When four lions broke free and caused terror in Grimsby streets
AS speculation continues as to whether there really is a lion on the loose in the Essex countryside, here at the Grimsby Telegraph we have been looking back at when there really were big cats roaming our town.
As reported, on Monday officers spent almost 24 hours combing the area around Clacton-on-Sea, after guests at a campsite – including Louth couple Stephen and Gill Atkin – claimed to have seen a lion near Earls Hall Drive, in St Osyth.
Mr Atkin, 52, who works as a building inspector, said he had told police it was "definitely a very large animal, and possibly a lion, definitely a large cat".
He added: "We witnessed it, I would say, for about 20 to 30 minutes cleaning itself and rolling about in the field."
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He said the animal was the length of two sheep "put together".
But, while no-one can be sure the King of the Jungle is not roaming the south, there was no mistaking lions were on the loose in Grimsby back in March 1991.
The four ferocious beasts brought the town to a standstill after they broke free during a performance at Chipperfield's Circus.
A special 6am edition of the then Grimsby Evening Telegraph brought the shocking news to the town with the headline: "Terror as four lions flee big top – man mauled in circus break-out."
It was the stuff of a Hollywood film script, but it became reality at around 7.40pm on Thursday, March 7 1991.
The four lions got away from the circus, which had set up in Burgess Street, after their cage was sabotaged, roaming the streets for more than an hour before they were caught and returned.
During that hour of terror, Grimsby father Michael Strandt was mauled by one of the beasts.
He needed 24 stitches after a lion pounced on him and sunk its teeth into his neck.
Mr Strandt had been dashing to the aid of his wife and young daughter who were caught up in the scenes of chaos.
He owes his life to heroic policeman Ron Harrison, who rammed the animal with his patrol car.
"The next thing, this lion was pounding after me. It leaped up to me, grabbing the top of my shoulder, and pulled me down," Mr Strandt said shortly after his ordeal.
"I thought I was never going to get up.
"I rolled into a ball to try to protect myself."
Circus staff were also widely praised for the way they handled the break-out, and one red-nosed clown was hailed a hero after he chased after one of the lions.
"The clown, complete with red nose, big feet and ridiculous costume trapped one of the lions in an alley at the Victoria Street bus station," we reported.
The clown had earlier rushed into the nearby Grimsby Police Station to alert the force about what had happened.
Along with Sgt Stewart Bellamy, the clown used the stick and chair to keep the animal at bay until help arrived.
Sgt Bellamy said: "I was absolutely terrified. The clown was very, very brave.
"I was outside the police station in a car when I saw a clown and a lion.
"The animal was going down the passageway at the bus station."
The police sergeant blocked the passage with his car, and the clown used the chair and stick to ward off the lion before some gates were shut to trap the animal.
"I thought that was it, we had the lion. But then the clown informed me there were three more on the loose!
"The reaction of people nearby was total disbelief and they would not take notice of what we were telling them. They were putting themselves in great danger," he said at the time.
Eyewitnesses in the big top told how the circus turned into a "horror movie".
Gordon Contegiacomo was 18 and sitting in one of the back rows with his brother.
"It was just chaotic. The lions were first on but they came straight back out again after they had gone off," he said.
"I saw a guy in blue overalls come running back in the ring like a bat out of hell.
"We were lucky to get out quite quickly."
Lynne Stead, of Haven Avenue, Grimsby, was sitting at the ringside with her son Paul.
"The lions had been performing but did not seem to want to play," she said.
"Music came on after the performance and I looked round to see people stampeding from the back.
"Someone shouted the lions are on the loose. I grabbed Paul and got him out."
One of the lions was captured after being trapped in the Grimsby Cleethorpes Transport bus depot, now operated by Stagecoach.
Brian Doyle, a club steward for Grimsby Cleethorpes Transport, told the Telegraph there were around 30 staff in the building at the time.
He said: "It just kept roaring and roaring.
"It was obviously on the defensive and nobody was sure how it was going to react.
"I've seen a lot happen on GCT property, but never a lion."
Despite the escape – and further protests by activists – the show went on the next night as normal as scores of families refused to let the drama stop their evening out.