Churchill’s Lion, February 1943

‘Rota’ the Lion was won as a cub in a bet by a London businessman, George Thomson, and adopted as the mascot of his company Rotaprint. From 1938 he was kept in the back garden of a suburban house in Pinner, in a steel and concrete cage next to the back gate, and became a local celebrity. By 1940 he was fully grown and captured by Pathe film being played with and petted by passers-by. His owner has a proud smile, roundel glasses and a pipe.

By May 1940 rationing had made it impossible for his owners to keep feeding him a healthy diet – around 50 pounds of horsemeat a week. There were also fears that Blitz bombing would let him escape the back garden. He was given to London Zoo ‘on deposit’ but later donated permanently, in a much larger cage. In a symbolic act he was presented to the Prime Minister in 1943. In this featured document, Churchill writes to Edward Cavendish, 10th Duke of Devonshire and Under Secretary of State for the Colonies, informing him of this news. By 1943 he was free of much of the early cabinet instability of his Premiership, and ‘ministerial calm’ had prevailed, but he acknowledges that ‘situations may arise in which I shall have great need of it.’ He was able to visit Rota, pictured in July of that year feeding him meat at the other end of a long shovel amidst crowds. The symbolism of the animal to British heraldry and identity is clear. A plaque reads that Rota was presented ‘as a war mascot and to commemorate the magnificent victories in North Africa’. The tide of the war was changing – the siege of Malta had been lifted, the desert war had been won, and days before Churchill wrote the Battle of Stalingrad had ended hopes of a German victory in Eastern Europe. Churchill also talks fondly of Chartwell’s black swans, given to him by Sir Philip Sassoon from their native Australia. He would often engage them in ‘swan-talk’, of which he was highly proficient.

Rota lived until 1955, and had amassed considerable fame, featuring in four films and numerous newspaper articles, photographs and paintings. Rota’s body was returned to George Thompson, stuffed, and is now on display at the Alcazar Hotel in Florida, frozen in a permanent roar. Pathe notes when he was donated in 1943: ‘Like the British Lion he’ll put up with a lot, but when he’s roused, run like the devil!’

CHAR 20/93A/61

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