Express & Star

Lions at the disco and gorillas in the garden: How businessman became the Black Country's Tiger King

With hindsight, the encyclopedia salesman probably wished he hadn't been so pushy when he called round Lew Foley's house to peddle his wares.

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Lew Foley was surprised to find these cubs abandoned on his doorstep in June, 1976. He was not sure what type of big cat they were, although he thought they were tigers or leopards.

Getting no reply from the front door, he spotted the gate, and thought he would try his luck round the back. On entering the back garden, he was chased into the road by one of Mr Foley's lions, forcing him to take refuge in a parked lorry. It is not known whether Mr Foley bought any encyclopedias.

While the Netflix series Tiger King focused on the colourful life of American big-cat trainer Joe Exotic, back in the 1970s Lew Foley was the Black Country's own Tiger King.

Back in the 70s, Lew and his equally idiosyncratic friend Leslie Maiden – a lion tamer known as 'One-Eyed Nick' – basked in the roles of minor celebrities, courting publicity wherever they went, and irritating the authorities in equal measure.

Lew Foley kept a menagerie of big cats behind his home in Cradley Heath

When his activities attracted the attention of Sandwell Council, he turned up to a meeting with a hefty lion cub in his arms. The incident with the encyclopedia salesman landed Lew in court, charged with a breach of the peace, prompting him to turn up for the hearing in full evening dress, while his lion tamer sat in the public gallery dressed as a cowboy.

Living most of his life in Cradley Heath – although he also variously lived in Dudley, Smethwick and Lye – he became a familiar sight walking Winston the tiger around the streets of suburbia on a chain or driving them around in the back of his large American estate car.

Dave Malpass remembers when he turned up with a lion at a Saturday night disco at the Summer Hill pub in Kingswinford.

"He took it on the stage," he recalls. "Barmy Barry the DJ nearly crapped himself, along with loads of screaming women."

Lew Foley kept big cats in the garden of his house in Cradley Heath

He regularly appeared at shows and fetes with his animals, and took them in with him for a pint at the various pubs he frequented. He appeared on a local news bulletin brushing his first lion Laddo with a broom, and when Winston was a cub he took him to the Heath Tavern pub for a photocall behind the bar.

While there in the 1960s there was a bit of a fad for the very wealthy to keep big cats as pets, Lew said it was a spate of break-ins at his house which convinced him of the need for a bit of extra security.

"I used to work all over the country and while I was away my house in Cradley Heath was broken into three times and my kids were beaten up," he said in a 2003 interview.

"I checked on the law to find out how I could put these burglars off and I thought I would get a lion – a wild lion," his frown turning to a broad grin.

He put up a warning sign, but it still wasn't enough to put one determined individual off.

Lew Foley brought his lion cub to Sandwell Council's offices

"It said on the gate, which was 8ft high, Beware of the Lion, but this Scotsman came and he climbed over," he said, adding that the lion held the man in his mouth.

"The police came with shotguns and I had to go into the cage with half a pig to help get the lion off him."

His first lion was called Laddo, but he soon added a lioness called Sheba, and gradually his back-garden zoo began to expand. Winston the tiger joined him in 1976, and one morning that year, at the height of the blistering summer, Lew woke up to find two more cubs abandoned on his doorstep.

He would regale anyone who listened with tales about how he rescued animals from circuses, and there were plenty of people who were fascinated by his unusual pets. Schoolchildren would stand on walls to get a glimpse of the big beasts, and stories of them roaring at passers-by were legendary.

At home with the Foleys – Lew with a lioness

Wendy Palmer remembers going on a school coach past his house to the nearby Haden Hill swimming pool.

"We always used to try to get the coach driver to stop so we could see if the lion was out in the garden," she says.

But while his activities may have been entertaining, the authorities – and Sandwell Council in particular – quickly grew weary of his unusual hobby. Planning enforcement action was taken against him over the cages he had built behind his house, and he would regularly appear before his local magistrates with one or more of his big cats in tow.

But it was the incident with the encyclopedia salesman which proved the final straw, leading to Parliament passing the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act which effectively outlawed keeping big cats as pets.

The law led to several owners of big cats releasing their animals into the wild, fuelling the regular sightings and speculation about such animals residing in our countryside. Lew reputedly released at least two lions onto the Malvern Hills, although this was never substantiated.

Lew Foley in 2005

A former soldier with the Queen's Lifeguards, Lew inherited considerable wealth from his grandmother who owned properties around the region, although much of this would be consumed over the years as he became embroiled in a series of legal battles. A father of 17, he owned a building company in Wordsley.

But while the Dangerous Wild Animals Act may have stopped him keeping lions at his home, there was never any danger of him leading a peaceful retirement. No longer able to keep big cats in his garden, he started keeping heroin addicts there instead. He reckoned he could help addicts overcome their habit by chaining them up in caravans at the back of his house until the cravings ceased, and produced at least one client who reckoned this rather drastic therapy had worked.

Following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, he opened a hostel for the homeless in her memory, which also saw him fall foul of the authorities. When he was ordered to appear before the magistrates, he changed his name by deed poll to Sir Anti Corruption UK, and insisted that on being addressed by that name in court.

He died in 2009, aged 70.