Taking the bare elements of this incident, it sounds somewhat like a farce, or bad joke. The scene: a coaching inn, on a quiet Wiltshire road. The characters: a mail coach complete with guard and passengers, an escaped lioness and its owner, a former race horse, and a dog. But truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction – this blog post relates to a real historic event: the attack of a Lioness on the Mail Coach in 1816.
Our regular readers may recall this blog from several years ago; given the airing of The Peoples Post episode on Mail Coaches this is the perfect occasion to revisit the event and examine each part in more detail.
The scene: Winterslow Hut (now the Pheasant Inn) was a famous coaching inn, situated on the post road from Salisbury to Andover. “Hut” was apparently the local name for a road suitable for coach travel.
The mail coach: On the night of 20th October 1816, the London to Exeter mailcoach was on its ‘up’ route, destined for London. Nicknamed ‘Quicksilver’ due to its speed, it was carrying mail, a mail coach guard, paying passengers, and a coach driver.
The lioness: had escaped from a travelling menagerie, stationed in nearby Salisbury Plain. She trotted alongside the mail coach, which whilst alarming the horses, did not perturb the driver, who mistook her for a calf. When the mail coach pulled into its scheduled stop at Winterslow Hut, the lioness pounced and attacked one of the horses.
The horse: ‘Pomegranate’ had been a race-horse, but as his temperament was difficult he was sold to become a coach horse, which was felt would break his fiery spirit. Pomegranate now found himself with the jaws of the raging lioness around his neck.
The passengers: fearing for their lives, stormed the inn and barricaded themselves inside, shutting out not only the mail coach guard, but also, according to one account, another passenger who subsequently became so traumatised by that night’s events he was committed to an asylum for life.
The Mail Coach Guard: One Joseph Pike, reached for his regulation blunderbuss. The role of the mail coach guard was to ensure the safety and security of the mail, and to this end were heavily armed. The guard carried a ‘brace’ of pistols, and a blunderbuss – and Pike was ready to use it.
The menagerie owner, his assistants and dog: Before Pike could fire, the owner of Ballard’s Menagerie appeared and begged the guard not to fire, stating how much the lioness had cost, and how his investment would be lost. Either his financial argument worked, or as some have stated the owner threatened Pike with a pistol – either way Pike did not shoot. The owner set his Newfoundland dog onto the lioness – who promptly turned her attentions from the horse to the dog, and then hid under a granary.
The lioness’ capture was reported in the Salisbury and Winchester Journal the following week:
Her owner and his assistants…followed her upon their hands and knees, with lighted candles, and having placed a sack on the ground near her, they made her lie down upon it; they then tied her four legs and passed a cord round her mouth, which they secured; in this state they drew her out from under the granary, upon the sack, and then she was lifted and carried by six men into her den in the caravan… the lioness lay as quietly as a lamb during her removal to the caravan.
The event captured the public’s imagination, being recounted in newspapers nationwide. Two artists were inspired to create a visual interpretation of the event, and their resulting prints have been described in this blog. The Pollard print (below) is often considered the more realistic account, the artist it is believed having spoken to the mail coach guard and the inn owner. However, if you take a closer look at the men in the top windows of the inn, it is believed Pollard depicted Charles James Fox, Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt – none of whom were at the event, and one of whom had died 10 years previously!
The animal’s story did not finish with the capture of the lioness. The menagerie owner showed further financial prowess, purchasing the now injured coaching horse, Pomegranate, and displaying him with his wounds the very next day. Pomegranate, the lioness, and the dog all became part of the menagerie’s displays, receiving top billing in this fair.
Whether this is the actual dog is in question, as according to most accounts the dog died due to injuries received from the lioness. Pomegranate was eventually returned to his owner who received compensation for the injuries suffered. We know the lioness was exhibited at the 1825 Bartholomew Fair.
– Vyki Sparkes, Assistant Curator