Did you know that there was a wonderful live lions act in Hungerford?
Tommy Allen and his family settled in Hungerford during the 1940s and 1950s – first at The Breach (Fairview Road) and later at the Thatched Cottage, Bath Road.
Tom could train almost all kinds of animals from dogs and monkeys to horses and lions, which his wife presented in their show, which is pictured (see Photo Gallery) at St Giles' Fair, Oxford c1945.
John Newton remembers seeing the show at Pewsey carnival.
Jack Williams remembers that The Lady of Lions (with live lions) was at the Cricket Club Ball in the Corn Exchange c1949-50. How special is that?!
(With special thanks to John, Brenda and Barnaby Newton.)
The gallery shows
- Tommy Allen's Show "Lady of Lions" at St Giles' Fair, Oxford, c1945. Sonya Allen used to swing out over the crowd on the trapeze.
- Betty Allen (Tommy and Sonya's daughter) with the Chimpanzees. Betty also worked with large snakes!
- Sonya Allen "The Lady of the Lions"
Beware of the Lions!
Jimmy Whittaker kindly contributed the following article (Oct 2017), adding to the information previously given by John and Brenda Newton:
Just as you drive into Hungerford from Newbury you’ll be tempted to crane your neck to eye up a magnificent, standalone and recently re-thatched cottage on your right. If you are so bold to venture further and sneak through the garden gate, as I once did, you’ll see this cottage in its full magnificent splendour, calling to mind the story book cottage of Hansel and Gretel.
It was once the home of the “Lady of the Lions”, a lion tamer recalled even today by some of the town’s elder statesmen. This is not necessarily an occupation associated with a sleepy market town, so how did this come about?
During the 1940s and 1950s, the “Lady” and her family lived in Hungerford after moving from Pewsey after WW2. They were Thomas Victor Allen, known professionally as Tommy Allen, his common-law wife Bertha Richards, professionally known as Sonya Allen, and their daughter Betty.
In the 1939 National Register (see below) they are described as circus performers. Tommy Allen had been married to a French lady but met Bertha after she, as the proverbial saying goes, had run away to join the circus at the tender age of 17. And that, as they say, was that!
When they first moved to Hungerford, they lived in the Breach, the lower part of Priory Avenue, where it joins Fairview Road. Later, they moved to the magnificent thatched cottage, so life must have been good for them. While living in Hungerford they were known as Victor and Bertha.
As members of the Powell Brothers’ Victory Circus and the world famous Chipperfield’s Circus, the Allen family regularly toured the English countryside. Tommy was an animal trainer who apparently could train any animal including dogs, monkeys, horses and lions. His act was often called Allen’s Menagerie.
Sonya (ie Bertha) was known as the “Lady of the Lions” and she performed, as the name implies, as a lion tamer. Their daughter Betty was a trapeze artist.
Betty also performed with animals (but not on the flying trapeze!) including large snakes, chimpanzees and even an alligator. Venues they performed at included Nailsworth, Brecon, Clitheroe, Todmorden, Shipton-on-Stour and Oxford.
Today, John Newton remembers as a lad seeing the show at Pewsey Carnival and Jack Williams remembers that “The Lady of the Lions” performed with live lions at a Cricket Club Ball held in the Corn Exchange around 1949-50. Interestingly, the Pewsey Carnival has been in existence since 1898 and still flourishes today.
Sonya (Bertha) was born on 8th December 1905 in the small Shropshire village of Alveley and was the daughter of Herbert and Annie Richards. She died in the Windsor/Maidenhead area in June 1986 aged 82. Tommy Allen, born on 26th June 1894 in Northampton, died in 1962 in Marlborough aged 68. Their daughter Betty died in Kettering around 2005.
Note on the National Register?
In December 1938 it was announced in the House of Commons that in the event of war, a National Register would be taken that listed the personal details of every civilian in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This Register was to be a critical tool in coordinating the war effort at home. It would be used to issue identity cards, organise rationing and more.
On September 1st, 1939 Germany invaded Poland, putting the wheels in motion for Britain to declare war on the 3rd. On September 5th, the National Registration Act received royal assent and Registrar General Sir Sylvanus Vivian announced that National Registration Day would be September 29th.
Having issued forms to more than 41 million people, the enumerators were then charged with the task of visiting every household in Great Britain and Northern Ireland to collect the names, addresses, martial statuses and other key details of every civilian in the country, issuing identity cards on the spot.
(With thanks to Jimmy Whittaker)