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Christian the Lion: A Big Cat in Chelsea

Recently, there have been a number of somewhat alarming reports that a lion is on the loose in the Essex countryside….

Whether or not this turns out to be true, it’s certainly makes a dull bank holiday a little more interesting… I wonder if the scary carnivore will manage to find its way into the centre of London…

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During the 1960s, one place you would certainly have been able to spot a real, live lion was within one of the capital’s most prestigious department stores: Harrods.

Harrods Department Store (photo: Wikipedia)

In those carefree days, the world famous shop on Brompton Road boasted its very own Zoo department.

First opened in 1917, the exotic floor space sold all manner of beasts; everything from chickens to goats to alligators and elephants. (Today, the area has now been handed over to the far tamer ‘Pet Kingdom’).

A baby elephant, purchased from Harrods’ Zoo Department in 1967

In November 1969, two young Australians- Anthony Burke (nicknamed ‘Ace’) and John Rendell– arrived in London.

As part of their obligatory sightseeing tour, the excited newcomers popped into Harrods where they were amazed to discover the store’s commercial menagerie.

What most caught their eye was a small cage… in which there sat a forlorn looking lion cub. Saddened to see the creature confined to such cramped conditions, the two Aussies vowed to rescue the lion, whom they would soon name ‘Christian’.

Christian the Lion

Boasting a price tag of 250 guineas (£3,500 in today’s money), Christian didn’t come cheap. However, this didn’t deter Anthony and John and they quickly managed to raise the necessary cash.

It turned out that the staff at Harrods were more than happy to see the back of Christian- the night before the pair came to collect him, the cheeky young lion had escaped from his cage and run amok through the carpet department, ripping apart several valuable goatskin rugs in the process!

Christian with Anthony Burke and John Rendell (photo: Evening Standard)

By now, Anthony and John were living in a small flat on the King’s Road, down in swinging Chelsea and, in a unit below their apartment, they ran a pine furniture shop called Sophiste-Cat.

Once Christian moved in, the little lion cub quickly became a local celebrity, attracting a number of 1960s luminaries such as Dina Rig and Mia Farrow to the shop.

Map showing approximate location of the ‘Sophiste-Cat’ shop on the King’s Road, which was home for a time to Christian the Lion. Today, the shop has been replaced by a modern parade of buildings.

Fed on raw meat, bone-meal and eggs, Christian quickly made himself at home. As Anthony and John said in their book, ‘A Lion Called Christian, their new pal was pretty demanding:

We had to buy him hardy toys, for the average life of a normal teddy bear was about two minutes… He demanded our constant attention and it was impossible to ignore him. If one of us was reading a newspaper, or on the telephone, Christian would immediately climb up on to his lap.

During Christian’s time in Chelsea, a documentary was made entitled, ‘The Lion at World’s End which was released in 1971. (The title refers to the southern part of the King’s Road which, taking its name from a local pub, is known as the ‘World’s End‘).

During his time in Chelsea, a local church allowed Christian to be exercised every morning on one of their cloisters which had once been an ancient Moravian burial ground.

The ground is located  between Milman’s Street and Beaufort Street and Christian can be seen frolicking there in the following clip:

Within four months, Christian had grown so much that his size was becoming a hindrance.

No longer a cute, wee cub, his more mature appearance was beginning to scare customers away.

Anthony and John knew that it would soon become impossible for Christian to stay with them in London. 

One couple who were not intimidated by Christian’s blossoming size were Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna; an acting couple who had starred in the 1966 film, Born Free, a true story in which they played George and Joy Adamson; the pair of British conservationists who had cared for Elsa, an orphaned lioness.

Poster for ‘Born Free’, 1966

Using their connections, Bill and Virginia helped the two young Aussies arrange for Christian to be flown out to Kenya, the departure from Heathrow taking place in the summer of 1970.

Once in Africa, Christian was taken under the wing of George Adamson who was now working at the Kora National Reserve. George’s Swahili nickname was ‘Baba ya Simba; which translates as the father of lions.

George Adamson whose life and work was portrayed in ‘Born Free’

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Once on the reserve the urban cub was introduced to a natural pride of lions, leaving Anthony and John to bid a sad farewell to their extraordinary pet.

Unsurprisingly, the two Australians could never forget Christian and were given regular updates by George Adamson. A year later, in July 1971, the pair decided to return to Kenya to have a peek at how their old feline flatmate was faring in his new terrain.

Escorted by George Adamson, the pair were taken out into the Savannah where Christian’s pride were roaming… the recording of what happened next has become the stuff of legends:

Tragically, George Adamson, who had overseen Christian’s return to nature, was murdered by poachers in 1989.

George’s last recorded sighting of the famous lion was in 1974, by which point Christian had fathered cubs of his own… who knows, maybe today the descendants of the lion cub from Harrods are out there somewhere in Kenya, still roaming free….

To find out more about the ‘Born Free’ Foundation, please click here
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8 responses

  1. A touching story but, for all that, I am glad that Harrod’s no longer sells animals.

    I hope that a day will come when there is greater understanding on our part of other species and when the buying and selling of animals will seem as barbarous to us as the buying and selling of human beings.

    1. Wise words indeed, couldn’t agree more.

  2. Another wonderful tale of unexpected things within the city!

  3. Extraordinary. Thank You.

  4. Great story – brought tears to my eyes. Thanks so much for sharing. I live near Beaufort street in chelsea, what I wouldn’t give right now to see a lion roaming around chelsea

    1. Thanks for the lovely comment, ChelseaGirl 🙂

  5. A great story that I vaguely recall from the time. And that reunion was so touching.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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