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The Fearless Mother-Daughter Duo Who Tamed Lions to Save the Circus

When the Great War sent the men of Europe to the front lines and left a legendary family business on the brink of bankruptcy, two brave women stepped into the ring.

The Fearless Mother-Daughter Duo Who Tamed Lions to Save the Circus

The moment Priscilla Kayes hit the dust, she knew the clock was ticking. Around her, she could hear the gasps and shouts of the onlookers beyond the enclosure, and the sound of feet — her brothers’, maybe — running to find a way to intervene. If she wasn’t back up in a few seconds, she would face certain death.

Callito had done it. He was her favorite of the seven lions she worked with, but today he had surprised her as she turned to rearrange their pedestals, and now she was lying in the dirt with two bloody claw marks on her thigh. She heard the lions’ guttural voices and smelled that familiar aroma: sawdust, grass bruised by many feet. It was the smell of the circus, of her childhood. The smell of home.

She would not die here.

Priscilla pushed herself up off the floor. The audience had hardly had time to blink. Her whip in hand, she corralled Callito back onto his pedestal, the only evidence of her fall the scuff marks in the dust and the vivid redness of blood on her leg. She was back in control.

Priscilla completed the rest of her act before directing the lions out of the enclosure, now docile as house cats under her focused gaze.

The show over, she limped backstage and lit a cigarette. A medic inspected her leg and administered an anti-tetanus injection as a reporter rushed forward to ask questions. Would she still be going ahead with the afternoon’s show, he wanted to know. Priscilla took a drag on her cigarette and surveyed him casually.

“Yes, why not?” she replied. “This is nothing.”

To the people who read these words when they were published in the Daily Independent on June 30, 1938, 34-year-old Priscilla Kayes must have seemed otherworldly. She was the only female lion tamer in Britain at the time, the star attraction of the renowned Bertram Mills Circus. She was a glamorous figure who dashed expectations of what a woman in a man’s profession would be like. One writer from The Aberdeen Press and Journal, who hadn’t yet seen Priscilla in person, predicted she would have a “battleship jaw” or a manly physique; instead, she was slim and graceful, with dark curls that made her look like a movie star.

She was beautiful, famous and utterly fearless. But her daring did not appear out of nowhere.

In fact, one might say it was in her blood.

Priscilla Kayes came from a long line of circus performers. Her mother, Elizabeth, was the daughter of Thomas and Eliza Baker, a prominent circus couple, and Elizabeth herself had trained as a tightrope walker, a dancer and a juggler. Britain’s circuses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were family affairs, with prominent clans passing their knowledge down from generation to generation and often connecting to other circus clans through marriage.

The wedding of Priscilla’s mother, Elizabeth Baker, to William “Buff Bill” Kayes in 1899 must have been an auspicious match indeed. William was a sharpshooter, said to be able to throw six knives into a cigarette card from a far distance. Born into the trade like Elizabeth, he now owned his own circus: Buff Bill’s Wild West Show, an homage to the American Buffalo Bill’s Wild West act from decades earlier. Later, he would add wild animals and rechristen the show as Buff Bill’s Menagerie.

Performers in the circus run by William “Buff Bill” Kayes, which featured several members of his family, circa 1910. (Photo courtesy Public Record Office of Northern Ireland)

William was 22 years Elizabeth’s senior, and a widower. He had three children from his previous marriage, and together he and Elizabeth would have more, many of them joining the family trade, taking on various roles at different times. Tommy, Timothy and Billy were prominent lion tamers; Arthur and Richard became circus managers; and Johnny, Jimmy and Betty performed as bareback horse riders. Sisters Selena, Violetta, Carrie and Pattie likely maintained a close connection to circus life and culture too, although there are no records of them ever performing.

The menagerie’s success meant that the children grew up around wild animals, playing with them the way other children played with dolls and house pets, and the family traveled the length and breadth of the country performing for audiences.

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A child plays with a baboon on top of a donkey at Buff Bill’s Menagerie, circa 1910. (Photo courtesy Public Record Office of Northern Ireland)

This success might have seemed like it would last forever. Even when William’s eyesight began to fail in the early 1910s, Elizabeth took over his proprietary duties and the wheels on the wagons kept rolling. But soon they — and every other traveling show in Britain — would face an even bigger challenge.

The declaration of the First World War echoed like a gunshot across Europe in the summer of 1914. For Britain’s circuses, it sounded like a death knell: the overseas trade, disposable income and able-bodied workforce that did the daily hard work of keeping shows on the road all rapidly began to disappear. Even the animals themselves were being called away to war, as the army commandeered circuses’ well-trained horses.

Indeed, animal acts were particularly affected. When the war effort eventually needed more than horses, iconic circus animals were pulled from the ring to the front lines. Camels and, in one case, a famous elephant, Lizzie, were seen pulling heavy loads of scrap metal around city streets or plowing agricultural fields. Their trainers were also conscripted, and although male performers left behind troupes of brave and talented women, none of these women had been trained to perform with dangerous animals: It was — as it had always been — a man’s job.

The Kayes family struggled on for another two years, but by 1916 their situation had grown desperate.

Tommy, the family’s main lion tamer, had already enlisted, and now his half-brother Timothy had been called up, an earlier decision to excuse him on account of his five-foot stature having been overturned.

Bill tried to appeal the decision. Before the war, his circus had boasted hundreds of animals and had 20 men, plus his three sons, to keep it running; now the only remaining son able to perform with the big cats would be taken from him too. The tribunal didn’t budge, and Timothy went away to war in October 1916.

What the next few weeks were like for Elizabeth and Bill, we cannot know. Selling the big cats was not an option — there was no market for them in wartime. They would have to be shot. Elizabeth and Bill must have contemplated the possibility that they’d reached the end of the road. To end their combined legacy this way would be tragic, but what choice did they have? None of the remaining men or boys wanted to step into the ring.

“Very well,” Elizabeth said at last. “I will do it myself.”

In late October of 1916, just a few weeks after her son Timothy had left for the Western Front, Elizabeth stood outside the lion enclosure.

The stands were empty. This was just a practice run, to see if she could really stand her ground in the ring, but Elizabeth and her family knew that the risk she was taking was very real.

The cats she would be facing were three 5-year-old lionesses. Two of them were trained already, but the Yorkshire Evening Post reported that one was an “untameable brute” that must have struck fear into Elizabeth’s heart as she gathered her courage outside the ring.

As her daughter would later explain to a reporter, a part of lion training is familiarization; Elizabeth had surely seen her sons walking up and down outside the lions’ cages and sitting with them for hours. But there was no time for her to do the same; instead, she wore Timothy’s clothes: a black velvet tunic and breeches, perhaps slightly ill fitting. Over the top of the tunic, she wore an animal-skin rug as a final concession to danger.

The extra layer of protection soon came in useful.

Shortly after Elizabeth entered the cage, the untrained lion lunged at her. The rug she wore on her back ripped clean in two under its claws, and Elizabeth was left exposed in the center of the ring, with only the shouts of the people standing outside to help her.

Elizabeth had faced danger before, as a tightrope walker balanced high above the ground, and more recently, as a citizen under bombardment in the midst of total war. But this was different. Did she think of her family as she looked into the eyes of a creature that could kill her? Did she make a decision to survive?

Mechanically, Elizabeth followed the directions being screamed at her from the sidelines and completed her rehearsal.

When she emerged from the cage, her face was bloodless, as though carved from marble. A sudden wave of sobbing overtook her, and for a while she let the tears crash through her, cleansing her of the poisonous fear of the last few minutes.

At last, she stopped, shakily refastening her skirt over her breeches. When people asked her what it had been like, she said she had no recollection of the event. Soon after, her words as she came offstage following her first real performance were simply, “Thank God, I’ve done it, and the show will still carry on.”

Did young Priscilla witness her mother’s feat? The newspaper report describing the practice does not mention her — but then, she would only have been 12. Priscilla later told a reporter that she was 14 when she first decided she wanted to perform with big cats. It is possible that as her mother fought her own terror in the ring that day, young Priscilla looked on, the fire of ambition kindling in her belly.

Over the next two years of wartime, Elizabeth would continue performing with the lions. Her act thrilled audiences just as her sons’ had, perhaps more, and it helped keep the circus afloat, garnering praise as “a rare instance of woman’s courage” from the Yorkshire Evening Post.

When asked about her ordeal, Elizabeth was, as ever, pragmatic.

“I was very timid the first time,” she said, “but I had to get over that, for it would never do to let the lionesses see that I was afraid of them.”

“I’ve got over the worst now,” she added, “although I’ve had some narrow squeaks with the savage one.”

Seeing her own mother walk into the lion’s den must have had a strong effect on young Priscilla. At the end of the war, Priscilla began her own lion training in earnest.

The Kayes family emerged from the First World War with a legacy both of great sacrifice and great triumph. As with every traveling show, it was a challenge to recover from the drainage of manpower and animals caused by the war, but they were fortunate that they had not lost everything.

Timothy, despite having lost a leg in combat in 1918, returned to performing, assisted by a crutch. Tommy also returned and continued to perform. And the family had gained an exciting new star.

On September 16, 1920, the Devon and Exeter Daily Gazette advertised a “Special Attraction”: Buff Bill’s Lion Show, which would feature “Miss Priscilla, the only Lady Lion Tamer who dances in the Lions’ Cage.” At only 16, Priscilla must have been the very vision of teenage girlhood, a striking contrast to the beasts she was training. As the advertisement told its readers, the act “Must Be Seen to Be Believed.”

Throughout the 1920s, the Kayes family and their show would thrive. The Dover Express and East Kent News reported in January 1923 that Buff Bill’s Circus had reopened after a significant refurbishment, now offering audiences both seating and heating. Elizabeth and Bill eventually stopped featuring animal acts and instead toured with a roster of “Artistes, Novelties, and Ideas,” which Elizabeth continued after William died of an unspecified illness in 1933. The Kayes children continued their own animal acts in other circuses around the country, including the famous circus at Blackpool Tower.

This was the way it was for circuses in the years after the war: Families adapted, performers migrated. In responding to hard times, the industry became defined by a few dominant personalities who found ways to survive.

One of them was Bertram Mills. In the midst of the two world wars, the Mills circuses did not just survive but also set the standard — industry professionals labeled it “the Blue Ribbon Circus of the World.” An astute businessman, Mills is said to have founded his legacy after a wager that he could create a successful circus within the span of a year.

To draw audiences in, he brought together the most sensational and astonishing acts he could find, including fire jugglers on horseback, a woman named Koringa who mesmerized crocodiles, and “the man with the ostrich digestion,” able to eat anything put in front of him. Another of his star attractions: the fearless Kayes siblings and their lions.

Priscilla was a particular draw, immortalized in one of Bertram Mills’ iconic full-color posters, dressed in white, coolly facing down a snarling maned lion — an image replicating a 1938 photograph of Priscilla at work. She defied expectations; while other lion tamers used whips and masculinity in displays of domination, she played on her femininity, sometimes scolding her lions “with a lift of her finger, a truly typical feminine gesture.”

Though Elizabeth had paved the way for her daughter, audiences were still unaccustomed to seeing a woman in the role of lion tamer. Priscilla thrilled crowds of thousands, her face reproduced over and over again in newspaper advertisements. Reporters marveled at her feminine courage, as well as the incongruity between the glamour of her person and the danger of her occupation.

Priscilla believed that lions, like all animals, were best trained through kindness; the whip she carried was purely theatrical, and she did not carry a pistol like some performers. Still, she faced dangers aplenty in the ring. Just a few months after the harrowing moment when Callito clawed her thigh, she was mauled by a lion that sprang down from its pedestal and bit her leg. Once again, she regained control of the situation in seconds.

“I was up again in a flash,” she told a reporter. “I could only stand on one leg, but I got the lion back on his pedestal. If I had been on the ground a second longer all the lions would have sprung on me.” What her mother had taught her and what she learned through her own exploits was simple: The only beast she had the power to tame was her own fear.

Priscilla Kayes riding one of her lions during a rehearsal for her act in the Bertram Mills Circus in Ascot, England, April 1936. (Photo by Smith Archive/Alamy Stock Photo)

“They are wild beasts, and it is their nature,” she said in 1938. “You can train them, but they will never be tamed, and it is dangerous to forget that.”

June 25, 1957. The end of a long, hot month — one of the hottest since 1933, the year William Kayes passed away. Now, at the War Memorial Hospital in Cheshire, his widow, Elizabeth Kayes lay on her deathbed.

At 79 years old, Elizabeth Kayes had long been known across Britain as “Mammie,” the aged proprietor of Buff Bill’s Circus. She had kept the show on the road through two world wars and the death of Buff Bill himself, and she had seen her sons and daughter become famous as performers.

Priscilla had retired from lion taming by the time the Second World War broke out, but she continued training animals for audiences. She joined Harry Benet’s Royal Majestic Circus as an equestrian performer; found fame during the war with “Cilla’s Football Dogs, a canine soccer match which can be guaranteed to bring a smile to the most depressed”; and married James Thomas Duffy, a circus owner in Ireland.

Within a few days of Mammie’s death, circus folk from around the country descended on the town of Salford, near Manchester, to pay their respects. According to The Salford Reporter, they all knew Mammie as “one of the finest characters in circus life,” and many may have whispered to each other of her exploits as they lowered her into the ground beside her husband at Weaste Cemetery.

Just a few miles away, the family circus was still romping, audiences gasping and cheering at the feats of the performers. It had been Mammie’s final request to her sons: Death can be no obstacle; the show must always go on.