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Sunday, August 22, 2010

NEIL ARNOLD: The Sussex Lion Hoax

Reports of lions and tigers in the English countryside are very often the product of hoax or the occasional zoo escapee, which is easily recaptured or unfortunately shot dead. Lions and tigers would not survive for long in the British Isles, and yet I find it amazing just how many stories pertaining to ‘lion hunts’ and ‘tiger pursuits’ hit the headlines. One such story, from the summer of 1933, concerned four men who claimed that a lion named Rex had escaped from its enclosure at a zoo in Sussex. The story continued through autumn into winter. The coverage as follows:

On October 19th 1933 The Times ran the headline of the ‘Sussex Lion Hunt - Public Mischief Charge’

Evidence For Defence

Justices yesterday resumed their hearing of the case in which four men were summoned as a sequel to a hunt for a lion, named Rex, which was reported to have escaped near Bognor Regis early in July. The defenrdants are: William Edmund Butlin, of The Park, Skegness; Clifford Stanley Joste, of Butlin's Zoo, Bognor Regis; Alan Leslie Proctor, of Glamis Street, Bognor Regis; and John Waller Wensley, of Church Farm, Pagham. The charge as set out in the summons read:- For that You, on or about the fourth day of July, at the parish of Bognor Regis, unlawfully did conspire, combine, confederate, and agree together to commit a certain misdemeanour, namely, to commit a public mischief by your conduct and by means of certain false statements to wit, that a lion, which was being transported in a motor-vehicle at the instance of you, the said William Edmund Butlin, had escaped at or near Clymping . . . and was then at large in the neighbourhood of Bognor Regis, and further that a certain sheep which had been killed and the carcase thereof mutilated by one Charies Bailey, at the instance of and with the connivance of you, the said William Edmund Butlin, Clifford Stanley Joste, Alan Leslie Proctor, and John Waller Wensley, had been killed and mauled by the said lion, thereby causing officers of the West Sussex Constabulary to devote their time and services to the investigation of such false statements, thus temporarily depriving the public of the services of the Public oficers and thereby also Putting the Public in fear against the peace of our Lord the King, his Crown and Dignity.

REPORTED ESCAPE - Yesterday Ernest Newsome, Butlin's secretary at Skegness, said that when Butlin telephoned from Bognor on July 4 he told him all the animals had left Skegness. After reading of the reported escape of the lion he made inquiries, found that the lion had not been sent, and telephoned Butlin's mother.

Mr. Flowers: Could a lion drop off a lorry on the way from - Skegness to Bognor and the lorry-driver not know he had lost it ?

Newsome: I should say it is quite feasible.

Mr. Bray submitted that no prima facie case had been made out against Joste, or,'if there was a case, it was so flimsy that it would be " a public mischief " if the Court did not dispose of it. Mr. Bray said that it was clear there was no Conspiracy and that Joste had no criminal intention.

Proctor, giving evidence, said he was an artist by profession, but by force of circumstances he was also a part-time journalist. He sometimes assisted his father, who was a local accredited agent for a London newspaper. The witness said he had heard about the Craigweil lion, which had been definitely regarded in the neighbourhood as a joke. On Tuesday, July 4, he went to Butlins Fun Fair between 3 and 5 p.m. to see if he could gain any information about the rumour that a lion had recently escaped. He first saw Joste and then immediately afterwards saw Mr. Butlin, but Mr. Butlin would neither confirm nor deny the rumour. The witness said he did not make any inquiries until a second interview with Mr. Butlin, whom he saw at 7 that same evening. Mr. Butlin said he was still uncertain whether it was his lion or not; and Mr. Butlin led him to believe that if there was a lion loose in the district it would in all probability be his. The same evening he heard that a lion had escaped and told his father what he had learned, and a short "story " was written up and telegraphed to London. This brought down reporters of London newspapers the next day. The witness said that he did not himself send any "story” to London. When he left Butlin on the Tuesday he really believed a lion was loose, and he gave his father an accurate account of what he had heard. He certainly never intended to frighten the public or waste the time of the police. Proctor's case was then closed and the hearing adjourned till Monday

October 24th 1933
The Sussex Lion Story
The Chichester Justices yesterday committed for trial the four men accused of conspiracy to commit a public mischief by alleged false statements that a lion had escaped near Clymping and had killed a sheep, thereby temporarily depriving the public of the services of police officers investigating the statements. The defendants are WILLIAM EDMUND BUTLIN of The Park, Skegness. The defendants all denied the allegations. Wensley, giving evidence, described a meeting with Proctor, when he said the latter paid him 30s. for a sheep. Proctor said, "After your man has killed it, will you ask him to maul it about a bit and throw it under a hedge."

Wensley added, " I think he said he wanted the Press to believe that a lion was at large." Later Buthn and others came to look at tbe sheep, and Butlin remarked that “by all appearances it was a lion's work."

Wensley, cross-examined by Mr. Flowers, said, I really thought a lion was at large, because I had heard so many rumours about lions- vegetarian and so on." (Laughter.)

Mr. Flowers.-Your efforts were to convince people that this was not a vegetarian lion, were they not? (Laughter.) The MAGISTRATES held that a prima facie case for investigation by a superior Court had been established and they committed all four defendants for trial at the Assizes. Each man was allowed bail in his own recognizances in thc sum of £100.

December 22nd 1933

Replying to Mr. CASSELS (his counsel), Butlin said that he thought the newspaper report was correct in so far as it referred to a lion being at large. He thought then that the lion, which was supposed to have come from Skegness, had, in fact, escaped. He spent most of that morning dodging newspaper reporters. Referring to the finding of the sheep's carcass, Mr. Butlin said that he had nothing to do with the payment of 5s. to Bailey, the shepherd, by Wensley. He did not know Wensley, and had never heard of him till that day. " When I saw the carcass," he added, "I asked Wensley if he had had any sheep killed by dogs recently, and he said he had not. I thought in my own mind then that my lion had killed the sheep." Butlin described how during that morning and after he went out by car he borrowed somc fish- ing nets with which to recapture the lion. He still believed that Rex was at large. " I did not realize the real position until later that day, when a message was received from Skegness that Rex had not been sent to Bognor." ; He thought then that the best way to end the matter was to say the lion had been recaptured. Had he said that the lion had not escaped he might not have been believed. " Had this been done for publicity," added Mr. Butlin, " I could have given a graphic pic- ture of its recapture. Instead I ' killed ' the story at once."


JUSTICE CHARLES.-Was it not a bad advertisement to you as an experienced show- man that a lion should have escaped from a weak or damaged crate ?-

Yes, it was a poor advertisement and has done more harm to me than people think. Cross-examined by Mr. JOHN FLOWERS, K.C., prosecuting, Mr. Butlin said that the lorry load of animals from Skegness was in charge of the driver, who would not necessarily know what animals he had on board.

Mr. FLOWERS.-Who was responsible for call-ing in a veterinary surgeon after the lion was supposed to have been recaptured ?-

A "vet" is always called in when we get something in the papers about our animals. Cranks start inquiring whether animals have been ill-treated in any way, so we get a veterinary surgeon in to say that they are in good condition.
MR. JUSTICE CHARLES:The lion might have been eating tomatoes and been suffering from an intestinal disorder. (Laughter.) Butlin did not agree that a story of a lions escape and recapture would have drawn a mass of people in Sussex to the show in order to see the animal. “In case people thought it was an attempt at publicity," he said, " I did not have a lion in the menagerie the rest of the summer."

Mr. Flowers.-If you did not want this report to spread you could have denied it from the start ?-
I thought at first it was true.
MIR. JUSTICE CHARLES.-If you thought a lion was at large and had not told the police and someone got hurt you would have been very much blamed ?
Several witncsses were called regarding the demeanour of people in the district after the news that a lion was out. One witness said that they did not appear in any way worried and the state of affairs was different from what he had anticipated. The driver of the lorry which brought the original load of animals from Skegness said that he had on board an empty crate, which he should have left at an address in Tottenham Court Road. He did not do so because the road near was up and he was advised to " move on” in case of obstruction. He took the crate to Bognor. Albert Gray, manager of the zoo at Bognor, said that he received a list of animals expected from Skegness. It included a lion, and when he saw the empty crate he thought a lion had escaped and informed Butlin. He told the witness to keep things as quiet as he could and make inquiries. Joste said that he was the manager of Butlin's Auto-cars, Limited, of which Mr. Butlin was managing director. He denied that he had said that the matter was just " a little harmless publicity."
" At no time have I ever suggested it was a stunt," he said. " I heard rumours about a lion being at large, and when I saw it in a newspaper I thought it was true.

KILLING A SHEEP - Proctor in his evidence, also said that, following the rumours, he believed on July 4 that a lion was at large. He denied that the report which appeared the following day was written by him, but said he supplied some of the material, which he then thought was true. He agreed that he asked Wensley to sell him a sheep, to kill it, and leave the carcass under a hedge. It was meant as a joke.

MR. JUSTIICE CHARLES.-Is that Your idea of a joke ? You paid 35s. and left the carcass under a hedge.
Proctor.-Partly as a joke and partly for gaining copy for news.
MR. JUSTICE CHARLES.- You meant to deccive people ?-
You did your best to make it look as if the scare were a real one ?-
Proctor added that he did not tell Mr. Butlin or Joste what he had done, and he was not aware that a lion had not in fact escaped until he was served with a summons. Wensley, in his evidence, said that he thought that the leaving of the sheep under the hedge was a joke. He had no intention of being a party to a public mischief.
The evidence was concluded and counsel addressed the jury.
MR. JUSTICE CHARLES, in summing up, said that the case was not nearly so important as had been made out. Nothing would probably have been heard of it had it not been for the grossly improper article published by a newspaper. That was the genesis of the trouble. It might have been a showmans stunt or a reporters stunt, but so far as Butlin was concerned it was a little difficult to see what he had to gain by such ridiculous nonsense. What he had to lose was pretty obvious. It was necessary that the public should have been put in fear. Some witnesses had said they were put in fear because of the false report, but the jury would probably have no doubt that that part of the case was exaggerated, for for every one who was put in fear there were 50 or 60 who had no discomfort at all. That affected the seriousness of the case, but not the question of guilt.


MR. JUSTICE CHARLES ruled that there was no direct evidence against Butlin and Joste on the charge of committing a public mischief. He left the question of conspiracy to the jury. The jury found Butlin and Joste Not Guilty on the conspiracy charge and they were discharged. Proctor and Wensley were found Not Guilty of conspiracy but Guilty of committing the mischief.
MR. JUSTICE CHARLES fined Proctor £30 and ordered him to pay a share of the costs of the prosecution. Wensley was fined £10. In imposing the fines the Judge said that he did not want to send them to prison, but he wanted to give an indication of his stern disapproval of their conduct. They had been found guilty of a very mischievous and foolish course of conduct which had caused a great deal of unnecessary trouble. Addressing Proctor he said: " I hope you are heartily ashamed of yourself. You have misled the public and you dragged Wensley into it. I hope your father will deal with you”.

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