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.
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.
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
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
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…
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.
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!