Memories of a Lady

Lady Jane Forbes with a still from the film she and her husband John made of the lion cubs
Lady Jane Forbes with a still from the film she and her husband John made of the lion cubs

The name Lady Jane Forbes, many will remember her as Jane Forbes-Sempill, came to the public’s attention again recently after The Galloway Gazette published the picture of the two lion cubs she and her husband John brought to Auchendoon House, Newton Stewart, in the early 1960s.

That brought back many happy memories, not just for many residents of the town, but also for Lady Forbes herself, who now lives in The Glenkens near Dalry.

Lady Jane was delighted to get the change to reminisce about her exciting life and not just the lion cubs but Newton Stewart Cinema and the Ace riding centre, both of which she was heavily involved in with her husband.

One of the things many people wanted to know after the picture appeared in the paper was how did two lion cubs get to Newton Stewart and whatever happened to them?

Gazette reporter Louise Kerr went to meet this fascinating ‘Lady’ and hear her story.

Jane explained: “In the early 1960 John and I were living in London. He was a film producer and I was an actress and dancer. We were introduced to a woman called June Kay who was setting up a game reserve at Okavango in what was then called Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). June was very keen to get the tribes there to realise that if they killed the cow there wouldn’t be the calf the following year. They had to realise that the animals needed protecting from the big game hunters.

“We came up with the idea of making a film to give her plans some publicity and to help raise the money to get the game reserve established. So, we bought these two lion cubs from Dublin Zoo, called Cubby and Tiber, and brought them over to London. We had just about got all the money needed for the reserve raised and we were ready to fly out to make the film when Ian Smith declared UDI (The Unilateral Declaration of Independence) and we were advised not to travel there. Around the same time Born Free was made, which was basically the same story we had for our film, so we were left with two lion cubs in our London home! The next thing someone happened to mention to the RSPCA that there were two lion cubs in a garden in Chelsea!

“That’s when we decided to move up to Newton Stewart. John’s father, who had died the previous year, had been at Auchendoon, and John decided to keep on the house. We all came up on the ‘Paddy’ train to Newton Stewart, including the cubs.

Along with the house came a wonderful housekeeper from Annan called Florence Pepper. She had been there for years but as soon as the cubs arrived at Auchendoon she vanished. We found a note saying: “I am going back to Annan. I’m not staying with them tigers!”

“We settled in and decided we liked it in Newton Stewart away from the noise of London. And it was perfect for the cubs as there was an old tennis court in the ground that they used. John wrote 25 scripts based on the idea of two lion cub sisters and we made a pilot film with local amateur actors. One lady from Newton Stewart played Florence the housekeeper and there were two local farmers who were also in the film. There was Jim McGuffie, from Craiglemine near Whithorn and Gordon Parsons, from the County Hotel in Wigtown and John himself. We made the film in black and white and Border TV did the editing. Later on we made a colour film about the cubs when they were bigger. That was a silent film called ‘The Cummnocks’ and it feature myself and another actress called Olivia Hamnett. By that time the cubs were too big for us and Twycross Zoo adopted them.

“One amusing bit I was when the cubs left Newton Stewart to go to Twycross Zoo. The ‘Paddy train’ was due at 11pm at Newton Stewart station. We had put them into the laundry skip to travel to Crewe where the zoo would pick them up. The cubs were now five months old and weighing at least three times more than they had on arrival, so rather than walking over the bridge at Newton Stewart the staff let us carry them over the tracks to the platform. They then insisted on weighing them before going into the guards van. It was at this point that the basket burst open and they escaped into the dark of the station! Porters, guardsmen and at least twenty local folk, there to say good by to them, were jumping on mail sacks and what ever else to get out of their way. We caught them fairly quickly and luckily a rope was produced which was firmly tied round the skip and off they went. Unfortunately as they were not very well bred they had problems. Cubby died shortly after they went to the zoo and Tiber only lived to about three.

“But it was rather funny when we were trying to sell the idea of a couple bring up two lion cubs at home and everyone thought it was too far fetched!”

During their stay in Newton Stewart, Jane and John were very involved in the community, saving one facility, the Cinema, and creating another, the Ace Equestrian Centre.

Jane feels that John’s part in keeping the Cinema, or the ‘Picture House’ as it was known then, going when times were tough in the ‘70s and ‘80s has been largely forgotten.

She recalled: “My husband bought the Cinema out of his own pocket and John Forbes-Sempill kept the Cinema going when it was an uphill struggle. Eventually due to the economic slum we just couldn’t carry on so we loaned it to Iain Brown and he ran it for nine years. We then got to the stage where we needed to sell the building but it was John who first started the Save the Cinema campaign back in 1967.

“We were very lucky with the staff we inherited when we took over the Cinema. Tommy Howatson was the projectionist and Ina Cameron was in charge of the tickets and both were fabulous. They came with the Cinema and we were at a loss when Tommy decided to retire.

“They were great days then and we got all the latest films really quickly. I remember when Jaws was released the Cinema was packed out every night and popular films like that helped to keep the place going.”

Unfortunately, Auchendoon House burned down in the mid 1960s, leaving John and Jane with a blank canvas to do something with. Their first plan was to open an ice rink. Newton Stewart was the “logical choice”, the Gazette repoted at the time as it was in the centre of a curling area. An enthusiastic ten man committee was formed to take the project further. Within months £50,000 was rasied, £30,00 from John Forbes Sempill himself. Many will still remember the publicity surrounding their exciting plans and the cutting of the first sod at the site of the ‘Galloway Ice Rink’ by Carry On star Charles Hawtrey in March 1970 with a silver spade no less. But delay after delay with planning permission held them back, remembers Jane, and into the void stepped Stranraer hotelier Hammy McMillan who got his planning permission through for his four-sheeter rink at the North West Castle Hotel in Stranraer, opening it in the autumn of 1970.

Udaunted by this knock-back, the enterprising couple then decided to open an equestrian centre in Newton Stewart. That story and the tale of Jane running for election to the local council will be in next week’s edition of The Galloway Gazette.