The Circus Owner Who Pretended His Lion Wasn't On The Loose In Birmingham City Center

James Felton

James Felton

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

James is a published author with four pop-history and science books to his name. He specializes in history, strange science, and anything out of the ordinary.

Senior Staff Writer

Frank C Bostock

Frank C. Bostock in all his mustached glory. Image credit: The Taming of Wild Animals (Public Domain)

In the 1800s, one circus owner lost a lion in the center of the city of Birmingham, UK, then decided to simply pretend he had caught it, while it prowled the sewers below.

Frank C. Bostock was born in 1866, the son of a traveling circus owner. His father wanted Frank to do anything but follow him into the family business. You know how parents will be like "do not become an accountant whatever you do, it is so dull"? It was like that but "every day I have to see these pandas, day in day out seeing these pandas gnawing on bamboo".


His father decided that Frank should be a priest, and sent him off to priest school. But during a vacation from priest school, he worked on his father's show and saw the lion tamer being incredibly cruel to the lions. So cruel, in fact, that the animal turned on him and mauled him.

At this point, Frank begged his father to let him take the lion tamer's place, out of concern for the lion rather than anything else. After his father told him no he decided to give him no choice in the matter, and the next day he climbed into the lion's cage anyway. 

Whilst doing a check before the show, his father saw him in there and told him "if ever you get out of there alive, my lad, I'll give you the biggest thrashing you ever had in your life" which, let's face facts here, isn't the best way to motivate someone to step out of a cage.

However, when Frank showed quite a knack for not dying in a lion's cage, his father downgraded his thrashing to merely letting the 15-year-old get into a cage with a lion night after night. A lion, you might remember, which had just mauled a colleague to pieces. 


Frank took to the road with the circus, loving the life bar for one small problem: one of the menagerie's two lions was (understandably, having been ripped from Africa and every night placed in a cage with a piece of food that won't stay still) sort of a jerk.

"He killed one man, and wounded several attendants," Frank wrote in his book. "He required the most careful watching at all times."

Being kind to the lion didn't work. Punishing him didn't work. The only way to keep it from mauling people was to appease it at all times. 

"To attempt any sort of punishment or discipline with him would have been fatal; he was far too dangerous an animal to risk arousing his wild nature, and the only thing we could do was to keep him perfectly quiet, see that he was not irritated in any way, and was made as comfortable and happy as possible, with good food, a clean house, and another lion for companionship."


And so, they got the lion a friend, and were set to unveil the lion in Birmingham. This is where the story takes a rather ridiculous twist.

While attempting to move the lions into a cage together, they angered the angrier of the two lions, and after much rocking of the wagon, the lion (which you may remember had a taste for human flesh) managed to escape the keepers and headed right in the direction of Birmingham City Center, where around 200,000 people lived at the time.

Fortunately for people who didn't want to be food, the lion saw an opening in the sewers, where it headed and began to prowl. Frank knew what a danger the lion was to everyone, writing that "to approach the lion probably meant death". The lion made its way through the city underground, occasionally stopping to roar at manholes he came across.

"In about 20 minutes, every person in birmingham knew what had happened, and the greatest consternation prevailed everywhere".


Nobody was more alarmed than Frank, who was responsible for the lion, and would be responsible for anyone the lion killed. He was also worried about panicking everyone and inciting a riot, and people complaining about his zoo, writing that "people were beginning to flock towards the menagerie in thousands, with anything but complimentary speeches".

Now here's where Frank becomes somewhat relatable to anyone who has ever covered their tracks at work. Imagine you've messed up at work but have a chance to cover your tracks. Say you've lost an original file, but you still have a decent copy that you might be able to pass off as the real deal. Would you do it?

Well, Frank still had a second lion.

Bostock instructed his crew to take the second lion and cover its cage. They then moved the cage to one of the openings of the sewers, and opened it, hoping that the second lion wouldn't run into the sewers too. He then made a show of searching around the sewers for the first lion, pretended that he had found it, and moved it back into the cage. Everyone was pleased and began shouting "they've caught the lion! They've got him" and treated Frank like a hero.


"When we finally reached the front of the exhibition, some of the men in the crowd rushed forward and carried me in victory on their shoulders to the menagerie, while the cage containing the bogus lion was restored to its original place in the menagerie."

That night, he managed to sell over forty thousand tickets to the show.

The crowd piled into his show to see the hero lion tamer, while he absolutely soiled himself with nervousness. He was worried about the lion getting out and mauling someone, or else roaring and everyone discovering that he'd left a lion loose in the sewers. Nobody was going to think it was a coincidence.

Ever the professional, he put on his best "I'm not thinking about a lion mauling some kid" expression, and continued with his show.


Then. He went. To bed.

"That was the most anxious night I have ever had, it is scarcely necessary for me to say that sleep was out of the question." 

The next day, a policeman showed up to thank him for his bravery. It was at this point that Frank broke down and confessed to pretending a lion that had tasted human blood wasn't on the loose, getting hungrier and hungrier as time went on.

There was redemption to be had for Frank. With the assistance of 500 armed men stationed at the sewer's exit, he headed back into the sewers once more and actually attempted to rescue the lion, having not thought to plan ahead and bring a third lion into things. Using fireworks, he managed to corner the lion. A boarhound, which he had let fight on his behalf, became quite injured, and so Bostock decided to fight the lion for himself. 


"Taking off my jack-boots, I put them on my hands and arms, and going up close to the lion, was fortunately able to hit him a stinging blow on the nose with one of them," he wrote.

"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. While he was trying to fix this, the kettle tipped and rolled over and went crashing down the sewer, making a noise and racket which echoed and resounded throughout the whole length of the narrow tunnel in the most appalling manner."

The lion turned tail "like a veritable coward" according to Bostock, which is an amazing accusation from someone who had just pretended to a whole city that he hadn't set a lion on the loose.

Fortunately for Frank, the lion ran off and got caught in a hole in the sewer, allowing the team to catch him.


He received no praise this time for capturing the lion, as everyone thought he had done so the day prior.

Bostock went on to continue to run a successful menagerie of his own, before being the person to bring back roller skating from America. 


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