In London, we from time to time hear reports of ‘big cat’ sightings in peoples’ back gardens, marshlands and forests. Although nothing has been independently confirmed, the reports, occasionally backed up with video evidence, have led some to believe pumas or sphinxes lurk in our woods.
While the idea of these elusive wild cats wandering through our city can be scary for some, one can only imagine the fright of people who witnessed a lion escape from a South London train back in October 1943.
The zoo animal, named Leo, was being transported to Petersfield in Hampshire when the Southern Railway train that was carrying it pulled into Clapham Junction station for a stopover. Leo saw the opportunity to escape, and jumped out of the boxcar that was holding him and landed on the platform.
Commuters who were waiting on the platform immediately ran for their lives, scattering in all directions in fear. But Leo the lion was not at all fussed by the panicky humans who were screaming at the top of their lungs.
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Instead of chasing people down and ripping them to shreds in an act of revenge against the very species that had locked him in a cage for most of his life, Leo decided to utilise his newfound freedom by finding a comfortable spot to take a nap.
A newspaper story about the incident read as follows: “Shrieks from female railway workers were the first indication that a lion had escaped from a box car when a train pulled up at Clapham Junction station.
“The lion jumped on to the platform and stretched itself. Then it looked through an office window, thoroughly startling the guard inside. It next leapt on to the track and ambled along the line of the Southern Railway”.
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A British Pathé film shows just how much chaos was caused by the lion as it hid in a yard near the station, with guns pointing at it from every angle. The newspaper continued: “The Home Guard were called out and with the aid of the police and watched by hundreds of spectators, they shepherded the lion into the railway pit nearby.
“After corrugated iron and other obstructions had been placed around the pit, the Home Guards stood by with loaded rifles until the arrival of two trained lion-keepers from a private zoo”.
With the help of the lion-keepers, locals managed to put together a wooden box with a sliding door that would be used to capture the lion. They broke a hole in the fence of the yard where they lion was resting, and placed the box on the other side of the hole with the door open.
The lion was then coaxed into going through the hole and entering the box, upon which the door of the box was shut and the lion was trapped. Luckily for the people who worked to recapture him, Leo didn’t put up any resistance. As people watched on anxiously, the box containing Leo was ushered away, and the escaped lion was quickly returned to captivity.
The newspaper said that Leo “was not in the least perturbed throughout the incident”. Perhaps he’d seen enough of Clapham to decide that life in a cage wasn’t so bad after all, for a lion at least.
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