The Tiger Who Came To Tea … In The Middle of Rural Yorkshire
According to the World Wildlife Fund, the world population of wild tigers is currently somewhere in the region of 3890—a figure that’s easily outstepped by the estimated 5000 to 10,000 tigers kept in captivity as pets in the backyards of America. Big cat ownership is more heavily regulated in the UK than it is in the U.S. (although it was once possible to buy lions in the pet department of Harrods), but more than 70 years ago there was at least one pet tiger living in England—in, of all places, the tiny village of Holmfirth in rural West Yorkshire.
To the people of Britain, Holmfirth, 20 miles outside of Manchester, is probably best known as the picturesque setting of Last of the Summer Wine, the BBC sitcom that ran for a staggering 37 years from 1973 to 2010, and is now appropriately credited as being the world’s longest running situation comedy. But back in the early 1940s, the village was well known locally as the home of Fenella the Holmfirth Tiger.
Fenella’s story actually begins more than 8000 miles away in South Africa, where she was adopted by a family of circus performers and acrobats from Yorkshire, the Overends, in the late 1930s. While touring South Africa with a traveling circus in 1939, the Overend family were offered two newborn circus tiger cubs to rear and eventually incorporate into their act. Although one of the cubs died barely a week later, the other—given the name Fenella, or “Feney” for short—survived.
The Overends were forced to return home to England after the outbreak of the Second World War, and so took Fenella back with them to live (albeit after a brief stay in quarantine) in the back garden of their home in Holmfirth. Although she had a hut and a large enclosure for her to run in specially built for her in the Overends’ garden, Fenella eventually began spending just as much time in the family house as she did in the garden, and as a result soon became extraordinarily tame. Her owners would take her for walks through the village, including past the local primary school, where she became a firm favorite among the pupils; when the local council reportedly began to raise questions over just how tame Fenella really was, the sight of her walking calmly alongside and being petted by all the schoolchildren as they returned from their lunch break was all it took to quash their worries.
Fenella was permitted to run wild in the fields around the village, where she reportedly made friends with a local cart horse and apparently had a fondness for climbing trees to take a nap (and supposedly had a habit of dropping down from the branches and, fairly understandably, surprising passersby). But soon the sight of a fully-grown 9-foot Sumatran tigress casually idling her way through the village’s cobbled streets became the norm for the people of Holmfirth.
Although she was intended to be a performing tiger—visitors could pay sixpence to sit and pet her while the family was on tour, and she was reportedly worked into the family’s circus performances in a mock wrestling match with her owner—the Overends made sure that she was well cared for: raised on a diet of horsemeat and fish, the family considered her a big family pet rather than just another part of their act.
Sadly, Fenella died of a kidney infection during one of the family’s tours in 1950 when she was just 10 and a half years old; she was buried in the neighbor’s garden, which was apparently one of her favorite hunting grounds. But “Fenella the friendly tiger” is still remembered fondly in and around Holmfirth, and earlier this year was made the centerpiece of the local Holmfirth Arts Festival that celebrated her life with an exhibition of photographs and archive footage of her and the Overend family. Exotic pets might not have remained as popular in the UK as they once were, but Fenella’s popularity at least remains intact.