The Lioness and the Exeter Mail in October 1816

Mail coaches experienced all sorts of dangers. There were armed highwaymen hiding in shadows and pistol-packing robbers waiting in forests. They attacked coaches, stole mail, and robbed passengers. If that wasn’t dangerous enough, malicious items such as iron gates, doors, plows, carts, and branches mysteriously found their way onto roadways and turnpikes. Not only did these items halt mail delivery but they also imperiled and endangered the lives of the coachmen and passengers, partly because coaches barreled down the roads at break-neck speeds. However, perhaps, the most unusual danger a mail coach every faced occurred one Sunday evening on 20 October 1816 when a lioness attacked the Exeter mail.

The Royal Mail on the Road by John Frederick Herring, Courtesy of Wikipedia

The royal mail on the road by John Frederick Herring. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

It was dark when the mail coach arrived seven miles on the London side of Salisbury at Winterslow Hut (now the Pheasant Inn). Nothing seemed out of the ordinary when the coachman pulled up to deliver his bags, but then “in a most extraordinary manner … the [lead horse] was suddenly seized by some ferocious animal.”[1] Much confusion and fright ensued and frightened passengers inside the coach scrambled out, ran into the house, and locked themselves in a room upstairs. No one knew for sure what was happening, but the horses began violently kicking and plunging, and “it was with [great] difficulty the coachman … prevent[ed] the carriage from being overturned.”[2]

Unsure what was happening, it took the coachman and guard, a man named Joseph Pike, a few minutes to determine by dim lamplight that a huge lioness was attacking one of the horses. The horse under attack was “a capital horse, the off-leader, the best in the set.”[3] It fought valiantly “with great spirit, and if at liberty would probably have beaten down his antagonist with his fore feet.”[4] But as the horse was hitched to the mail coach, it could do little to protect itself against the ferocious lioness.

Lioness Attacking the Exeter Mail, Public Domain

Lioness attacking the Exeter mail. Public domain.

The lioness attacked at the front, springing at the horse’s throat. She fastened her front talons securely on either side of him, and her talons were attached so firmly, they buried deep into his neck allowing the lioness to press her hind legs into the horse’s chest. “In this situation she hung, while the blood was seen flowing as if a vein had been opened by a [tool for bloodletting].”[4] The horse was severely lacerated about the neck and chest and such expressions of agony would not be soon forgotten: Witnesses of the attack claimed the horse’s screams, “tears, and moans were most pitious [sic] and affecting.”[5]

The Type of Draught Horse that Pulled the Mail, Author's Collection

The type of draught horse that pulled the mail. Author’s collection.

As the lioness’s assault was underway, a large mastiff joined the fray. When the mastiff attacked the lioness, she abandoned the horse and turned her fury upon him. Suddenly, realizing the danger, the dog fled, but it was not swift enough to escape. The lioness pursued the mastiff and killed it some forty yards away. Once the dog was dead, the lioness’ fury seemed spent, and she seemed in no hurry to leave the dead dog, and, thus, she sat growling “in so loud a tone, as to be heard for nearly half a mile.”[6]

Cigarette card showing the attack. Public domain.

As everyone feared for their safety, they yelled to the guard to dispatch the beast with his trusty blunderbuss. But just as Pike raised the blunderbuss* to shoot, the menagerie owner appeared crying out with great concern, “For god’s sake do not kill her … she will be as quiet as lamb if not irritated.”[7] The lioness’ owner was right, because now she sat quietly. In addition, the lioness’ owner offered Pike and others “£500 if they would desist … [and not shoot because] if the beast was shot the holes in the skin would render it almost valueless.”[8]


The Lioness Attacking the Horse of the Exeter Mail Coach, Public Domain

The lioness attacking the  horse of the Exeter mail coach. Public domain.

After the situation calmed down it was ascertained that the lioness had escaped from Ballard’s Menagerie, which was touring the countryside, just like Madame Tussaud did with her exhibition. The menagerie was heading to the Salisbury Fair and had stopped for the night nearby. Her keepers had at once pursued her but had not recaptured her in time to avoid the Exeter mail incident. Now they faced her with what some people described as “coolness and daring.” After heading off with the mastiff in her teeth, the keepers enticed her into “a hovel under a granary, which served for keeping agricultural implements.”[9] By half-past eight they had barricaded and secured the granary in such a way it was impossible for her to escape.

Lion, Lioness, and Cubs, Author's Collection

Lion, lioness, and cubs. Author’s collection.

The attack delayed the mail by forty-five minutes, including the time needed to put down the injured horse and procure a replacement. When the mail coach set off again, they “drew up … exactly abreast of the caravan from which the lioness made the assault.”[10] The coachman was so incensed over the loss of his fine horse that it was reported:

“[He] proposed to alight and stab the lioness with a knife, but was prevented by the remonstrance of the guard; who observed, that he would expose himself to certain destruction, as the animal if attacked would naturally turn upon him and tear him to pieces.”[11]

*According to Wikipedia, “The blunderbuss used by the British Royal Mail during the period of 1788–1816 was a flintlock with a 14-inch (36 cm) long flared brass barrel, brass triggerguard, and an iron trigger and lock. A typical British mail coach would have a single postal employee on board, armed with a blunderbuss and a pair of pistols, to guard the mail from highwaymen.”


  • [1] Goodrich, Samuel Griswold, A Book of Quadrupeds, 1832, p. 53.
  • [2] ibid.
  • [3] Hone, William, The Every Day Book, Or, A Guide to the Year, Vol. 1, 1826, p. 596.
  • [4] Goodrich, Samuel Griswold, p. 54.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Hone, William, p. 596.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Doran, Dr. John, Memories of Our Great Towns, 1882, p. 149.
  • [9] Goodrich, Samuel Griswold, p. 54.
  • [10] Hone, William, p. 596.
  • [11] Ibid.

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