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The Lion went down to Church Street – the Roar heard round the World

 

From The World's News, Australia, 30th March 1932
From The World’s News, Australia, 30th March 1932

The story of the Bloxwich Lion is something that has passed into legend amongst local folk, told and re-told down the generations, with bits and pieces remembered, sometimes mistakenly, until it has at times become twisted and tangled. Strangely, the tale of the lion which escaped from Pat Collins’ Wakes Ground has never been recorded as such in the town archives.

But now, the legend is a legend no more.  The Bloxwich Telegraph is able to finally set the story straight and place it properly on record, thanks to international (yes, international!) research by Stuart Williams. It’s timely, because there is a good chance that the Bloxwich Lion will now be recognised in a new public artwork, of which we hope to say more once details are confirmed. Watch this space.

It may well seem peculiar that the legend of the Bloxwich Lion has never found a place in the archives, but that’s really just because the computer era has not yet reached our local historic newspapers, and there are no detailed indexes of such things locally.  Moreover, the whole story has never been properly researched until Stuart Williams got his teeth into the lion’s tale. Astonishingly, the necessary evidence to shed light on the whole kitty and caboodle has been easier to discover on the other side of the world, in the online newspaper archives of the National Library of Australia. And that was where Stuart found the first documented story of the lion that upped sticks and went for a walk in Church Street, one dark night in 1932.

In digitised news-cuttings from The World’s News and The Delegate Argus of February and March of that year respectively, Bloxwich found world fame on the opposite side of the globe, thanks to the wanderings of an errant big cat and his adventures amongst Bloxwich folk. The press trail of those big furry footprints led back from the antipodes to The Times newspaper of London, where the international story originates, and by narrowing the date down, the best and most detailed reports of all have now been discovered in the Walsall Observer and Walsall Times newspapers of February 1932. In addition, another local investigator, with online access to the Express and Star of the day, Mr Chris Selby, also kindly came up with the picture shown below.

The Bloxwich Lion which escaped into Church St, Express & Star 8th February 1932
The Bloxwich Lion which escaped into Church St, Express & Star 8th February 1932

Here, then, compiled from the available newspaper sources, is the best summary of the Legend of the Bloxwich Lion which can be found, unless you, dear reader, have any further evidence. And the best of it is, it’s all true…

The mane event

As the Walsall Times pointed out not long after the event, many conflicting stories of the visit of an escaped lion to not one (as was previously rumoured), but two houses in Church Street, Bloxwich, were being circulated even back in the day, and there is some slight confusion between the details in the the national, international and local reports. If in doubt, we have therefore tended to give most credence to the detailed report in the Walsall Observer, which was the town’s top local paper for almost 150 years.

However, the facts of the matter are basically that, on the evening of Saturday 6th February, 1932, Pluto, as the lion’s name was subsequently revealed in the Walsall Observer, managed to escape from his travelling cage on Pat Collins’ showground (also known traditionally as the Wakes Ground), which then was situated where the Asda car park now resides. He managed to climb over the wall between the ground and Church Street, somewhere at the back of the Grosvenor (later Odeon) Cinema (now The Bloxwich Showman pub), of which more later. But this is just the beginning of what is a convoluted and rather entertaining tale.

Pat Collins' Wakes Ground, now the Asda site, 1949.
Pat Collins’ Wakes Ground, now the Asda site, 1949.
The Field Road female with the furry friend

We now know that the first fortunate (!) recipient of a house-call from the fierce feline that night was in fact Mrs Amy O’Connor of 120, Field Road, who, it seems, had been intending to visit her father-in-law’s house in Church Street. Just as she arrived in the back yard, she saw a shadowy figure which she took to be a man coming towards her. Taking hold of the figure’s head, she then had the shock of her life as she found she was handing a lion!

Mrs O’Connor, understandably startled, managed to pull herself together and got into the house. The lion followed her in briefly, but thankfully went out again, whereupon Mrs O’Connor slammed the door to keep it outside. As soon as she had recovered from the initial shock, she had the presence of mind to run straightaway out of the front of the house and thence to Bloxwich Police Station, in the Public Buildings on Elmore Green Road, where she reported the matter to the police. She also went round to the showground and, finding the owner of the lion, reported it to him. The young German lion tamer returned with her, but by then the lion, Pluto, had moved on.

Pluto, who obviously had strong hunting instincts despite being kept in captivity since being brought over the sea from Africa, had decided to try his chances elsewhere, and had padded softly around the back of the O’Connor house and ended up behind number 36, the home of Mr and Mrs James W. Parsons.

Have a break, have a kitty kat

The Lion went down to Church Street 2

So it was that, as Mrs Parsons was emptying a teapot at the back of the house around six o’clock, she received the evening’s second close encounter of the kitty kind. She had been expecting a visit from a young girl, and called out “Come on Milly!” when she saw movement in the shadows, but instead she was more than a little surprised to suddenly see a big, hairy-maned lion strolling confidently up to her and into the light. It uttered a terrifying growl. Screaming, she promptly dropped the teapot and ran into her home, followed swiftly into the scullery by the big beast.

Mrs Parsons did the most sensible thing and ran through into the sitting room, where her husband was sitting at the table enjoying a cup of tea. He wondered what was going on and went to the door leading to the kitchen, looking out and getting his first glimpse of the mighty moggy. For a moment, he braced his back against the door, but realising the futility of this mode of defence, he followed the example of his wife and made a hasty exit into Church Street by way of the front door, which he shut after him.

At this point, Pluto had the house to himself, with the front door closed and the other doors open, and if he had thought to take it an escape route was available back through the scullery and the yard door.

When Pluto popped into the parlour

The plucky Mr Parsons wasted no time, swiftly obtaining the assistance of his neighbours Messrs Sam Heeley, J. Rowe and especially, a young Mr Jack Russell, with whose assistance the back door was shut. They could then see Pluto walking to and fro between the sitting room and the furniture-filled parlour, and resting awhile on the hearth rug in front of the fire while they were shut out in the cold. Finally, when he disappeared one last time into the parlour he inadvertently partly closed the door after him with his tail, and the men, watching for their chance, ran in and shut the parlour door.

The heroic Jack Russell, acting much like the fearless and feisty dog of the same name, meanwhile secured the parlour door with a rope and hung onto it to ensure the beast stayed put, to avoid its roaming elsewhere in the house. That is more than most would have done, for an ordinary door as the only barrier between one and a lion is not the thing to inspire a feeling of freedom from danger. The men went on to barricade the front window with a door removed from the coalhouse, to avoid the lion breaking out that way. However, while the humans had been running around like meerkats, and hundreds of locals had gathered in the street outside, the majestic lion had already had some fun in the parlour, breaking a picture and a small glass vase and savaging Mrs Parsons’ fur necklet and the fur on her coats, which had been left hanging on the back of the door. In getting at these, he tore the coat hook off the door (on the other side of which was Jack Russell hanging onto the rope for grim death). Pluto also left a huge paw print on the sideboard mirror, and a few deep scratches to accompany it, perhaps having seen the reflection of what he thought was a competitor! Apart from this, and a little damage to the stair carpet, Pluto offered no violence during the incident, which was just as well for both sides.

The Roar heard round the World

 

From The Delegate Argus (Australia) 31 Mar 1932
From The Delegate Argus (Australia) 31 Mar 1932

The Bloxwich police, by now having arrived after Mrs O’Connor’s earlier alert, were probably a little out of their depth, to be fair, as they were far more likely to encounter a Staffordshire Bull Terrier (or indeed, a Jack Russell) with a drunken owner in the course of their daily duties in the village than a top predator from the South African veldt, but they proceeded to render every assistance they could to control the crowd of hundreds of locals and to help get Pluto back in his own ‘parlour’.

The Express & Star says that Mr Parsons told their reporter afterwards “…people had assembled in the street, and, probably frightened by their noise, the beast roared, and I could hear the sound of breaking glass in the room. It took the police all their time to hold the huge crowd back.” Thanks to the gentlemen of the press, and the London Times, who thought to report the event, that roar was eventually ‘heard’ round the world.

Pluto’s owner and trainer, a young German lion tamer named Herr Robert Lier, who was working with Pat Collins and wintering at his Bloxwich showground, joined forces with the police and locals and together they began making efforts to recapture the lion. Pluto’s travelling cage was fetched from the Wakes Ground on a lorry, and backed right up to the front door of number 36, whereupon the trap door grille at the end of the cage was raised and the front door of the house forced open, presumably using a pole of some kind. As soon as the lion saw his full-grown lioness looking disdainfully at him from within the cage, he walked quietly, and perhaps somewhat ruefully, back into captivity and the trap door was immediately closed. His short-lived freedom was at an end.

A cat can look…

The Lion went down to Church Street 3

Pluto then turned round and stared at the assembled crowd of Bloxwich folk, regarding them with utter amazement. It must have seemed to him like a Saturday night at the Pat Collins Lion Show, with all those curious and perhaps a little fearful faces peering in at him and his missus. No doubt he wondered what all the fuss was about!

‘Stroller’, writing in the Walsall Times, speculated tongue in cheek that it might have been profitable if a show could have been given just at that time, for all the people who had come from far and wide to get a glimpse of the truant animal! He was also at pains to point out that the lion “…did not belong to Alderman P. Collins, and the worthy Bloxwich Alderman is in no way liable or responsible for this most unfortunate happening…”

Epilogue (or should that be Catalogue?)

There are a few strange coincidences relating to this case. Just a few days earlier, it seems, Mr and Mrs Parsons had been joking with relatives about the chances of them becoming famous in the national newspapers. Also remarkable, under the circumstances, was that, also a few days earlier, a visiting relative, hearing the roaring of the animals in their cages on the Wakes Ground on the other side of the wall, had suggested they better be careful lest one of the lions escape and find their way into the back yard!

Mr Parsons, talking to a Walsall Observer reporter after the event, laughed heartily with hindsight at the coincidence, but it had probably not been quite so funny at the time! Oddly enough, it further turns out that he was a member of the Cheslyn Hay Male Voice Choir, and they had only just started learning a new piece the week before, entitled ‘Martyrs of the Arena’, when the conductor, Mr Ernest Amphlett of Wednesbury, had suggested that they wanted to get the ‘…right atmosphere and colour for the fearsome passages…’!

Little did Mr Parsons think that he was going to get the atmosphere right quite so soon, but when he went to choir practice on the Sunday he was sought after by other choir members seeking his views as to the proper feeling to express when confronted by a lion… Perhaps as a result of Pluto’s unexpected visit, the choir went on to win first prize for their rendering of the piece at Shrewsbury the following Thursday!

But how had Pluto gotten free in the first place? Well, it turns out that whilst the cage door was open for feeding time, Pluto had taken his chance and leapt out and over the wall at the Church Street side of the Wakes Ground. This is the stuff of which legends are made.

Captain Clarke the Leamore Lion Tamer at Bingley Hall just a few years later
Captain Clarke the Leamore Lion Tamer at Bingley Hall just a few years later

Unfazed by all the attention in Bloxwich, Pluto and his mate later went on to wow the crowds of Birmingham at the Bingley Hall, where they were put inside a large ball-shaped metal enclosure, around the inside of which their owner, Herr Robert Lier, rode a motorcycle. Herr Lier, speaking only broken English, gave his account of the Bloxwich incident to the Walsall Observer, and revealed that in the nine months he had been in England he had had very bad luck, but he was now, however, hoping for better times!

All in all, it had taken nearly two hours to recapture the Bloxwich Lion, and as a result of all the hoo-hah and subsequent gossip, not to mention local, national and international press coverage, Pluto, whose name was sadly forgotten until now, has long since passed into local legend. While he was enjoying his adventures in Church Street he gave, indeed, a roar which was undeniably heard round the world, from Bloxwich to Australia, and probably beyond!

Paw Print

Bloxwich versus Walsall: A Foreign Feud

Plan of Walsall, 1679
Plan of Walsall, 1679

The modern Walsall Metropolitan Borough is a substantial area housing around a quarter of a million people. But it was not always so extensive, or so populous!

In 1831, the old Parish of Walsall,  at that time divided into the townships of the ‘Borough’ and the ‘Foreign’ for the purpose of collecting the Poor Rate, included just 15,066 people.

But what were the Borough and Foreign?  Simply put, the Borough was the old town itself, the rough equivalent in size of modern Walsall’s town centre. Today, it would not take you long to cross it on foot – if you got off the bus outside The Prince pub in Stafford Street and walked south to the Wheatsheaf pub in Birmingham Road, you will have travelled across the town of Walsall: the old Borough.

The Foreign was every place within the old Parish of Walsall but outside the Borough. In those days, when Bloxwich had a chapel of ease but no parish of its own, the Foreign primarily included such places as Bloxwich (the effective centre of the Foreign), Little Bloxwich, Blakenall Heath, Leamore, Birchills, Shelfield and (albeit semi-detached) Walsall Wood. It also included such smaller locations as Pleck, Caldmore, Chuckery and Palfrey.

1800s, the brown line is the old Foreign boundary - click to enlarge
Map of Walsall boundaries in the mid-1800s, the brown line is the old Foreign boundary – click to enlarge

Rushall, Pelsall, Brownhills, Aldridge, Streetly, Bentley, Darlaston and Willenhall, which were not part of the old Borough and Foreign, did not come under the administration of Walsall until the mid 1960s-70s, which changes caused some controversy within those towns and villages. The present Metropolitan Borough itself (preceded by the County Borough) came into being on 1 April, 1974.

The rivalries between these later additions and Walsall itself were foreshadowed by the long-standing feuding between Bloxwich and Walsall, which despite their distinctness and one-time geographical separation before the surrounding areas were filled in with houses, shops and industrial development, are thought to have been historically associated for almost 1000 years.

In practice, the separate identity of the Foreign or ‘forren’ goes back at least as far as the 13th century, when the Ruffus Charter of c1225 mentions the ‘forin woods’, and a lease of 1485 refers to ‘the Manor of the Forren of Walsall’.

St Matthew's Church in an engraving of 1795
St Matthew’s Church in an engraving of 1795

Continue reading Bloxwich versus Walsall: A Foreign Feud

From Birchills to Bletchley Park: Harry Hinsley

Birchills to Bletchley Park

The old Bloxidge Tallygraph website began as a primarily local history magazine, only later evolving an emphasis on community news.  With this, the first of a new series of local history articles, its successor The Bloxwich Telegraph returns to that focus.

And it seems timely, with the 100th birthday of Dr Alan Turing, mathematician and father of computing, so much in the news world-wide, to begin with the tale of one of Turing’s colleagues – a man from Birchills whose work also helped shorten World War II through his work at Bletchley Park, and who deserves to be better known, particularly in his home town.

Some Walsall people have changed world history.  One such was Francis ‘Harry’ Hinsley, born 26 November 1918, an ordinary working class lad whose analytical mind, talent and expertise were to help speed the winning of the Second World War.

A typical coal waggon of the early 1900s
A typical coal waggon of the early 1900s

Harry’s father, Thomas Harry Hinsley, was a waggoner, employed by the coal department at the Walsall Co-op.  His mother Emma Hinsley (nee Adey) was a school caretaker, and they lived in Birchills, then in the parish of Bloxwich, Walsall.

Reception class, Wolverhampton Rd School, c1920 (Walsall Local History Centre)
Reception class, Wolverhampton Rd School, c1920 (Walsall Local History Centre)

Young Harry was educated at Wolverhampton Road Board School and later at Queen Mary’s Grammar School, Walsall, on a scholarship.  A bright, quiet and studious boy according to friends, his academic bent and hard work resulted in his winning a further scholarship in 1937, to study history at St. John’s College, Cambridge.

St John's College, Cambridge, late 1910s
St John’s College, Cambridge, late 1910s

Two years later, he was awarded a First in Part I of the Historical Tripos. Then, with Part II coming up and another First within his grasp, his life changed forever – and his historical studies were temporarily set aside.

Harry Hinsley
Harry Hinsley

One day, in the winter of 1939-40, Harry Hinsley was asked to see Martin Charlesworth, the Fellow of St John’s who, working with F. E. Adcock at King’s College, was running Cambridge recruiting for the Government Code and Cipher School.

Alastair Denniston
Alastair Denniston

Harry was subsequently summoned to an interview with Alastair Denniston, head of the GC&CS, and despite his slight, bespectacled aspect must have made a considerable impression.  Denniston immediately saw his potential and recruited him to serve in Bletchley Park’s Naval Section in Hut 4 (which is now a cafe as part of the Bletchley Park museum).

Bletchley Park today
Bletchley Park today
Hut 4, now a cafe, Bletchley Park
Hut 4, now a cafe, Bletchley Park

There, Hinsley studied the external characteristics of intercepted German messages, a process known as traffic analysis.  From call signs, frequencies, times of interception etc, he deduced detailed information about the structure of the German Navy’s communications networks, and their navy itself. His powers as an interpreter of decrypts were also unrivalled and were based on an ability to sense something unusual from the tiniest clues.

Harry was frequently in contact with Naval Intelligence.  But at first the Admiralty’s Operation Intelligence Centre paid little attention to the Bletchley codebreakers – a serious mistake.  At the beginning of April 1940, the OIC ignored Hinsley’s radio traffic report of an unusual build-up of German naval activity in the Baltic, and as a result Britain was caught unawares by the German occupation of Norway.

HMS Glorious shortly after conversion to aircraft carrier in March 1930
HMS Glorious shortly after conversion to aircraft carrier in March 1930

Two months later he reported that a number of German warships were about to break out of the Baltic. Again he was ignored, leading to the sinking of our aircraft carrier HMS Glorious.

His warnings were covered up, but after this more attention was paid to Bletchley Park, despite continuing suspicions of profession jealousy and obstruction from some naval intelligence officers.

Schlachtschiff Bismarck, 1940
Schlachtschiff Bismarck, 1940

Radio traffic from the Baltic in May 1940 indicated that the mighty German battleship Bismarck (one of the two largest ever built by German) was about to leave, and Bletchley Park’s insistence that the Bismarck was heading for a safe French port was once again ignored.

Hinsley would not let the matter lie, and repeatedly telephoned the OIC after Bismarck’s fateful engagement with HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales, but it was not until 25 May that this conclusion was accepted.  Just minutes after his last call, Hut 6 deciphered a message from the Luftwaffe Chief of Staff who was concerned for a relative on the Bismarck.

The response from this revealed that the ship was heading for Brest, France and with this information the Royal Navy closed in and sank the Bismarck on 26 May.

German Enigma machine in use on a Nazi U-boat
German Enigma machine in use on a Nazi U-boat

Many German military radio transmissions were encoded using the famous ‘Enigma’ machines, electro-mechanical devices combining a keyboard system and ‘key’ wheels with codebooks, making it extremely difficult to break.

But it was Harry Hinsley who, at the end of April 1941, identified the Enigma system’s fatal flaw.  The same codebooks used on German U-Boats were also aboard their unprotected trawlers. These trawlers, transmitting weather reports to the Germans, also received naval Enigma messages. Hinsley helped initiate a programme of seizing Enigma machines and keys from German weather ships, significantly aiding Bletchley Park’s breaking of German Naval Enigma.

Harry Hinsley (left), Sir Edward Travis and Brigadier Titman in Washington DC, USA, November 1945 (National Archives)
Harry Hinsley (left), Sir Edward Travis and Brigadier Titman in Washington DC, USA, November 1945 (National Archives)

Towards the end of the war, Hinsley, then a key aide to Bletchley Park chief Edward Travis, was part of a committee arguing for a single post-war intelligence agency combining both signals and human intelligence. Eventually, though, the opposite happened, with GC&CS becoming GCHQ, still in operation today.

In 1946 Harry married Hilary Brett-Smith, whom he had met at Bletchley Park and in whose company he returned to St John’s College Cambridge where he had been elected a Fellow two years before.  That same year he was awarded the OBE.

Harry Hinsley at his desk in Cambridge
Harry Hinsley at his desk in Cambridge

Dapper and small of stature, Harry Hinsley often had his leg pulled for the distinctiveness of his pronunciation (the Walsall accent, a variant on Black Country dialect, is famous in some quarters!) but proved an exceptional teacher, and in 1969 he was appointed professor of the history of international relations.

Hinsley edited the official history of British Intelligence in WWII, and argued that Enigma decryption had speeded Allied victory by one to four years.  President of St. John’s College 1975-79, and from 1981 Master, from that year to 1983 he became Vice-Chancellor of the University.  He was knighted in 1985, when his wife also became Lady Hinsley as a result.

Harry Hinsley late in life
Harry Hinsley late in life

Sir Francis Harry Hinsley OBE died at Cambridge on 16 February 1998. His was one of the most remarkable minds to come out of the borough of Walsall – and change the world. Not bad for a coalman’s son from Birchills.

Stuart Williams

Further research on Harry Hinsley is ongoing and this article will be extended in future. Watch this space!

Meanwhile, why not support the wonderful museum at Bletchley Park with a visit, as well as the National Museum of Computing there?