Did you know that there was a wonderful live lions act in Hungerford?
Thomas Victor Allen (known locally as Tom or Tommy, but in the family as Vic) settled in Hungerford with his family during the 1940s and 1950s – first at The Breach (Fairview Road) and later at the Thatched Cottage, Bath Road.
His common law wife, who went under the name of Sonya Allen, was actually Bertha Richards, known as Betty. She was always known as "The Lady of Lions".
Tommy 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 thanks to John, Brenda and Barnaby Newton.)
- 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.
- Sonya Allen with the Chimpanzees. She also worked with large snakes!
- Sonya Allen "The Lady of Lions"
- Herbert and Annie Richards, Bertha Richards' parents aged 75 and 73 respectively, taken in their garden in Alveley, on the occasion of their golden wedding anniversary in 1953 (kindly sent by Ed Richards, Mar 2018)
- The Thatched Cottage (possibly also known as "Lady of Lions Cottage"). L-R: Bertha Richards (aka Sonya Allen), Annie Richards (Bertha's mother), Fred Weaver and his wife Gladys (Bertha's sister), on a visit to the thatched cottage) (kindly sent by Ed Richards, Mar 2018).
My Aunt the Lion Tamer.......
Ed Richards kindly contacted the Virtual Museum (Mar 2018) with the following fascinating further information:
Bertha Richards (aka Sonya Allen) was my father's sister and hence my aunt. Having chanced upon the Hungerford Virtual Museum on the Internet and read the excellent efforts to preserve the memories of her and her common law husband, Thomas Victor Allen, whom I knew as Uncle Vic, I would like to add to the narrative by contributing anecdotes relating to them as my aunt and uncle when I was a child.
They say that you should take and keep photos of the everyday and the ordinary since they provide a valuable historical record of the life and times of people and places. With the benefit of hindsight you can also come to regret not asking your parents questions about their life, their siblings and their relatives. Very often they have died by the time you "wake up " to this omission.
Hence it perhaps explains why two out of the three photos my father had of his sister, Bertha Richards (aka Sonya Allen), have gone missing from the family archive courtesy of house moves and maybe precisely because they weren't of 'the everyday and the ordinary'.
One was of Aunt Bertha looking serene and vivacious, standing with two grown lions, each with its front paws on her respective shoulder, while her up-stretched arms cradled the lions' heads and helped to frame their three aligned heads.
The other photo was of Bertha with her head virtually inside a lion's wide open mouth as if conducting an overly thorough dental examination.
The third, and only remaining photo, I will come back to later....
As if to prove that it was an event totally out of the ordinary, my wife steadfastly refused to believe my story about my having an aunt who was a lion tamer in a circus. Indeed it hinged on a chance visit to the Black Country Museum and the discovery that they had a small funfair with a Helter Skelter. Telling my wife I had to have a go as this childhood experience had passed me by, I duly paid my 6d and ascended with my coconut mat. On completion of my "bucket list mini adventure", I idly chatted to the proprietor and explained why I was so keen to have a ride and mentioned too that I had an aunt in the circus, to which she replied, "What was her name?"
Surprise, surprise, she in turn confirmed that she knew Sonya Allen and that she had had the act next door to her's.......cue entrance of wife, repeated explanation and confirmation, plus order for humble pie, sack cloth and ashes........
My childhood home was a prefabricated bungalow in Sutton Coldfield and it happened that Bertha and Vic were scheduled to appear at the Onion Fair in Aston, Birmingham. Since they were going to be relatively close, it was arranged that we would pay them a visit.
This must have been the very early '50's when I was aged about 5, because I clearly remember wearing a snake belt to keep my short trousers up, and snake belts were very fashionable then. My elder brother and I were duly spruced up to look our best in matching home made blue jackets with gold buttons, grey shorts, white ankle socks and sandals.
Two events stand out from this visit. The first, being told we could go inside the long grey road trailer housing some of the animals to look at the chimpanzees. Unfortunately I stood too near the cage and one chimp stretched his arm through the bars of the cage and took a tight hold of my gold buttons and refused to let go. Leaving me to count myself lucky not to have had gold fly buttons, my brother had to run and fetch Aunt Bertha to rescue me.
To pacify me she suggested we could go in to look at one of their acts which was being extolled as "40 feet of Living Death" and consisted of a girl dressed as a mermaid lying languorously in a cage surrounded by rats and an extremely large snake.
Immediately after WW2, surplus military hardware was commonplace. So it was that my paddling pool was an aircraft rescue dingy and my tent, a silk parachute. War games were often enacted throwing real hand grenades (minus their explosive) and most parents seemed to have a gun at home. My father was no exception having a .38 calibre service revolver and clip of bullets which he kept in the bottom of his wardrobe.
One evening while getting undressed for bed with the bedroom curtains only partially closed, my mother was disturbed by the sight of a Peeping Tom. Her screams on seeing a strange face at the window resulted in my father exiting the house via my bedroom window with a loaded revolver in one hand, but perhaps fortuitously, no torch in the other.
The following morning, footprints revealed that my father had been standing inches away from the intruder who had been lying under cover of next door's potato clamps.
Given that the death penalty was still current for murder, my horrified mother decided that the gun would have to go.........to Uncle Vic then performing at some location near Kidderminster. To disguise the gun's distinctive shape it was packed with a large potato and wrapped in newspaper to make a square package, and my brother and I were sworn on pain of death, or worse, not to reveal what was in the bag that my mother clutched strenuously throughout the journey. This was one occasion when there was no chance of anything being left behind on the bus!
At Vic and Bertha's caravan the gun was duly handed over and I was casually asked by Vic to put it in a particular drawer which turned out to contain another revolver and a quantity of loose ammunition. Even at that young age I made a resolution never to sit in the front row of a circus featuring animals, in case the trainer resorted to firing his weapon and the bullet passed through the unfortunate animal........
On this particular visit, my brother and I sat on the window seat at the far end of their caravan where there was a grey blanket draped over the window sill and part of the seat. Eventually the grey blanket alongside me began to undulate as if by magic and I asked Aunt Bertha why, to which she casually replied that it was only the python that was not feeling very well.
Because of their itinerant lifestyle, my father acted as an accommodation address for their mail and they would periodically phone and ask him to forward their letters or to open their mail and read out the contents - maybe insurance reminders, bookings for their next venue, etc.
From time to time they would make a personal visit when it was still a novelty to have someone arrive on more than two wheels. This particular visit we were eagerly awaiting the arrival of their van and were out in the road to greet them both. Noticing that Uncle Vic did not bother to lock the van, I asked if he wasn't worried if it got stolen to which he said he'd left a boa constrictor in the cab which would wrap itself round anyone foolish enough to climb into the driving seat. Peeping nervously into the van via a side window sure enough confirmed the presence of a large snake on the loose - quite some burglar deterrent!
Subsequently my parents moved to an OAP bungalow in a small cul de sac. At the time Bertha promised to gave my parents a present to thank them for looking after their mail and to recompense them for the cost of posting on several weeks' worth of mail at a time.
A series of porcelain monkey figures all playing different musical instruments duly arrived and despite them not being particularly attractive, were displayed on the lounge window sill.
Visiting my parents one weekend my father said that a man had called uninvited and offered to buy the monkey figures for £30, which set alarm bells ringing in my brain. This happened to coincide with the broadcast of the Antiques Roadshow on which one of the featured items was the Affenkapelle Band - The Monkey Band - by Meissen. Sure enough, they were the real thing complete with the blue crossed swords of Meissen and turned out to a very generous gift worth considerably more than the stranger's offer.
Eventually my parents received sad news concerning Vic. My understanding of the circumstances surrounding his death was that he had accidentally fallen off the top of a road trailer and died either of the fall or complications arising from it.
Finally to return to the third photograph of 'the everyday and the ordinary' mentioned at the beginning.......well, that shows Bertha, her mother Annie, sister Gladys's husband Fred, and Gladys, standing outside her beautiful thatched cottage in Hungerford (that still stands today, and may well have been itself named 'Lady of Lions' at the time). That surviving photograph that could be considered 'of the everyday and the ordinary' was, as a young child, my aspiration to one day own my own thatched cottage.......a dream that my wife and I have now achieved.
Given that most people no longer live in thatched cottages, you could argue that it is neither the everyday nor the ordinary.....just as, perhaps, it's considered very unusual to have an aunt who ran away from home to join the circus and became a lion tamer........
Beware of the Lions!
Jimmy Whittaker kindly contributed the following article (Oct 2017):
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 Dr Jimmy Whittaker)