Weird Norfolk: The incredible time when a tiger came to tea at Potter Heigham

On December 22 1845 a tiger escaped from a travelling menagerie at Potter Heigham. Picture: EDP Li

On December 22 1845 a tiger escaped from a travelling menagerie at Potter Heigham. Picture: EDP Library - Credit: Archant © 2006

Everyone secretly hoped they'd catch more than just a glimpse of the magical menagerie making its way through the Broadland village of Potter Heigham - but you should always be careful what you wish for.

It was December 22 1845 and Christmas was coming early to this watery corner of Norfolk as a caravan of exotic beasts wound its way through the village on its route to Great Yarmouth.These travelling menageries brought a glimpse of magic into mundane lives, great touring bands of showmen and animal handlers which travelled the length of the country to showcase fantastic beasts from far-flung corners of the globe.

As the driver of one particular cart trundled along the road, he was forced to the edge of a ditch to allow another vehicle to pass - the manoeuvre was clumsy and the cart staggered and then fell: unleashing the beast within.

For inside a cage on the cart was a mighty Bengal tiger - and as it fell to the ground, the base of the cage split and the big cat tasted sudden freedom.

Its first move, according to some reports, was to have a fortifying snack before heading into the wilds of Potter Heigham - the tiger paused to bite the head off an eagle it had been travelling beside and then clambered up the banks of the ditch and away into the fields.

Enchantment and wonder at the magical sight of the menagerie caravan soon turned to fear, as villagers realised the tiger's interest in them might be somewhat less than friendly. Farmers Rudd and Murrell quickly spoke to the proprietor of the menagerie about the best way to catch the beast and set about gathering an army of Norfolk big game hunters.

Armed with guns and with a large muster of pitch-fork wielding labourers, the Potter Heigham hunters set out alongside the tiger's keeper. Their cunning plan was to corner the razor-toothed cat and capture it in a sheep net.

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The tiger, his palate aroused by the earlier eagle's head amuse bouche, had bounded into Farmer Daniels' field and had started on his main course: a sheep. His fearsome breath creating ravenous clouds on a bitterly-cold day, the beast and the hunters faced each other: standing proprietorially over the dead sheep, the tiger threw back its head and snarled. As the men nervously edged forward with their pitifully flimsy net, the creature turned on his heel, cleared a hedge and began to lope towards the farmer's house, where his wife and teenage son awaited news of the beast's capture.

Their hearts filled with fear, the hunters made their way to the farm, fearful that the tiger had found dessert. But when they reached the farmyard, they were met with an astonishing sight: young Tom, just 15 years of age, had trapped the tiger in a large hamper and was awaiting further instruction. Having been told he was 'too young' to join the hunters, he had stayed at home with his mother as she continued to prepare the forthcoming Christmas feast, a handsome leg of pork. Waiting in the yard for news, on what must surely have been the most exciting day in Potter Heigham's history, young Tom spotted an orange and black stripy interloper making towards the house. The quick-witted lad grabbed a nearby hamper, whisked away the pork from under his mother's nose and lured the creature into the wicker box using the star of the family's festive feast. Once inside, he trapped the tiger into the hamper and fixed the lid with ropes. Christmas dinner might well have been ruined, but the show could go on in Great Yarmouth!

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