Almost 80 years ago, a male lion being transported to Petersfield brought terror to a London railway station – or did he? This week Peeps looks behind the headlines to find a rather different story...

The big cat, named (rather unimaginatively) by onlookers as Leo, escaped from his container when the train carrying him pulled into Clapham Junction station for a stopover, on October 22, 1943.

An account of the event, published online last year, talked of commuters waiting on the platform running for their lives, screaming. But a trawl through the newspapers of the time reveals a much calmer and compassionate response from those present.

Modern-day Clapham Junction – where 80 years ago an escaped lion, Leo, caused a bit of a stir!
Modern-day Clapham Junction – where 80 years ago an escaped lion, Leo, caused a bit of a stir! (Creative Commons)

Interviewed in the South Western Star (a now defunct local paper for south-west London), stationmaster Ernest Mathews told how the lion was being transported in a wooden crate inside a box car attached to the train but managed to free himself and had his head through the window of the car as the train came in.

“He jumped from the window as the train drew up but, fortunately, he was quite tame and, I fancy, a rather scared lion. Anyway, one of my foremen standing by had the presence of mind to ‘shoo’ the great cat, which promptly jumped down and ambled along the line.

“Arriving at the railway embankment by Plough Road, he sprang into a pit probably with the idea of taking refuge from the noise and commotion of a railway.”

Female porters who had seen the lion called the station’s Home Guard who followed him a few hundred yards along the track and mounted a guard around the pit that was enclosed by a wooden fence. They secured the gate to the fence and waited until trained zookeepers could arrive several hours later.

The lion ‘looked like a real gentleman as he walked down the line’ observed one porter
The lion ‘looked like a real gentleman as he walked down the line’ observed one porter (Unsplash)

It’s clear these members of the Home Guard were nothing like the panic-prone bumblers of the TV series Dad’s Army, nor were they trigger-happy gun fanatics. Their response was patient, composed and reasoned.

A similar reaction can be gauged from workers on the rail line who saw the lion and said he appeared “quite harmless and good-tempered”. One porter said he “looked like a real gentleman as he walked down the line”. Only when someone tried to stroke him did he appear ferocious.

The Daily Mirror took a light-hearted approach to the story, reporting how the three-year-old big cat ignored a notice saying passengers must not cross the line.  

Under the headline “Lion hunting in the wilds of Clapham”, their reporter said he went on safari armed with a pencil and notebook. 

Playing on stereotypes, he wrote: “Only a mouse or a lion could have caused the screams that women porters let loose when they caught sight of him.”

But the South Western Star painted a very different picture of the female response. 

It described how a railway worker’s wife who lived next door to the pit where the lion had taken refuge saw the animal looking down at her from the rails, but far from getting hysterical she just locked the door and went on cooking her husband’s dinner. 

“I had to get that ready,” she told the paper. A case of “keep calm and carry on” in action!

Hundreds of children were among the spectators who turned out to get a look at the lion, but the animal appeared to be completely bored and after looking around his new-found den, fell asleep.

He was eventually captured – after being prodded with a bar and having stones thrown at him to wake him up – by being lured with kidneys into a wooden box, which was rapidly made by locals and the zookeepers. Once inside he was hauled away on a barrow by a group of porters.

Petersfield station sign
Petersfield Railway Station (Petersfield Post )

But why was the lion being taken from St Pancras to Petersfield?

Peeps recalls a certain Fred Kimber used to keep lions, wolves, monkeys and other animals in the garden of his house in Tilmore Road. A licensed supplier of wild animals to circuses, Mr Kimber also had a travelling zoo, while his family kept an unusual selection of pets.  

Surely, in all probability, that’s where the railway lion was destined when he made his escape.

Two photos of the escaped lion from the Cuthbert Grasemann collection, held by the National Railway Museum, can be found here: