IT certainly wouldn’t have been advertised on the billboards, but the climax of Captain Nayara Swami’s lion taming act with Ringland’s Circus in Abbey Park, Evesham, in 1950 came when three of his animals turned on him.

Amid the screams and cries of horrified women and children, a lion – called Leo – and two lionesses pounced. Although he was dragged out of the cage by a group of clowns, the rescue came too late and he later died at Evesham Hospital.

So did the curtain come down on the career of the man billed as “the world’s only Negro lion tamer” – although Swami, aged 36, was in fact an Indian, from Madras.

Such were the dangers faced by the lion tamers of years gone by, and some were luckier than others.

One who certainly had luck on his side was Arthur Feeley, who was born into a life of poverty but went on to entertain the crowds throughout Victorian England.

Arthur worked for Bostock and Wombwell’s Menagerie, which trundled the length and breadth of the country displaying “wild beasts from across the world”.

Arthur looked after the lions and the elephants – but he could also turn his hand to the hyenas and camels too.

His story has been unearthed by one of his 21st-century relatives, Geoffrey Younger, who has been researching his family history.

In the course of his research, all sorts of references to Worcestershire have cropped up, although in truth Arthur and his kin lived such a travelling life, wherever he laid his hat was home.

Certainly Arthur’s mother Susan Jones was born in Worcestershire, although exactly where records don’t show. They just reveal “Worcestershire, England” in 1833.

She married Daniel Feely, a bell hanger and gas fitter from Birmingham and the pair were constantly “on the tramp” across the country, picking up work where they could and using their sons Arthur and Alexander to beg for food from farmhouses.

While cash might have been short, it didn’t stop the Feelys from drinking and there are several accounts of times when they got on the wrong side of the law. At York Castle they found themselves up before the magistrates for “riotous and drunken behaviour”, during which episode a PC Molesbury suffered a bloody nose. The court report stated: “The prisoners Daniel and Susan informed the magistrates that their saturnalia was the result of over-joy, young Feely, who had been away for seven years, having turned up with his better half, and they decided to have a jollification.” Unfortunately this jollification cost them a month’s hard labour.

So those were Arthur Feely’s parents.

Small wonder then that on May 6, 1882, the Worcester Journal carried the following report: “City Police Court Saturday – before Alderman Barnett, Townshend and Mr Burrow. Vagrancy – Arthur and Alexander Feely, boys, were charged with vagrancy. Early that morning they were found by PC Grubb asleep in a cart in the Bath Road.

They informed the Bench that their parents sent them on from Gloucester to Upton-upon-Severn to get lodgings, but as they could not get any they came on to Worcester. The charge was dismissed.”

Despite her weakness for alcohol, Susan Feely was, by all accounts, when sober “a meticulous little lady”. But every so often she would “break out” and sell possessions, including the china she so loved, to get a drink.

A letter from one of her descendants, written in 1973, said: “Arthur and his brother Alex were often told when they asked for their breakfast, ‘To go and beg for it at the nearest farmhouse’.

The two boys spent much of their time running to the nearest pub, begging the landlord not to serve their mother because if he did, they would not eat anything that day.

Susan would beg at the door for the publican to let her in to – as she put it – ‘save life’.”

Arthur probably got into the entertainment business through another branch of the Feely family, who were acrobats with George Sanger’s Circus. He seems to have joined Bostock and Wombwell’s Menagerie in 1899, touring with them for 16 weeks at Crystal Palace during the Diamond Jubilee year of Queen Victoria.

From 1902 to 1904, he worked for ‘Little’ Frank Bostock touring Europe, notably as an elephant trainer in Paris, and was closely associated with Captain Fred Wombwell.

Arthur was a good friend of Anita ‘the Living Doll’, a dwarf-statured woman of Hungarian descent. Anita was frightened of attention outside the circus, so Arthur would carry her under his coat, so people would not stare at her.

Arthur stayed with Bostock and Wombwell’s Gigantic Combination Menagerie until 1915, when he volunteered to become a soldier in the Army Veterinary Corps serving in France until his discharge in 1917 due an injury to his right leg.

He returned to England and rejoined Bostock’s.

Arthur’s roles with Bostock’s was as ‘booking agent’, ‘lodgings agent’, ‘descriptive lecturer’, ‘elephant trainer’, and at some time a ‘lion tamer’.

It is likely he performed under the name of Captain Daniels.

Despite being involved in an “entertainment” which would grate with the public today, Arthur had no truck with cruelty to animals and one night when a keeper had a finger bitten off by a hyena, the man got no sympathy. Arthur knew the keeper had been teasing the beast, so he told him it served him right.

Arthur was a lecturer in 1928-1929 with G B Chapman’s Zoo Circus and from 1931 worked as an animal trainer at Grimsby Zoo with Rosie the elephant and the former Bostock lions. His nephew ‘Little’ Arthur Feely was a lion tamer, also at Grimsby Zoo, which had six of Bostock’s lions after the menagerie was sold off in 1932.

When ‘Little’ Arthur was in the cage, Arthur ‘senior’ would stand outside the cage with a long pitchfork, ready to show its point to any rogue lion.

After Grimsby Zoo, Arthur worked at a small zoo in Sheppey, Kent, and then retired in 1939. He died of cancer in 1955 and is buried in Bromley, Kent.

A courageous man who survived many a perilous event, he always carried with him a rabbit’s foot lucky charm. Whether Nayara Swami did the same is unknown, but it doesn’t seem likely.