As German bombs rained down in Britain’s darkest hour, the sight of a tiger being taken for a walk down the high street might have been the final straw – and contemporary reports from the urban district council speak of passers-by fleeing in fear.
But fact and urban myth have conflated over the years, and it has fallen to Mike Kenny, the dramatist behind a new telling of the story, to separate the two.
The truth – incredible except to those in the Overend family for whom Fenella was just a family pet – is that the animal had been taken from its mother at birth, for fear that she would reject her new cub, and brought to Britain from South Africa shortly after the outbreak of war.
There she remained to her dying day, taken out occasionally to entertain children, who were invited to pet her as if she were a house cat.
An exhibition at Holmfirth Arts Festival two years ago rekindled local memories of Fenella, and now her story is to be told on stage. A Tiger’s Tale will premiere next weekend and make its way to Huddersfield and Pocklington in three weeks’ time.
Mr Kenny, of the M6 Theatre Company, who also adapted The Railway Children for the stage, said: “The truth is absolutely extraordinary and doesn’t need much bending.
“There’s a wee bit of licence in framing the story as a circus act, but that’s how I see it – as a lifelong balancing act of living with this tiger.”
The Overends – Hilda, Wilfrid and daughters Meg and Kassie – were circus trapeze artists who had been touring South Africa when they were given custody the tiger cub that was to become their family pet.
“They had her even before her eyes opened so I think she just thought she was one of the family,” said Kassie’s daughter, Rosamund Dailly, who was born around seven years after Fenella’s arrival.
“To us, it didn’t seem unusual,” she said. “I was only two-and-a-half so I don’t remember this, but there are pictures of me holding and stroking her.
“It was a love story, really. The family was devastated when she died in 1950.”
Fenella was already a cherished pet when the Overends put their performing career on hold and returned home to Holmfirth, Mr Kenny said.
“It seemed bizarre in some ways, but they felt they couldn’t leave her – tigers aren’t native to South Africa and she had never been in the wild – so they brought her back, and after a spell in quarantine she cane home with them and lived as a pet. She had a run at the back of the house but she stayed mostly inside.”
Feeding a hungry tiger was a challenge when meat was rationed, but, said Ms Dailly, “we knew a butcher who sold horsemeat, which was not on the ration. It was still difficult, though, because she liked a pint of milk for lunch.”
Fenella slept at first in a garden hut, but, said Ms Dailly, “she started to object to that because she always felt like one of the family. So eventually they just made a big box in the kitchen with straw and she slept there while everyone else was upstairs.
“The main thing was, you could never leave her alone because she would howl. So for ten years, one of the family always had to be with her, which was quite trying.”
Despite the talk in Holmfirth, Ms Dailly said Fenella was never taken into the village. “We lived too far up the hill,” she said.