The furniture shop was on the King's Road in London. It sold
tables, wardrobes, chairs and desks - but anybody peering through
its plate-glass window on a Sunday might have noticed something
rather more unusual.
Amid all the pine and oak, stretched out languidly on a bench,
there was a lion. And it wasn't stuffed.
Tiger feet: Christian enjoyed living in swinging London
"Christian used to lie beside me while I did the accounts at
weekends," remembers Jennifer Mary Taylor, who worked there.
"And every so often, if I'd ignored him for too long, he'd sock
me across the head with one of his great big paws.
"He was very loving and affectionate - he liked to stand and put
his paws on your shoulders. But he was...", she pauses. "I mean, he
was a lion. Does that sound silly?"
Christian the lion (named by someone with a Biblical sense of
humour) arrived in
Chelsea at a time when the King's Road - home to Mick Jagger -
was the very heart of the Swinging Sixties.
For a year, the Big Cat was part of it all, cruising the streets
in the back of a Bentley, popping in for lunch at Casserole, a
local restaurant, even posing for a Biba fashion advert.
He eventually grew too big to be kept as a pet and was taken to
Kenya, where he was rehabilitated into the wild by the 'Lion Man',
Now, his story is to be told in a new book, written by the
Australian John Rendall who, along with his friend Ace Berg, bought
Christian from Harrods in 1969.
London pride: At home in John Rendall's Chelsea flat
So what possessed them to buy a lion cub in the first place?
"A friend had been to the 'exotic animals' department at Harrods
and announced, rather grandly, that she wanted a camel," says
"To which the manager very coolly replied: 'One hump or two,
"Ace and I thought this was the most sophisticated repartee we'd
ever heard, so we went along to check it out - and there, in a
small cage, was a gorgeous little lion cub. We were shocked. We
looked at each other and said something's got to be done about
Harrods, it turned out, was also quite keen to be rid of
Christian, who had escaped one night, sneaked into the neighbouring
carpet department - then in the throes of a sale of goatskin rugs -
and wreaked havoc.
The store, which had acquired the cub from Ilfracombe zoo,
happily agreed to part with him for 250 guineas. So began
Christian's year as an urban lion.
Today, it would be unthinkable for a shop to take such a
cavalier attitude towards selling exotic animals (though Harrods
did, at least, provide Ace and Rendall with diet sheets).
And it is hard to imagine either the animal rights lobby or any
local council condoning a shop as a suitable habitat for a lion.
But, back then, no one minded at all.
Christian was given his own living quarters (and a very large
kitty-litter tray, which he used unfailingly) in the basement of
the appropriately named Sophistocat furniture shop.
"He had a beautiful musky smell that was very distinct," says
Rendall. "But he was clean."
The vicar of the Moravian Chapel nearby was approached to allow
Christian the run of the graveyard, and every day he was taken
there to roar around and play football.
Once, when he was brought along to a seaside picnic, he dipped
his toes reluctantly in the water and intimated with a shudder that
it was disagreeably cold. But he was eventually persuaded to swim
in the English Channel.
"He was a lot of work," says Rendall. "It took all four of us -
me, my then girlfriend Jennifer Mary, Ace Berg and an actress
called Unity Jones - to look after him.
Cat's pyjamas: Christian, rummaging through the drawers
"He also ate a lot, four meals (two liquid, two solid) plus
supplements every day, which cost about £30 a week - a lot of
money back then."
He pauses, then adds, "And he had a very good sense of
"Oh yes. Sometimes, he'd see people staring at him through the
back window of the car, keep very still on purpose - and then, just
when they were convinced he was a stuffed toy, he would very slowly
turn his head and freak them out."
Everyone loved Christian and he became a popular local figure.
In 1970, when Chelsea beat Leeds in the FA Cup Final, Sophistocat
received a call from a policeman, 'The football fans are going to
be boisterous, so you'd better get your bloody lion out of the
window or they'll smash it in,' he warned.
Christian himself was beautifully behaved, and though he never
hurt anyone, you underestimated his strength at your peril.
Jennifer Mary remembers taking a friend to see him, "after I'd
had one or two glasses of wine -and when he put his paws on my
shoulders, one of them slipped, his claw caught my dress and he
pulled the whole front of it off."
He grew and grew - from 35lb when he first arrived to a rather
more serious and imposing 185lb a year later - and he was beginning
to acquire a mane that made him look more fearsome.
He clearly could not stay with his two young owners for
His future was decided by a chance encounter - when the actors
Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna walked into the shop to buy a
They had recently starred in the film Born Free, which tells the
true story of the wildlife conservationist George Adamson and his
wife Joy, who raised a lion cub called Elsa in Kenya then
rehabilitated it into the wild.
And they immediately suggested that Adamson might be able to
Certainly, the conservationist was intrigued by the challenge of
introducing a King's Road lion to the wilds of Africa.
"But," he warned, '"ou must be prepared for this not to work.
Elsa was born in Africa and she knew its smells. Taking a
British-born lion, whose parents were also raised in captivity, is
going to be a very different thing."
Christian was flown to Kenya in a specially-made crate
emblazoned with the words, 'East African Airways. London-Nairobi.
Christian - male lion, 12 months'. John and Ace went with him.
"I think George Adamson got quite a shock when he met us," says
Rendall. "Straight from the King's Road, in all our gear - flares
from Granny Takes A Trip, and with hair everywhere.
"We looked rather different from everyone else in Nairobi. But
then so did Christian. He'd come from winter in England, so had a
very thick coat - he was almost as hairy as we were."
Adamson wanted to drive straight to the Kora Reserve, close to
the Tana river, where there was no human habitation. This, he felt,
would be the ideal spot to build a camp.
Because lions live and hunt in prides, and it is hard to impose
a new male on an existing one, the plan was to introduce Christian
into the wild in tandem with Boy, one of the tame beasts who had
starred in Born Free.
Together, they would form the nucleus of a new pride - and the
whole project would be funded by a TV programme.
Christian was marshalled into the back of a Land Rover, with
straw on the floor and chicken-wire separating him from his friends
on the front seat. It was all rather confusing for a lion
accustomed to the butter-soft leather of a Bentley. And he was hot.
And dusty. And confused.
Not long into the journey, Rendall ventured, "Mr Adamson, he
needs to go to the loo."
Adamson was impatient.
"We're miles from anywhere. If we stop here and he runs away, we
will never, ever catch him."
"Mr Adamson," promised Rendall, "that is not going to
The great Lion Man turned his head, sucked on his pipe and
pulled over on the dirt road.
Rendall opened the back of the car, and Christian jumped out to
take his first real steps on African soil.
To his evident disgust, it was prickly and hot. He clearly
didn't like it one bit.
Rendall picks up the story, "So he went tip-toeing along and
went to the loo.
Considerably. Then he looked around and I said, 'OK, come on,
back in,' pointed back at the car - and in he jumped.
"I got back in the car, too, shut the door and George Adamson
turned round and said to me, 'That is quite remarkable. You may
call me George.'"
Kora, an area that now has National Park status, lies about 220
miles to the north-east of Nairobi. The scenery is rugged - densely
packed with knotty thorn bushes, with just a narrow corridor of
greenery that follows the course of the Tana river.
And so Christian arrived at the camp, which Adamson's brother
had built from macuti - palm fronds - chicken-wire and mud.
The conservationist went off again and returned a couple of days
later with Boy, the lion from Born Free.
At that time, Boy was very fragile, as his shoulder had been
shattered in a nasty encounter with a buffalo. But he was the first
fully-grown lion that Christian had seen since leaving Ilfracombe
zoo as a cub.
The first meeting was explosive. Normal lion protocol dictates
that the younger male should be subservient to the dominant
But Christian, more schooled in Sloane than feline etiquette,
sashayed fearlessly towards Boy.
Fortunately, Christian and Boy, though in adjacent compounds,
were separated by a wire fence. In fury at the perceived slight,
Boy flung himself against it - until Christian, suddenly realising
his faux pas, slunk away with his belly close to the ground.
This process was repeated over and over again until Adamson felt
confident enough to allow the pair to meet without the safety
barrier of the fence.
"First, Boy left his compound," recalls Rendall. "Then Christian
went out to meet him.
"Boy took one look - and he clobbered him. Christian didn't
fight back. He rolled over on his back. That went on for day after
day, until Boy was obviously satisfied that Christian knew who was
boss - and they became totally inseparable."
Adamson had also acquired a female lion cub, Katania, to add to
the pride, and she seemed to act as an intermediary between the two
Each day, the three lions would go out for a walk in the bush,
Boy first, Katania in the middle, then Christian - with Adamson,
carrying a rifle in case he needed to scare anything off, at the
For Christian, there were some tricky moments, such as the time
he spied a rhino and tried to stalk it, only for the beast to hurl
him through the air in a cloud of dust.
"I saw Boy turn and look at Christian," says Rendall. "There was
a look on his face, as if to say: 'You absolute fool. What a howler
of a blunder.'"
Slowly, progress was made. The biggest threat to Christian and
Boy were the wild lions that stalked the reserve, which Boy was
fighting to establish as his territory.
Then, one day, there was a tragedy that caused the whole project
to be called into question. A chef called Stanley had left the
safety of the compound to look for wild honey. He hadn't realised
Boy was nearby, and when he saw him, he tried to flee.
Running away was the worst action he could have taken. Adamson,
hearing Stanley's screams, came running and shot Boy through the
heart - but it was too late. Stanley had been bitten through the
jugular and died an hour later.
The outcry that followed almost brought the lion project to a
halt, but Adamson found some support for his work among other
conservationists, dug in his heels and carried on.
John Rendall and Ace Berg continued to make sporadic visits to
Kenya, but mostly they followed Christian's adventures from
Finally, in 1974, George Adamson wrote to say that the pride was
self-sufficient. Christian was defending it. There was a litter of
cubs. They were feeding themselves and rarely returned to camp.
The King's Road lion had finally adapted to the wild.
This was a bittersweet moment for all concerned. Rendall and Ace
decided to travel to Kora one last time, in the hope of being able
to say goodbye, though Adamson warned them that it would almost
certainly be a wasted mission.
"Christian hasn't been here for nine months. We have no reason
to think he's dead - there have been no reports of lions poached or
killed. But he may never come back," he said.
Rendall recalls, "We said: 'OK. We appreciate that, but we'll
come anyway and see you.'"
They flew to Nairobi then took a small plane to the camp in
Kora, where Adamson came out to meet them.
"Christian arrived last night, " he said simply. "He's here with
his lionesses and his cubs. He's outside the camp on his favourite
rock. He's waiting for you."
Adamson and his wife Joy often talked about the mysterious,
apparently telepathic communication skills of lions - particularly
between lions and men.
Both believed that lions were possessed of a sixth sense and
George was convinced that a scientific explanation would one day be
And here, it seemed, was the proof.
"Christian stared at us in a very intense way," says Rendall. "I
knew his expressions and I could see he was interested. We called
him and he stood up and started to walk towards us very slowly.
"Then, as if he had become convinced it was us, he ran towards
us, threw himself on to us, knocked us over, knocked George over
and hugged us, like he used to, with his paws on our shoulders.
"Everyone was crying. We were crying, George was crying, even
the lion was nearly crying."
"The lionesses were far from pleased. There was a lot of
growling and spitting," continues Rendall.
"'George said: 'This isn't safe - we'd better go.' So we each
put a hand on Christian's back and he walked with us back to
The reunion party went on all night and into the morning.
Leaving his exhausted companions to go to their beds, Christian
returned to his pride.
"We watched him go back to the two lionesses, who were not at
all happy with this man, smelling of nicotine, whisky and humans,"
"He just walloped the two of them with his paw, then
And that was the last anyone ever saw of him.
For the next 14 years, George Adamson remained at Kora,
rehabilitating several other lions and ignoring warnings from the
authorities, who did not consider it safe for him to stay.
Then, in 1989, he was ambushed and murdered by bandits.
He died with a gun in his hand and, in accordance with his
wishes, was buried at Kora.
Following his death, his supporters formed the George Adamson
Wildlife Preservation Trust, which now does work in Kora as well as
in Tanzania, where it is reintroducing the endangered black rhino
and hunting dog.
The trust's chief aim is keep alive Adamson's dream of a place
where animals can roam free - a fitting epitaph not just for the
great conservationist but also for the lion who once lived in