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