‘We’re going on a Lion Hunt’… in Bognor.

By Imogen Russell, Searchroom Assistant

Close up image of a newspaper headline about the court trial
Bognor Observer, Wednesday 11th October 1933.

This year marks my tenth anniversary of working at the Record Office and for this blog I thought I’d review one of my most memorable cataloguing projects.  I could have chosen AM 760 – letters of Admiral Sir George Murray, the subject of previous blog posts. 

However, when looking back, for some reason, I kept thinking about an article I read when cataloguing MP 7021 – Research notes on Bognor Cinema, film making and the Bognor Regis Film Society. While this collection is an interesting read and useful for anyone studying early film history, I was particularly fascinated by a ‘Bygone Bognor’ article in the Bognor Regis Observer dated 9th July 1992. Written by Vanessa Mills, the article concerned an escaped lion intended for the Zoo that Billy Butlin had set up along the Bognor Regis Esplanade in 1933.

The News Chronicle article that broke the story on 5th July 1933 talked about the reporter going ‘on safari near Bognor’. Hunting a menagerie lion called Rex previously on exhibition at the Butlin’s in Skegness.  The article reports that the lion was noticed missing shortly after midnight on Tuesday 4th July and following an inspection at Littlehampton and the consignment of animals’ subsequent delivery at Bognor.

What followed was a two-day man hunt for a lion that, according to Billy Butlin’s police statement and witnesses at his trial, had not even been on the lorry from Skegness to begin with. Perhaps this was as Vanessa Mills described it: ‘a publicity stunt gone wrong’. Certainly, the trial proceedings reported in the Chichester Observer in October 1933, suggests a ‘Chinese whispers’ type scenario. Whereby the initial report of an escaped lion was exaggerated. Butlin had jumped to conclusions; a lion was loose, he had an empty case and a missing lion, therefore the lion was his.

At the time newspapers (both locally and nationally) reported the same thing. Someone had spotted what looked like a lion at Climping, causing rumours that a lion had escaped. It was then further exaggerated when a sheep was found mauled at Church Farm in Pagham. It transpired from the police statement given by John Wensley, who owned Church Farm, that he was paid 35/- to provide the dead sheep and pay the shepherd who did the mauling. The perpetrator who paid him was Alan Proctor, part time journalist to his father, who himself was a local journalist at the News Chronicle and other prominent papers.

Based on evidence it appeared to be a false alarm and a lion was sent from Skegness (although some reports say it was Maidstone) to act as the captured Rex. People would simply not believe a lion was never on the loose and so proof was needed to alleviate the concerns of Bognor’s residents. In his police statement Billy Butlin denied paying for the publicity, claiming it would be impossible to benefit from such a story.

Image of the advert for Butlin's in the Bognor Regis Observer.
Wednesday 26th July 1933

I can see how, in the interim, Butlin would not benefit immediately from this publicity. Fear for safety meant that many residents chose to stay safely inside, causing the opening of the zoo to be postponed untill the following week. Butlin’s sole concern was to find the missing lion before it did any damage.  He was not thinking of the publicity. Although you can well imagine the hoardes of visitors, wanting to visit the zoo intrigued by the escaped lion. To the benefit of Butlin, his Amusement Arcade advert was on the front page of the following week’s Observers. 

The story doesn’t end there as three months later Billy Butlin, Alan Proctor, Clifford Joste and John Wensley were up before both the Chichester County Court and the Lewes Assizes, for conspiring to cause a public mischief. All pleaded not guilty at both trials.

From the articles in the Chichester Observer on the Chichester Court Case (11th – 25th October 1933) we learn that the lion was never on the consignment from Skegness to be delivered to Bognor Regis. On the list of animals to be delivered to Bognor were bears, kangaroos, leopards and monkeys. Most of which were tame.

Image of a newspaper article about the court trial
Bognor Observer, Wednesday 11th October 1933.

The confusion appears to have begun with Clifford Joste, Butlin’s Amusements Manager in Bognor, who is told that a lion is seen at Climping, and to inform the Police, which he does. Butlin considered the police non-essential in the recapture of Rex, believing in his own specially trained staff and the familiarity of the animal with its trainer would aid its capture. Indeed, a lion did escape from a local menagerie ten days earlier but he was caught in a Summer House (at Craigwell park) eating tomatoes on Sunday 2nd July, before Butlin’s animals even left Skegness.  The court was told that Joste heard that a lion was seen and that Butlin had a lion missing. The first they both heard of the sheep was the Wednesday morning.

Everything after his informing the police Joste believes was true, because he read it the paper. The judge described him as having no criminal intent, and who did everything with a ‘passive attitude’.

Alan Proctor’s role in the whole affair is the organising of the dead sheep found at Pagham, either as a prank or to boost newspaper sales. Proctor was also the author of the original News report that started the whole affair. At the trial in October, Proctor kept evading the questions and the Judge at the assizes deemed he had deliberately misled the public, and knowingly brought Wensley into the scheme.

At the court case the prosecution, relies on witness statements to confirm the local community’s fears calling on Pagham resident John Apps who had a loaded gun ready in case the lion entered his garden. However, fears were confirmed unfounded when the manager of the holiday camp in Pagham remarked that his guests were in no way alarmed by the escaped lion and seemingly went about their business, going to the beach, school etc. In addition, the landlord of the Red Lion at Nyetimber thought the story was humorous entertainment for his guests. Indeed, one witness stated he could see the beach at Pagham was relatively normal to any other day.

At the Assizes, Butlin and Joste were found not guilty, while proctor and Wensley were found guilty of causing public mischief. As instigator of the sheep hoax Proctor was fined £30 and required to pay his share of the court fees. Wensley was fined £10 which he paid.

The whole affair was settled in December 1933 and the zoo continued on the esplanade until the 1960’s when it and the amusements moved to the site we know and love today.

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