Once upon a time in Cradley Heath, an encyclopaedia salesman knocked on a door in Congreave Street. He smiled at the sign that told visitors to beware of lions and, as there was no answer, he walked around the back of the house. There he met a lion that had escaped its cage in the garden. He ran quickly enough to hide under a lorry out in the street, where the lion couldn’t reach him, and stayed there until Lew Foley, it’s owner, put it back in the cage.
Lew was a big character even in the Black Country where everyday eccentricity is positively encouraged. Horses in the house were not unheard of (where else were you to keep them?) but three lions, a gorilla, a crocodile in the bath and a tiger called Winston? Locals recall him walking the tiger down the street or taking one of the lions to nightclubs in the area (where the DJ Barmy Barry ‘crapped himself’ at its sudden appearance on the stage). One time the police stopped Lew’s car to find a lion in the back seat. He was taking it to Birmingham to see the sites.
Not everyone was delighted with his antics. He was reported many times and, after the salesman incident, he was hauled before the local magistrate’s court for breaching the peace. Peter Swingler was an ex Sunday Mercury reporter who knew Lew well and was present for the hearing:
“Lew appeared resplendent in the dock in an evening suit. He kept raising his right arm and shouting, ‘Leave my lions alone, they have done no harm!’. Meanwhile, a man claiming to be his lion tamer wore a long, blond wig, star-spangled shirt, breeches and carried a whip.
It was like a scene straight from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
Lew was a one-man provocation to the authorities. It was in reaction to folk like Lew that the government introduced the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976. It prevented anyone from owning creatures such as wild cats without a license and a vet also had to assess their living conditions. Rather than comply, it appears that many ex-owners preferred to release their pets into the British countryside – an act that itself wasn’t illegal until 1981. That’s supposedly what Lew did. Rumour has it that he set his lion free over the Malvern Hills. I’d never thought, before hearing about Lew, that the landscape of the Malverns could be bettered. Elgar might have written a whole different set of Enigma Variations – possibly with a few more screams scored for flutes.
Mary Chipperfield is another big cat owner who released her pets rather than turn them over to a zoo. Posthumously it was revealed that in 1978 she had let go a breeding pair of pumas – and another male for good luck – somewhere between her circus in Plymouth and the wildlife park that they were travelling towards. Perhaps they were the source of the Beast of Bodmin stories?
In 1995, almost two decades later (the average life span of a puma being 8-15 years in the wild), the government deemed the 60 or so reports of a huge black cat with yellow eyes (so, not very puma-like) in the Bodmin area convincing enough to order an official investigation. Disappointingly, no convincing evidence was found to prove the existence of a big cat on the loose or, admittedly, to disprove it. And this appears to be a recurrent theme on the hunt for what have become known as Alien Big Cats (ABCs). Alien, not because they’re green and come from Mars but because they’re not native British fauna either. There appears to be no conclusive proof of their existence either way though people keep on reporting sightings nonetheless…
One afternoon this time last year, I was on Facebook browsing Bridgnorth’s informal chat page. Ever a fan of the odd, one post in particular caught my eye. It was someone talking about their sister-in-law’s strange experience, some 15 years before, of seeing a big black cat (Alsatian sized) in a field on the outskirts of town where a housing development has since been built. He asked whether anyone else had had a similar experience in the area and the reports came flooding in. Within a couple of hours I counted about 15 distinct sightings since the new millennium all in perhaps a 10 mile radius.
They were from people with varying levels of detail and varying degrees of certainty about what they had seen, but I was amazed that one small question had set off such a stream of replies. I’ve spent many happy mornings walking with my dog along quiet riverside and forest paths, around farmers’ fields and skirting hedgerows in the particular area where several sightings had been made and never seen anything untoward. Neither had my dog who is the most enormous wimp and would have let me know if he had sensed anything untoward – probably by running away in the opposite direction.
So what is this all about? Is it a local joke? Someone reported seeing a hippocrocodillopig coming out of the Bandon Arms more than once (hurhurhur, hilarious, thanks mate) so by no means was everyone taking it seriously. Perhaps it was a popular delusion, a bit like mass hysteria, where one person reports seeing something odd or unusual and suddenly everyone else starts seeing it too. But this was spread over at least 15 years in different areas by single witnesses.
The scientists amongst us (hello scientists!) would of course be wary of developing a hypothesis based on conditions such as the ones you might find on the local Facebook chat pages: a self-selecting group of people, reporting something that was glimpsed briefly years ago and sometimes not even by themselves but a friend or relative. Those are some shaky foundations for any conclusions to be drawn.
So, if there were so many people claiming to have seen this animal, did they have any evidence? One man claimed that his family took a video of such a creature near Claverley and that they put it on YouTube. I went to look but the link was broken. It lead me down a rabbit hole of other such videos on YouTube, some perhaps a bit more credible than others but none that could solve the mystery.
During my search for information, I read that approximately 2000 cases are reported every year – 2000! Many of these are, as Mark Fraser (self-appointed Alien Big Cat expert – a title I would be happy to display on a badge) says, are either hoaxes or, more often, misidentifications. Who can forget the story of the Essex Lion, spotted near St Osyth in August 2012, that provoked national interest? It turned out that it was a pet Maine Coon cat called Teddy Bear. Admittedly Maine Coons are huge – but lion sized??
We’ve already established that some people felt that it was fine to release exotic cats into the wild (incredible, I know). Perhaps there were owners in the Shropshire area who let some go or perhaps people travelled out to the countryside from local conurbations, like Lew. But 1976 was 42 years ago. Wouldn’t there have had to be a fair few wandering around in order to meet up and have cubs, prolonging the sightings? Why is it that you can go on safari in thousands of square miles of savannah and see cheetahs and leopards all day long, but not in the much smaller area around Bridgnorth? What are they eating in the meantime? They can’t all be surviving on rabbits and the odd deer; what about all the sheep that are kept in the locality around Bridgnorth? Having spoken to local people with flocks, I couldn’t unearth any stories of odd sheep deaths in the last couple of decades that could give you any reason to think a large predator was on the loose. And that is a sentence I never thought I’d write.
Nevertheless, as recently as 2010, the environment minister, Rory Stewart, now Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice so he’s clearly graduated from big cats, reported five sightings that year alone with a calf and a dog being killed. Perhaps this is as close as you’ll get to an official government statement on the matter? Otherwise there is a tendency for the existence of such beasts to be denied by people in positions of authority (and now I’m starting to sound like a conspiracy theorist). Largely because, it is suggested, that they don’t want to cause a public safety outcry or be responsible for compensation from angry farmers.
So what is it that people have seen around Bridgnorth? The reports variously described a ‘big’ cat, larger than a domestic cat, at about the size of an Alsatian. The creature was black (mostly) with a long bushy tail and fast moving. One lady was riding her horse when she spotted the animal and her horse was frightened by it (though horses are also frightened by all sorts of things up to and including plastic bags and their own shadows).
I decided to drag out my old Ordnance Survey maps out (I LOVE OS maps!) and try to highlight the sites of the sightings. Bright pink beads were all I had to hand (did I mention that I have two young daughters?) to mark out the spots but I hope that they give you a good idea of the spread of sightings.
Most were to the west of the banks of the River Severn but there were a few on the other side too. Two different creatures? Or could it be the same one crossing over the bridge at Bridgnorth in the dead of night, aiming for a little break in its routine?
It’s a funny effect of finding out a new thing that you seem to come across it far more often, having never seen it before. It’s called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon – you’ll probably be hearing about it again now you’ve read this. In my own case, I started hearing more about odd encounters that people had had. Perhaps I was subconsciously looking for them? I remembered a story about The Beast of Habberley Woods (near Bewdley) that I had heard as a schoolgirl and never really taken very seriously. A friend of my husband’s said that his wife and daughter had seen one just south of Kidderminster a few years back. They had gone out to their car and a large black animal jumped over the hedge from their drive into the field next door. Another friend reported hearing of a large black cat crossing the bend in the road that leads out of Enville towards Stourbridge in South Staffordshire.
The single defining thing that united all the reports was that the witnesses knew that they had seen something odd and in some circumstances they were very scared of whatever it was. When someone has an experience like that, it tends to remain fixed in the mind as it is outside the realm of ‘normal’. Where else do you mentally file something like this other than in the ‘odd’ folder? In reaction, the pragmatic Danny Bamping (another ABC expert) began his own website (http://www.britishbigcats.org/) cataloguing such sites and attempting to find a rational cause for the sightings. There are still no firm conclusions though he comes down on the side of ABCs being real.
Some people are much keener to go down the route of the supernatural, or a subject named cryptozoology – and that might be a whole other post for another time. It’s interesting to note that there are very early reports of ABCs in British history. In 1475, Percival Cresacre was ambushed by a giant wildcat (or ‘wood cat’) at a place now called Cat Hill in Barnburgh, near Doncaster in South Yorkshire. They fought together until they reached the porch of St Peter’s Church in Barnburgh and then died of their injuries, a red stain left on the church doorway said to be the cat’s blood. More regularly over the centuries, people have reported large and terrifying (mostly spectral) black dogs that have gained legendary names such as Padfoot or the Barguest. Could anyone have mistaken a large cat for a large dog? Unlikely. Also the black dog is more often recognised as an uncanny creature, whereas people are still inclined to believe that ABCs/black cats are real.
There’s also a tendency for sceptical types to dismiss any such report as fabrication – though I’d not like to sweepingly dismiss a whole body of evidence quite so thoroughly. There’s clearly something going on – not everyone has misidentified next door’s moggy or hoaxed the nation with a cuddly toy – but what it is, I just can’t say. As with many other anomalous phenomena (weird stuff, in other words), there are no definite answers which is in turn both irritating and fascinating.
I suppose that the reason I find this particular subject so interesting is that it takes the mundane world that we live in and makes us look at it afresh. All those places I thought I knew fairly well now have a different perspective to me: I’ve been forced to reconsider them. We sometimes wonder what is Beyond the Fields We Know. Reports like these make you wonder what is IN the Fields We Know. What else is going on out there that we just don’t have the evidence or facilities to fully explain just yet?
Shropshire is a very rural county and one of the least populated in the British Isles. It has market towns that have more than a hint of the medieval about them and vast expanses of beautiful landscape that still feel thrillingly untamed and wild. I don’t know what your position is on the matter of whether such things as ABCs exist or not. Perhaps this is something you’d never had cause to think about before? Maybe now you’ll hear of other odd experiences in your local area, undergoing a little Baader-Meinhof Phenomena of your own (let me know if you do, won’t you?). Whilst you’re making up your mind, could we perhaps agree to keep a little space, on our hills and in our imaginations, for big cats to roam free?
In 2014, Bear Grylls launched a Survival Academy in Burwarton, Shropshire, though I’ve not heard much about it since. If he could hold off killing and eating any ABCs in the local area until I’ve managed to spot one then I’d be grateful.