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.


“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.