National Archives of Australia

Issue 11 July 2013

‘Mummy’s darling’: the circus lion in the suburbs

Melbourne Herald journalist Norman Campbell may have had a tremble in his fingers as he typed his story for the evening edition of 14 October 1926. He had just spent an anxious morning sharing a suburban home with a free-ranging lion. The alarmed Campbell had seen ‘a smouldering fire’ in the great beast’s eyes. Ian Warden tells the story of Norman Campbell, the lion tamer’s wife and the wild animal living in Prahran.

Campbell’s adventure, of which more in a moment, is one of many excitements that can be found in the National Archives of Australia’s files of the Australian Government’s quarantine dealings with theatres, zoos and circuses. Whenever Australian entrepreneurs have wanted to import, display and transport exciting animals (the Archives’ files discuss creatures as exotic as a pygmy hippopotamus and ‘a Ceylon boa-constrictor 36 feet long weighing 230 pounds’), governments have had to worry about protecting Australian livestock and native wildlife from exotic diseases.

And so although Norman Campbell’s 1926 story of a lion in the suburbs surely amused most readers it did not amuse the authorities. The ensuing flurry of bureaucratic correspondence is preserved in the file on Wirth Bros Circus kept by the Veterinary Hygiene Division of the Department of Health. This and similar files document the world of circuses in the first half of the 20th century, when wild animals such as lions, tigers and bears were an important part of the ‘greatest show on earth’. But back to the suburbs…

Letterhead for Wirth Bros Circus, 1938. NAA: A11984, V3/2/0/5/1

Prince of Prahran

Here’s some of the Herald account that tickled most readers but worried an official few – under the headline ‘LION IN PRAHRAN DRAWING ROOM. Sleeps on Bed of His Mistress’:

If you called on a lady at her house in one of Melbourne’s quiet residential streets, and stood in the hall as she came sedately down the stairs to meet you, you would probably be a little startled to see an African lion bounding down the stairs after her, and yet this is precisely what happened to me this morning at 108 Punt Road, Prahran.

Norman had been apprised of the unusual story by George Wirth, owner of Wirth Bros Circus (no doubt as a ploy for publicity). Wirth had left the lion in the care of Mrs Bernasconi, the wife of a lion tamer formerly with Wirths’ Circus.

Wirth Bros Circus troupe in Adelaide, 1900. NAA: D4477, 443

The story continued:

When we were ushered into the hall Mrs Bernasconi came down the stairs to meet us. And so did Prince … we briskly stepped aside to give him the right of way.

“Go to your cage, Sir!” said Mr Wirth firmly, from a safe distance. But Prince only smiled a leonine smile – he has beautiful teeth – and playfully bounded down the yard after a sparrow.

“He hates the cage poor dear,” said Mrs Bernasconi. “And I can’t bear to keep him in it. Come here Princey. Come to mummy. Come here darling.”

“And since he doesn’t like the cage where does he sleep?” I asked.

Mrs Bernasconi looked up in mild surprise. “Why, upstairs in my room, at the foot of my bed. He’d be lonely down there, wouldn’t you old man?”

I backed hastily into the kitchen as Prince eyed me speculatively and made a noise that sounded like bad language.

“And, er, you feed him on raw meat?” I asked,

“Yes, he has two pounds of raw meat a day … And he has a baby’s bottle for light refreshment during the night. Don’t you, Mummy’s darling?”

Prince roared his confirmation.

Norman reported that it ‘was with a certain feeling of relief’ that he took his leave – followed to the front door by Prince: ‘There was a smouldering fire in his eyes. Perhaps he was dreaming of the jungle. Perhaps he was thinking how plump and juicy the passing postman looked. Who knows?’

Clipping from Melbourne Herald, 14 October 1926. NAA: A11984, V3/2/0/5/1

The bureaucracy responds

The very next day an unamused Commonwealth Director-General of Health wrote to the director of the Division of Veterinary Hygiene in Victoria, with the press clipping attached. He outlined his concerns:

This freedom of movement of animals from within the circus to the outside … seems to affect vitally the safety of our present procedure in regard to circuses as Quarantine Stations. Any introduced disease would apparently have ample opportunity to spread under these conditions. I should be glad if you would look into this matter.

From the moment of the story’s appearance, Prince’s days of suburban pamperdom as a doting mummy’s darling were numbered. The file has a letter of 28 October in which Victoria’s Chief Veterinary Inspector writes to assure the director that the matter had been seen to. He had spoken with Mr Wirth, who explained that the cub had been born at the circus but ‘as it was sickly’, he gave it to Mrs Bernasconi to ‘nurse and rear’.

The inspector reported: ‘The removal of the cub from the Circus was done without notifying this Department and obtaining permission … Messrs Wirth Bros have been informed that permission must be obtained from the Chief Quarantine Officer (Animals) for any such movement’. He added that the ‘lion … in question has been returned to the Circus’.

We know that poor Prince (did journalist Campbell feel any remorse over how his story had inadvertently ended Prince’s enviable suburban lifestyle?) rejoined a considerable menagerie because the Wirths had to supply a regular census of the circus’s captive creatures. A ‘list of animals with Wirth Bros Circus’ submitted on 30 March 1927, just a few months after Prince’s return, shows the circus had 87 animals, including nine lions (one of them presumably Prince), 11 elephants, three baboons, one warthog, one wolf and one Tasmanian Devil.

Health Department records on circus animals include reports of animal deaths, such as this one from George Wirth, 1938. NAA: A11984, V3/2/0/5/1

Want more?

View the Department of Health file on Wirths’ Circus

Find more records on circuses and circus animals on RecordSearch – enter ‘circus quarantine’ in the keywords box

One comment on "‘Mummy’s darling’: the circus lion in the suburbs"

  1. Your Memento | National Archives of Australia says:

    Reader Bob Beveridge sent us the following link to another interesting story – thanks Bob!
    ‘You might be interested in the story about a man attacked by a tiger (with the unlikely name of “Jimmy”) in George Street, Brisbane, in 1888 – George St being in the heart of the city. The story was in a number of newspapers, all found on NLA’s Trove:

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