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]
Tiger Sarll was my Uncle, he was my mother’s brother -I was born in 1922. I knew him well, he was my hero when I was a youngster, but he was a rascal too. I believe his height was closer to 6’3″ and I think he had partial vision in the one bad eye. He was also an officer in the RAF during part of WW11, partly because I believe all four of his sons were too- as pilots. The one cousin I knew most was a Squadron Leader; Peter Sarll. Tiger (uncle Willy) lived his last years ( many) of his life in a charming 14th century cottage in Bradwell on Sea, he had some great tales on that “haunted” cottage. He died age 94 in 1977. I provided his head stone.
Thanks for the extra information, and for the corrections. It’s always difficult to determine truth from myth, especially with such character. He certainly led an adventurous life.
The biographical link I provide for him in the post has been updated – it’s now http://bufvc.ac.uk/newsonscreen/search/staff/detail.php?id=33189
Thank you so much for the bioscope of my Uncle. Because my message appeared with my Email have been in contact other Sarll cousins. Thanks for the new link too..
I’m happy to have obliged.
Thanks for this. Dont know what relation he was to me. But my Dad is Leslie George Sarll from Gillingham in Kent. Proud to wave the Sarll flag!
I’m not to sure how I’m related to him but my dad Geoffrey Sarll son of Peter Sarll has told me about my distant ancestor and I was fascinated and wanted to learn more so thank you for this story Matthew Sarll Age 15
Thanks for leaving your comment here. He certainly seems to have been a memorable character. I should have noted this before now, but there is film of the Balkan War credited to him available to view on the British Pathe website: http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=82794
Hi Matthew, was your dad Chad? aka Geoffrey, if so Tiger is your great grandfather. I’m Georgina, youngest daughter of George Robson, brother of Peter so we are second cousins. If your dad is Chad he lived not far away from my eldest sister Linda Mary aka Nina in Chelsea. I have two brothers David and James and another sister Anstace Elizabeth aka Bobo.
Hi my name is Mathew auld and Thomas Henry William sarll is my step dad his dad is tiger sarll, his mother died a few years ago now but the cottage in bradwell on sea is still in the family it belongs to toms daughter Dawn it’s a beautiful place.
Tom always likes to find out new things bout his dad but as he’s 69 he’s rubbish on computers so I will show him this website and maybe he can fill a few blanks in for anyone else.
It’s terrific that this post has become a place where the Sarll family can gather. Greetings to you all.
My name is Anne Rumsby(nee Spenceley) Tiger Sarll was my great uncle. My grandmother ,Rosa Spenceley ( neeSarll) was my father william Spenceley`s mother.The family had a lot to do with China as I believe Tiger`s father taught Chinese students. My father and two ofhis siblings were born in China. The Geoffrey Spenceley above is my father`syounger brother.
I am another great niece and Anne’s cousin, Janet Russell ( nee Spenceley). I am the younger daughter of Rosa Spenceley’s oldest son Cyril born 1907 in China.
Tiger, or Uncle Willie, as we knew him, would occasionally turn up out of the blue at our home in Surrey, having cycled from his home at Bradwell on Sea.
as a young child I found him a bit frightening – probably his height and that monocle!
He was an avid vegetarian and when offered my mother’s home-cooked ham retorted that he wasn’t going to eat any pig’s bottom!
I vaguely remember his youngest son Tommy coming to stay when he was about 15 – I would have been 4 years younger.
I also recall going to his cottage where he lived with his wife Edith , a( one legged?) rook and some slow- worms. There were probably other animals, but I don’t remember. I do remember an Egyptian sarcophagus containing a mummy in the corner of the room ( I may be wrong about it still containing the mummy as I don’t think he opened it!).
I am currently building our family tree and would be interested to her from any members of this extended and very interesting branch of our family
Delighted two of my nieces have made comments. That bike Janet mentioned when Uncle Willie used to visit Elstead in early WW11 days was the biggest bicycle I have ever seen! He would play the mandolin as recall and sing. My sister-in law, Janet’s mother was really frightened of him and would not stay in the room alone with him!! The Mummy case in the cottage was empty but I would kiss it on every visit! Uncle did re paint the face somewhat which spoiled it to an extent!
Uncle could certainly tell the tales. The cottage was once a nunnery in the14th century according to him. The entrance from the reception room to the staircase was very narrow and the step very worn.The story goes that the monks would come and visit the nuns, climbing the stairs for certain sexual favours. The Mother Superior would have no such nonsense so she had that entrance narrowed so that the portly monks could not pass through it. I wish I had met that Mother Superior!!!
After Uncle’s death, his wife Edith and I stayed in regular contact, she was a lovely lady, she had to be to put up with Uncle! Since Edith died I have stayed in contact with his granddaughter Dawn ( Tom’s daughter). Fortunately, despite tax problems she now has the cottage. Lovely! She did send me Uncle’s Masonic apron which I cherish, I suspect it will one day go back to England. I wanted the Mummy too! Ha, ha!