Thursday, September 14, 2023


Mackay and Whitsunday Life

Lioness Escapes From Circus

June 2 1939 - Imagine this night seventy-four years ago. It was Tuesday and Sole Brothers Circus was in town. In those days, the tent was set up in the grounds on the corner of Main and Hinschen Streets, adjacent to the railway line.

As was the case, the lions and lion tamer, Mr Andrew Sole, opened the show. During the performance, an attendant accidentally left a gap in the tent while removing a trestle. Taking advantage of the situation, the lioness made a dash for freedom, going straight out the entrance and disappearing into the railway yard. With a packed house, there were fears of panic but the circus people assured the crowd to stay seated and the performance continued as if nothing had happened.

From thereon, most of the thrills happened outside the tent.

Tex Newberry, the “hot pie king”, had his cart parked on the roadway and the “Guardian” reported there were at least sixty people in the street. A group of young people gathered on the opposite corner from the circus had been jokingly discussing what they would do should a lion escape. John Maltby had declared with bravado that he would jump the nearby fence. Little did they know…

When the young men spotted an animal making its way from the tent, they thought it was just a dog until the alarm was given that it was indeed a lion. Everyone was looking for a safe place. Some scrambled onto lorries. And John did jump that fence – from a standing position! He was then able to open the gate and escort everyone to safety. Other reports relayed the story of a chap who was extremely intoxicated and on realising that it was a lioness and not a dog he was about to pat, sobered up immediately and took off. Oblivious to all the commotion, the lioness made its way over to the sugar mill where, in the darkness, another unsuspecting man mistook the animal for a dog until it let out a deep growl. He too made a beeline for safety.

By this time, with the aid of police, the circus people had organised a hunt. The police, who were having difficulty finding batteries for their torches, armed themselves with .303 rifles. Other civilians helped, including Mr Jack Ashton who was visiting from Mackay.

Jack came to Australia with the famous Buffalo Bill Circus about 1915 and decided to stay. He resided for many years in the Gregory area. Jack had amazing dexterity with the whip, rope and throwing knife and was a remarkable sharp shooter. When the lion was located, he lassoed it, however the rope was light and the animal charged, broke the rope and headed off into the cane paddock.

For two hours, the lioness eluded the search party until she was discovered near the fowl house in Mr Jim Perry’s yard – perhaps in search of food. The circus people were alerted and help soon arrived. Eventually, the lioness was caught at Number 1 Main Street. This time Jack Ashton was successful with his lasso and a large rope net was thrown over the lioness and she was carried back to her cage. Had that not been the case, Mr Sole had instructed Sergeant McLeahy, that should the lioness become dangerous, he was to shoot it.

All the while, the enterprising Tex Newbury, who was still parked in the Main Street, was trying to drum up business selling his pies with the slogan, “Buy a pie before the lion gets you!”

Story and photo courtesy Proserpine Historical Museum.

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