Travelling menageries were popular in the 19th Century but Dr Helen Cowie, a historian at the University of York, says they “were not too preoccupied” with security and there were “an alarming number” of escapes and accidents.

In 1899 a young black-maned Nubian lion escaped from Bostock and Wombwell’s Menagerie in Aston. A report which has just been unearthed in the Pall Mall Gazette on September 28, 1889, said: “Men, women and children scampered off in all directions as the lion dashed across the ground, hotly pursued by the men from Wombwell’s. A group of children were in its path, but it cleared them at a bound.”

The lion made for a stream, before taking refuge in a sewer. Chief lion tamer Marcus Orenz heard the lion’s roar, crawled through a manhole and began to pursue the animal. A trap was set with a cage over the drain opening and Orenzo, ‘armed with a heavy revolver and accompanied by a boarhound’ approached the lion, firing two shots.


  Illustration of men putting a cage over a manhole in an attempt to trap the lion  

The Mail (2015) ended there with its capture but a 2017 post on a BBC News website has a more dashing account. Frank C Bostock, the owner of a menagerie, and his team were preparing for a show when one of his lions jumped over its keeper, pushed through a rip in the circus tent, and prowled off towards Birmingham city centre “as free and untrammelled as when in his native wilds”.

According to Bostock’s account in his book The Training of Wild Animals, the lion came across one of the openings to the sewerage system and “down he sprang, looking up at the crowd of people and roaring at the top of his voice. As he made his way through the sewers, he stopped at every man-hole he came to, and there sent up a succession of roars, driving some people nearly wild with terror.”

As the public became very alarmed, rather than trying to quell the volatile crowd, Bostock put a second lion in a cloth-covered cage and sneaked it out on the back of a lorry. He then returned, blowing his horn to attract attention, with the lion clearly visible. People fell for the ruse and he was cheered as a hero. “A shout went up from the crowd ‘They’ve got him! They’ve got him! They’ve got the lion!'” His actions in apparently getting the lion from the sewer were reported around the world. A New Zealand newspaper ran an article called “A lion at large in Birmingham: How the King of the Forest was recaptured”.

Frank C Bostock published a volume of his memoirs and training tips

The publicity worked in Bostock’s favour. Hordes of people attended the show that evening, ignorant of the fact a man-eating lion was prowling beneath the streets. Bostock said he “was in a perfect bath of cold perspiration, for matters were extremely serious, and I knew not what to do next. Fortunately, the lion had stopped his roaring, and contented himself with perambulating up and down the sewer”.

On the afternoon of the following day, the chief of police of Birmingham visited the menagerie and congratulated Bostock on his “marvellous pluck and daring” and Bostock ‘came clean’. “I shall never forget that man’s face when he realized that the lion was still in the sewer, it was a wonderful study for any mind-reader,” he reflected. “At first he was inclined to blame me but when I showed him I had probably stopped a panic, and that my own liabilities in the matter were pretty grave possibilities to face, he sympathized with me, and added that any help he could give me, I might have.

“I at once asked for 500 men of the police force and asked that he would instruct the superintendent of sewers to send me the bravest men he could spare, with their top-boots, ladders, ropes, and revolvers with them, so that should the lion appear, any man could do his best to shoot him at sight. We arranged that we should set out at five minutes to midnight, so that we might avoid any crowd following us, and so spreading the report”.

An illustration from The Graphic newspaper: men pulling a lion from a sewer using a rope

It was more than 24 hours later that Bostock, now in the sewer, “saw two gleaming eyes of greenish-red just beyond, and knew we were face to face with the lion at last”. He and his gang of men chased the lion through the sewers by scaring it with shouts and fireworks. When face-to-face with the lion Bostock took off his boots and put them on his hands “Fearing that he would split my head open with a blow from one of his huge paws, I told one of my men to place over my head a large iron kettle which we had used to carry cartridges and other things to the sewer”. The kettle fell off and startled the lion which “turned tail like a veritable coward” and ran into a rope lasso laid out ready to snare him.

Bostock’s story in his memoirs concludes: “I got the lion out of the sewer, as the people of Birmingham supposed I did, only their praise and applause were a little previous.”

Frank C Bostock died from ‘flu aged 46 in 1912 and there is a stone lion on grave in which he and his wife Susannah were buried in Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington.