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How one South Shields man battled for animal rights

Elephants and camels parading through town.
Elephants and camels parading through town.

What a coincidence! Just as I was reading about the RSPCA’s current campaign calling for a ban on wild animals in circuses, local historian Andrew Grant sent me his latest piece of research – tracing the history of South Tyneside-born film star and animal rights activist Bill Travers.

The RSPCA is arguing that circuses are “wholly unsuitable” environments for wild animals, saying that a total ban is long overdue.

Existing regulations around the issue are due to expire in January 2020.

Ros Clubb, who is senior scientific manager for captive wild animals, said: “Wild animals do not belong in the circus.

“We continue to push the Government to ban the outdated practice of using wild animals in circuses in England as we believe these animals cannot be cared for adequately within the current level of regulations.”

The campaign would certainly have had the support of Bill Travers, or William Inge Lindon-Travers, to give him his full name.

And as Andrew reveals in his new project, Bill Travers was a local lad, born in Cleadon Village, South Shields, on January 3, 1922.

The son of Florence and William Halton Lindon-Travers, both he and his sister Linden grew up to become actors, as did Linden’s daughter Susan.

“William Inge Lindon-Travers enlisted as a private in the British Army when he was 18-years-old, a few months after the outbreak of the Second World War,” said Andrew.

“He was posted to India where he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Indian Army in 1942.

He served with the Long Range Penetration Brigade 4th Battalion or the 9th Gurka Rifles in Burma.”

The South Tynesider, who was serving deep behind enemy lines at that time, was struck by malaria and volunteered to be left behind in a native Burmese village.

Disguising himself as a Chinese national, he walked hundreds of miles until he reached an allied position.

Promoted to the rank of major, he then joined Force 136 Special Operations Executive and was parachuted into Malaya where he trained the main resistance movement, the communist-led Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army.

Major Travers left the armed forces in 1947 to become a star of the silver screen and vocal animal rights campaigner, as Andrew goes on to explain.

“He will probably be best remembered, co-starring with his second wife, Virginia McKenna, as conservationist George Adamson in the highly successful 1966 film Born Free, which told the tale of Elsa the lioness.

“His experience made him and his wife very conscious of the many abuses of wild animals in captivity and they became involved in the Zoo Check Campaign in 1984, which evolved into the Born Free Foundation in 1991.

Bill Travers spent the last three years of his life travelling around Europe’s slum zoos, making a TV documentary exposing the appalling suffering of thousands of captive animals.

He died at the age of 72.