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The Blackheath Lions
by Jayne Barlow

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Imagine yourself enjoying a leisurely summer walk across the heath. The sound of the many species of birds twittering, perhaps a distant hum of an aircraft heading into Gatwick airport. The familiar sound broken by a ...lions roar!

This was the scenario for many walkers and horse-riders passing over Blackheath Common between 1974 and 1986. The two 'Blackheath Lions' were real, not an old wives tale.

The two 'Panthera Leo' lions, a breed that are the second largest living cats after the tiger, came to live on the edge of the heath in 1974. They were brother and sister and called 'Napoleon and Josephine'

The Boyd Gibbins moved to Blackheath in 1974 from Essex and with them came their lions. They had become the recipients of two eight-week old lion cubs back in 1969. Mr Boyd Gibbins, a keen polo player, had loaned one of his ponies to a club in Paris. During its time in France the pony was badly injured and as a consequence the Polo Club presented Boyd Gibbins with their unusual gift.

The cubs travelled to England in a laundry basket aboard a helicopter. Diana Boyd Gibbins was reluctant to keep them as she was not happy about wild animals being caged, but was soon found herself undertaking the huge commitment of looking after them. They had to be bottle-fed every few hours with baby milk.

As the lions grew they were eventually loaned to Windsor Safari Park. It was thought they would be happier there with a larger compound and the company of other lions. This proved not to be the case and they began to fret. Josephine was returned to Blackheath but Napoleon stayed on for a while. He was however reunited with his sister and they continued to live very happily in their large pen on the Blackheath/Shamley Green border.

For Diana, it meant a lot of hard work and commitment. She had to be issued with a 'dangerous animals' license. The compound was erected in their pretty garden by workmen from Shamley Green. Fresh meat, 40lbs of it a week had to be sourced from local abattoirs. Napoleon weighed in at 450lbs and Josephine at 300lbs.

The local vet Mr Patrick Keeling had to undertake to look after a very unfamiliar species to his usual clients of domestic cats, dogs and horses. It was a challenge, especially having to perform operations in the compound whilst the lion was tranquillised.

The lions were very fond of Diana, but at all times she knew she had to respect them and never turn her back on them.

One numerous anecdote she recalls is having to drive Napoleon to London for some medical treatment in her van. As she drove past Harrods, she pointed it out to him!

She laughed as she told the tale of another driver leaning out of his car and asking for directions. The expression on his face as he realised there was a lion sitting behind her and looking out of the window.

Napoleon did not like his large runner tyre getting wet. He would drag it into the shelter during a shower.


Contrary to local tittle tattle, the lions never escaped. Diana spent many a sleepless night worrying about the trees around the compound. Winter storms caused her much anxiety but luckily no trees fell and the lions enclosure was always intact.

The lions had lots of visitors. They included monks and nun's from the Friary and Shamley Green Seminary. The only visitor that they showed distaste for was a 'lion-tamer' that came to see them.

Perhaps one might think that Diana did a good trade in 'lion dung' to ward off the deer in the gardens of Blackheath residents. She scoffed at that, saying that the deer really did not mind the smell of the lions at all.

Sadly, Napoleon became ill after a bone wedged in his intestines and he died in 1983 aged 14. Josephine went on to a good age of 17 and died in 1986.

Diana was as expected devastated by their deaths, but it had been such hard work over the years. She became instrumental in establishing the 'dangerous pets' register. This was important as she was concerned at the condition and circumstances that some exotic animals were living in back in the 70's and 80's.

The 'roaring' of napoleon and Josephine has become legendary in the tales of Blackheath's past. For those that heard them they will never be forgotten.

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