampling by the representatives of the copper ore buyers was prevented by a mob that had been collected. Owing to the coolness and firmness displayed by the agents of the mine, knowing that they had justice on their side, nothing untoward took place. A neighbouring magistrate refused thirteen warrants for pretended assaults against Trenow men, and Mr John, a Penzance solicitor, gave Dr Johnson’s representative a severe lecture. After this the parties seemed to have given up the affair, but in the case that followed the Court refused Dr Johnson’s application to recover his land as he had acted improperly; and noted that his daughter had received £1,000 for the field in question.

A cost-book company was a mining partnership in transferable shares, without limit to the number of partners.


Joseph Emidy’s grave

Joseph Emidy's graveToday I finally remembered to look for the gravestone of violinist and composer Joseph Emidy, famous in his time. He is buried in Kenwyn Churchyard.

“He was a native of Portugal which country he quitted about forty years since and, pursuing the Musical profession, resided in Cornwall until the close of his earthly career.”

In actual fact he was sold as a slave from his native West Africa and worked on the plantations in Brazil before his owner brought him to Portugal where he was taught to play the violin. His story is told in Alan M. Kent’s play ‘The Tin Violin’.

Stories from Bodmin Jail

The History of Bodmin JailOn the hunt for good stories… my favourite so far:

“Parsons had previously escaped from Bodmin Gaol, having first stolen £5 from a keeper. He scaled the wall, visited a public-house, and returned to gaol of his own accord.”

Also found a man jailed with the charge ‘incorrigible rogue’

Found in ‘A History of Bodmin Jail’ by Bill Johnson.

Gracey Briney

A friend came across these newspaper clippings during some house history research – she lives now in what used to be the Pick and Gad, a pub frequented by miners working in the Redruth area. Watch out for future songs from us about the extraordinary woman depicted in these portraits!


Her story is fleshed out in more detail  by Lynne Mayers in her books about bal maidens (women mine workers) but here’s a quick summary:

Grace Hitchens was brought up in the workhouse. From a young age she was sent to work in the mines and was given the task of working the horses while the kibble was landed (a complex and skilful operation raising the kibble (bucket) of ore from the mine to the surface). Gracey fell pregnant; it is not known what became of her child. After that time she had a personality change and emerged as the strong, eccentric and unconventional woman described in the news cuttings. She moved from working the horses to becoming the kibble-lander herself, at the other end of the same task, a job usually reserved for men. Women often worked at the mines (they were known as bal maidens) but were usually restricted to work on the surface, breaking up lumps of ore and preparing them for market or working in the counthouse. There is plenty more information about women in the mining industry here:

“Thy face is a rough as Morvah Downs”

“Thy face is a rough as Morvah Downs that was ploughed and never harved (harrowed) they say, but I’ll have thee for all that and fill up with putty all the pock-mark pits and seams; then point them over and make thee as pretty as a new wheelbarrow”

From an old Christmas play, ‘Duffy and the Devil’, found in Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Second Series, by William Bottrell, 1873.

The Pilot’s Ghost Story

From Robert Hunt’s ‘Popular Romances of the West of England’

“On a sudden shrilly sounding,
Hideous yells and shrieks were heard;
Then each heart with fear confounding,
A sad troop of ghosts appear’d,
All in dreary hammocks shrouded,
Which for winding-sheets they wore.”
Admiral Hosier’s Ghost.

I PREFER giving this story in the words in which it was communicated. For its singular character, it is a ghost story well worth preserving :– “Just seventeen years since, I went down on the wharf from my house one night about twelve and one in the morning, to see whether there was any ‘hobble,’ and found a sloop, the Sally of St Ives (the Sally was wrecked at St Ives one Saturday afternoon in the spring of 1862), in the bay, bound for Hayle. When I got by the White Hart public-house, I saw a man leaning against a post on the wharf;–I spoke to him, wished him good morning, and asked him what o’clock it was, but to no purpose. I was not to be easily frightened, for I didn’t believe in ghosts; and finding I got no answer to my repeated inquiries, I approached close to him and said, ‘Thee ‘rt a queer sort of fellow, not to speak; I ‘d speak to the devil, if he were to speak to me. Who art a at all? thee’st needn’t think to frighten me; that thee wasn’t do, if thou wert twice so ugly; who art a at all?.’ He turned his great ugly face on me, glared abroad his great eyes, opened his – mouth, and it was a mouth sure nuff. Then I saw pieces of sea-weed and bits of sticks in his whiskers; the flesh of his face and hands were parboiled, just like a woman’s hands after a good day’s washing. Well, I did not like his looks a bit, and sheered off; but he followed close by my side, and I could hear the water squashing in his shoes every step he took. Well, I stopped a bit, and thought to be a little bit civil to him, and spoke to him again, but no answer. I then thought I would go to seek for another of our crew, and knock him up to get the vessel, and had got about fifty or sixty yards, when I turned to see if he was following me, but saw him where I left him. Fearing he would come after me, I ran for my life the few steps that I had to go. But when I got to the door, to my horror there stood the man in the door grinning horribly. I shook like an aspen-leaf; my hat lifted from my head; the sweat boiled out of me. What to do I didn’t know, and in the house there was such a row, as if everybody was breaking up everything. After a bit I went in, for the door was ‘on the latch,’–that is, not locked,–and called the captain of the boat, and got light, but everything was all right, nor had he heard any noise. We went out aboard of the Sally, and I put her into Hayle, but I felt ill enough to be in bed. I left the vessel to come home as soon as I could, but it took me four hours to walk two miles, and I had to lie down in the road, and was taken home to St Ives in a cart; as far as the Terrace from there I was carried home by my brothers, and put to bed. Three days afterwards all my hair fell off as if I had had my head shaved. The roots, and for about half an inch from the roots, being quite white. I was ill six months, and the doctor’s bill was £4, 17s. 6d. for attendance and medicine. So you see I have reason to believe in the existence of spirits as much as Mr Wesley had. My hair grew again, and twelve months after I had as good a head of dark-brown hair as ever.” [a]

[a] “The man has still a good thick head of hair.–C. F. S.”

Estren dyworth an Mor – Stranger from the Sea

WIth the help of Pol Hodge from the Cornish Language Partnership I turned this story into a song which is on our Salt and Sky EP. You can hear it over on Bandcamp.

Kernewek: Estren dyworth an morMy eth dhe’n kay rag gweles mar pe hobbel*,
Y hwelis vy den ryb An Karow Gwynn.
Yn-medhav vy, “Gorthugher da, piw os ta?”
Yth esa marnas taw, y worthyp tynn.
English: Stranger from the SeaI went down to the quay to see if there was hobble*
I saw a man by the White Hart.
I said to him, “Good evening, who are you?”
There was only silence – his tense reply.
Wel an skruth!
Goos-kowla, kig-kosa, blew sevel
Ev a dreylyas fas hagar dhymm vy
Gans barv gommonys
Kig hanter bryjys
‘vel diwdhorn benenes golghi…
Estren dyworth an mor
Well the shock!
Blood-curdling, flesh-crawling, hair-raising,
He turned his ugly face to me
His beard was covered in seaweed
His flesh parboiled
Like washerwomen’s fists…
Stranger from the sea
Y hassis vy rag gweres gans an lester
Y kerdhis vy hag ev ow holya vy
Y ferkis ev fest euthyk drog y semblant
Gans own my a fias, ow krena di.
I left to get help with the boat
I walked – and he followed me!
I noticed his awful appearance
I fled, shaking with fear
Wel an skruth!
Goos-kowla, kig-kosa, blew sevel
Pan wrug vy drehedhes an chi
‘th esa ev ena
An estren mor ma
Minhwarthin tamm tebel ‘ tevri…
Estren dyworth an mor
Estren dyworth an mor
Estren dyworth an mor
Estren dyworth an mor
Well the shock!
Blood-curdling, flesh-crawling, hair-raising,
When I reached the house
He was already there,
This sea stranger!
With a smile that was a little bit evil…
Stranger from the sea
Stranger from the sea
Stranger from the sea
Stranger from the sea
Yth esa tros y’n chi, yth entris evy
Tra vyth o klewys, oll o da ha brav
An ober meur rag gorra Sally salow
Mes kertys ‘ves ha my yn gweli-klav!
There was a noise in the house – I went in
There was nothing to hear – everything was fine
We went back to work putting the Sally safe
But I was carted away and put in a sick-bed!
Wel an skruth!
Goos-kowla, kig-kosa, blew sevel
Tri dydh hag ow gols o gyllys!
An blew dastevys
Fest gwynn avel gwrys**
‘Ha hwegh mis klav ev yw kablys…
Estren dyworth an mor
Well the shock!
Blood-curdling, flesh-crawling, hair-raising,
In three days my hair was gone!
The hair regrew
As white as crystal**
I was sick for six months, and he is to blame…
Stranger from the sea

* Hobble is the term for an unlicensed pilot boat for towing larger ships.
** We were quite pleased that this fitted the song because it harks back to some of the earliest written literature in Cornish – the phrase is found in Bewnans Meryasek , written in 1504 but probably copied from an earlier document