‘Tiger’ Sarll

Tiger Sarll

Strolling about the second-hand bookshops, on a beautiful warm Spring day, I chanced upon Adventurer Extraordinary: The Tiger Sarll Story (1961), by Godfrey Lias. His is a tall story well worth telling, if not always believing. Thomas Henry William Bang-fee Sarll (Bang-fee came courtesy of the Chinese minister to London, a family friend) was born in 1882, and originally trained as a doctor. In 1899 he enlisted with the South African Light Horse in the Anglo-Boer War, where he was wonded and lost the sight in his left eye. He next became a big game hunter in Africa (a curious choice for someone who was a life-long vegetarian), then joined the Royal Canadian Dragoons. He returned to London, where he became an actor, including films. He next dabbled in journalism, travelling to Morocco in 1907, and after further world travel (including Argentina and the Mexican revolution) became a cameraman for the British newsreels Warwick Bioscope Chronicle, Pathe’s Animated Gazette and Williamson’s Animated News. He seems not to have been very good as a cameraman (having just the one eye may not have helped), but nevertheless was sent off by Pathe to film the Balkan War in 1912. Reports suggest that his expedition cost £600 without obtaining any good footage, though the BFI database lists one film taken by him at this time of a Turkish retreat (the date of 1915 is an error). He was sacked by Pathe, but clearly had a persuasive gift as he was taken on by Williamson, for whom he filmed the 1913 Derby, then on the outbreak of the First World War he was taken on by Transatlantic and filmed scenes in Belgium, though his footage was never used.

Sarll was the archetypal English eccentric, dressing in spats and monocle, and dominating everyone with his 6′ 4″ height and powerful personality. After the war he returned to Morocco to report on the rebellion against the Spanish, then went Mexico to capture pythons and alligators for zoos. On his return, he started up a circus act, handling snakes and alligators. He was a fire-fighter during World War, and ended his extraordinary career as security officer at a nuclear power station. His biography was published after an appearance on the TV programme This is Your Life, where he notably failed to recognise some of his grown-up offspring (“You’re not one of mine, are you? Which one are you?”).

There’s more about him in his biography on the British Universities Newsreel Database. The picture above is from The Bioscope (5 December 1912) and shows him with his Pathé camera stationed with the Turkish army at Chorlu. [Update: The site is now called News on Screen and the link has been changed to http://bufvc.ac.uk/newsonscreen/search/staff/detail.php?id=33189]