The day lions attacked two men in Colney just before Christmas

Lions Fritz and Mitzi at Colney Hall in 1911, as depicted on a contemporary postcard.

Lions Fritz and Mitzi at Colney Hall in 1911, as depicted on a contemporary postcard. - Credit: Archant

It was at Christmas time in Norfolk of 1911 when a member of a famous Norfolk banking family died as a result of injuries from a dangerous 'pet' kept at Colney Hall. Derek James tells the tragic story of Lieutenant Terence Barclay.

Memorial to Lieutenant Terence Henry Ford Barclay, eldest son of Hugh Barclay, who died after being

Memorial to Lieutenant Terence Henry Ford Barclay, eldest son of Hugh Barclay, who died after being attacked by Fritz, one of the family's pet lions at Colney Hall, Norfolk, in December 1911. - Credit: Archant

It was a postcard for sale on eBay which caught our attention... lions named Fritz and Mitzi were pictured in their enclosure at Colney Hall near Norwich.

Lions at Colney! Surely there had never been a zoo or wildlife park at this fine country mansion?

No. Fritz and Mitzi, who had travelled from Africa to Norfolk more than a century ago, were kept as 'pets' by members of the Barclay family who lived at the hall. They loved them but tragedy struck when Lieutenant Terence Barclay, went outside to see the lions before he returned to London, and was attacked by one of the animals.

The incident happened before Christmas 1911 and Terence Henry Ford Barclay, eldest son of Hugh and Evelyn Barclay, died at the hall on December 27 as a result of his injuries.

The decorated soldier, who had served with the Scots Guards in South Africa, was aged 29.

He was described as: 'A young man of capacity and promise; and such were his likeable qualities of heart and manner that by everyone who knows him, especially the people of Colney, the news of his untimely end will be received with great regret.'

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The story of what happened was told many years ago by Mr W Cross of Thorpe who said: 'At the time of the accident I was staying with my father who was the butler at the hall.

'The first I knew of what happened when someone rushed up and said: 'The lions have got Mr Barclay!'

'I ran to the gamekeeper's house and told him what had happened. He snatched up a gun, ran to the enclosure, and fired at the lion, which was astride Mr Barclay,' said Mr Cross.

'The lion stepped back. Then Mr Barclay's sister, Miss Phyllis, went in and I went with her and helped drag Mr Barclay out.

'He was carried to the house on a wooden hurdle. His face was unscratched, and he was not badly mauled but blood poisoning set in and he died on December 27, despite efforts by a German specialist who had been brought over,' added Mr Cross.

So how did the lions come to be at Colney? The story goes that the big cats, about two years old, were brought from Mombasa earlier in 1911. They had been presented to Mr Barclay by a German Prince following a visit to Africa.

They were shipped from their East African home in a large portable den and made the long journey to England on the Union Castle liner Gascon, reaching London at the end of February.

They were taken to Norwich by train, and conveyed to Colney in a farm wagon.

Other accounts at the time said: 'The lions were treated just like kittens. Miss Barclay used to feed them every morning with a large bowl of milk.

'Up to the early summer this year [1911] the animals were allowed to roam about the grounds at will, and they were only confined in a strong steel-wire cage as a precautionary measure,' it was said.

'Their fondness for tracking – purely for fun and with no bloodthirsty motives – led to many amusing scenes in the grounds of Colney Hall.

At one time Fritz 'bounded' after an umbrella-mender who was making his way to the hall while other hawkers beat a hasty retreat on seeing the animals. They also 'tracked' cyclists and gardeners but their behaviour was described as 'playful and good-humoured.'

Following the attack banker Hugh Barclay told the Daily Mirror: 'He was taking the animals out at dusk, when one of them attacked him. I had often warned him against the danger of taking the animals out when it was dark.'

And the paper posed the question: 'How can long can lions safely be kept as pets? Can a lion be domesticated like a cat, even when it is fully grown?'

It spoke to Mr Hamlyn, a well-known animal dealer all those years ago, who said it was unsafe for anyone to play with a lion aged more than 18 months and added: 'Probably the attack on Mr Barclay by the lion was pure playfulness – the animal did not realise its strength when it made for him,' he added.

Following the attack the lions ended up at a zoo in Dublin where they died of pneumonia, Fritz in 1916 and Mitzi the following year.

My thanks to photographer Bill Smith who took the new photographs and discovered the old ones for this article.