BOXFORD IN THE PRESS
Curious tale of the Wall-of-Death hero who buried his lion sidekick outside a rustic villa
The Daily Express
21 July 2013
"YOU DO KNOW that there's a lion buried outside, in that courtyard, don't you?" asked one of the regulars, just as I was leaving a quiet country pub.
I didn't. It was early on a December afternoon in Boxford, Suffolk, that I accidentally stumbled upon the story of an almost-forgotten Great British eccentric, Tornado Smith, a Thirties Wall-of-Death stunt motorcyclist.
The village of Boxford is chiefly known for having hosted some good jazz concerts in recent years at the Fleece, one of its two pubs. It was, however, from its other hostelry, the White Hart, that the tale of the stunt rider and his pet lion emerged. The lion, actually a 12-stone lioness named Briton, had been part of George "Tornado" Smith's Wall-of-Death act during the Thirties. As a cub, she had initially ridden on the handlebars of his Indian Scout motorbike. Once she was fully grown, she rode in a sidecar, while he performed daring stunts for his audiences.
Nowadays, we just don't produce eccentrics of such calibre. George Smith was born in June 1908 in the Suffolk hamlet of Newton Green, near Boxford itself. His parents, already in the pub trade, took over the White Hart in 1921, which they ran until the early Fifties. George was a nervous child, so afraid of his teachers that his concerned mother once sought help for him. Despite this, the boy reportedly got himself into trouble, performing daredevil high-speed stunts with a soapbox cart, for which he was caned. He left school at 14, having been apprenticed to a local wheelwright.
He didn't settle, however. By the age of 17, he was driving a lorry for a coal merchant. Shortly afterwards he became, variously, an AA patrolman and a taxi driver. It was during the latter job that Smith, dropping off a fare in Southend, happened upon his first Wall-of-Death. It seems to have been love at first sight. The fairground amusement had been recently imported from America. It comprised a giant drum, 20-feet high, lined with short, wooden boards around which stunt motorcyclists rode at speed, almost at 90-degree angles to the floor, their exhausts roaring and popping as they did so.
Spectators who paid to stand on a parapet surrounding the top of the drum would feel the whole structure move as they looked down upon the motorcyclists racing around below them. There were occasional injuries and tumbles although, strangely, it's now claimed that no deaths were ever attributed to the Wall-of-Death. An equal opportunities concept from the very beginning, the stars of the Wall were just as likely to be women as men.
Having become obsessed with the idea of being a stunt rider, the young Suffolk lad began applying for jobs. He was unsuccessful, until the boss of a new Wall-of-Death, at an amusement park in Whitley Bay, near Newcastle gave him a job as a mechanic. Here he gained a chance to perfect his own act. In September 1930, aged 22, George was taken on by a touring company and made his debut as "Tornado" Smith in Malmo, Sweden.
Upon his return to Britain, during a short run of work for Bertram Mills Circus, Tornado met the woman he would eventually marry. A pretty teenager, then working as a cosmetics sales assistant, Doris Craven fell head-over-heels for the charismatic stuntman. Slim of build, with a David Niven-style pencil moustache, he wore tortoiseshell spectacles and sported a jaunty beret. Doris, his new inamorata, a feisty young woman, wasted no time and soon learned to ride the Wall herself, settling upon the stage name Marjorie Dare. Tornado, a consummate showman, was always looking for new ways to bring customers into his shows. So it was that in 1933, he purchased Briton, the lion cub, intending to train her for his act.
Just in itself this part of the story illustrates how much circumstances have changed during recent decades. It seems impossible to believe now that anyone might have been able to easily acquire something as exotic as a lion cub. Up until as late as 1976, however, when the Dangerous Wild Animals Act was passed, almost anyone with the money to do so might have placed order via the Harrod's department store an order via the Harrod's department store in Knightsbridge.
A short British Pathe newsreel clip from the Thirties helps illustrate the whole incredible story. The clip opens with shots of Marjorie Dare walking a large lamb (actually almost a fully grown sheep) on a lead through a busy Southend street. Subsequent footage shows her swimming in the sea with the creature.
There follows footage of her husband parading his lioness around on a lead. The film ends with husband and wife alongside their lioness and lamb, all sat cheerily outdoors together, at a table sharing tea and cakes. Dubbed over the film is an unintentionally hilarious commentary, in the Cholmondley-Warner style of comedian Harry Enfield. The clip allows a window into the recent past, a world so different from our own that it seems almost Monty Pythonesque.
From a modern health and safety viewpoint, Tornado Smith's lifestyle represents almost a perfect storm. Consider it: two motorcycle stunt-riders with little or no safety procedures, conducting performances in an unstable wooden structure into which unprotected members of the public are invited in order to view the spectacle from a parapet.
Now throw in a lioness being walked around on a lead and a sheep swimming at a public beach. There's even more. With regard to his lioness, who was reportedly, somewhat fierce as a cub, Smith did actually have a contingency plan. In case she should ever turn on him during a performance, he always carried a loaded pistol. During their early married life, Tornado and Marjorie lived in Feltham, Middlesex, where the stunt man was frequently to be seen in the streets walking the lioness around. In the winter, the couple returned home to rural Suffolk. Here, they had set up the Wall-of-Death in the yard of his parents' pub and performed for the locals' amusement. Smith would take the lioness out on her morning constitutionals around the village streets.
Sadly, Briton's short life ended at the outset of the Second World War. A 12-stone lioness requires a fair amount of meat. With a prevailing meat shortage and what little there was now rationed by price, feeding her would have become economically unsustainable. Smith, probably short of money at this point, was left with little option but to shoot her. He buried her in the courtyard of the White Hart, where her remains have lain for more than seven decades. Smith's glory days too, began to tail off towards the end of the Thirties.
George reportedly got himself into trouble for performing daredevil high-speed stunts with a soapbox cart During the war, he applied to become a fighter pilot but, rejected because of his poor eyesight, served instead in the Navy. It was during this time that his marriage to Marjorie Dare broke up.
Having heard their story, I wondered if there was anyone alive who might remember seeing Tornado perform and was fortunate enough to meet Ken Lazell, 81, himself a former motorbike enthusiast from Benfleet, Essex. "Tornado Smith? Of course I remember him," he said. "I'd go and watch him in Southend. The riders came so close to the top of the parapet, that you could have leaned down and touched their heads."
Remarkably, Smith continued to entertain spectators at Southend right up until the mid-Sixties. He retired from the Wall in 1965, having spent his last years struggling somewhat. In a new era of ever more spectacular stunts conducted by formation motorcycle teams, the heyday of the Wall-of-Death artistes had passed. Tornado retired, firstly to Spain and finally to South Africa, where he died in 1971 aged 63. He's not entirely forgotten, however. A Suffolk micro-brewery, Mill Green, not far from Boxford, recently brewed a beer commemorating the motorcycling legend.
Tornado Smith, appropriately enough, is described as "an eccentric pale ale".