The Onion Fair Escapee
From the late 1800s to the early 1900s it was common for travelling circus's to keep a wide range of animals, including elephants, tigers, bears, and, indeed, lions. The Onion Fair came several times a year to the Serpentine between Aston and Witton, and one year in the 1920s the lion escaped. Here are some memories of the event.....
#1. Hardly had they got to the fair, then pandemonium broke out.
I have a tale to tell (from the 1920s). My mother was persuaded by her mother in law, my grandma, to go with her to the fair. Now my grandma was as round as she was tall, according to my mom. So it was with some trepidation that they started out. My gran used to like a tipple, and my mom was worried that once they had been to the fair, she would want to call in all the pubs on the way home which was Tower Road Aston. How wrong could she have been?
This was before I was born, so I am relaying my mom’s story. It seems that hardly had they got to the fair, then pandemonium broke out, and everybody started running towards them, picture the scene, one very frightened little woman (my mom) and one very old lady, who could hardly put one foot in front of the other, a weight watchers nightmare, so they turned and ran leading the panicking crowd. And it would seem that most of the crowd overtook them, and then with one voice and accord turned back on my mom and gran, as the poor old lion by this time had beaten the crowd and was now chasing them in the opposite direction.
That night was certainly ingrained in mother's memory, and it was probably the only anecdote that she ever told with any certainty.
I can only go back to what I remember from 1922, and before that what my parents told me.
We lived a stone's throw from the Serpentine Ground which held the annual Onion Fair, and I can remember when its lighting was by naphtha flares, it was one of Aston's traditions, it belonged to Aston and they came from all over Birmingham to enjoy all the fun of the fair.
It fascinated me as a child, and race down there, and I became a stooge, Charlie Hickman had a boxing booth and he would call me onto the front stage outside the booth and pretend to cut a potato in half with a great cutlass, which I held in my hand, of course the potato was already in two but stuck back and I had to put a terror-stricken face on but it was a free entrance. I was stooge to the magician the Great Maskelyn and found out how one was sawed in half.
The greatest thrill was when the lion escaped, all the fair hands rushed to help capture him so we enjoyed a few rides on the roundabouts. Incidentally, they didn't capture the lion, that went into the churchyard, it gave itself up, the poor beast was more frightened than the population, it had got no teeth anyway, and I can remember when the fair came the next year, the trainer's coat was hung up outside the big tent, ripped to ribbons, but it was well known that his claws had been cut and probably the oldest lion in captivity.
#1 by Dot Dodson, #2 is from the Carl Chinn Archive.
The Lion Works
There are more lions attached to Witton as from the 1860s the Lion Works opened by the River Tame, later known as Kynoch's and IMI.
The main gate of the Lion Works was topped with a striding lion with its paw resting on a globe, and a series of other decorative lion motifs beneath. This company was one of the largest in Birmingham, and the country, a real 'lion' of industry at that time.
The Villa are often called 'The Lions' as well, due to the lion in their emblem; and the gates to the Villa ground are adorned with stone lions too. They have been painted claret, and I have been reliably told (by a staunch Villa fan) that they had to be painted, as before a match between Villa and the Blues the Birmingham fans came and painted all the lions blue. The paintbrush was quickly got out, as was the tin of claret paint!