None of the regulars I speak to at The Old Pump in Aldershot have a bad word to say about ‘hapless’ Sandra. She’s has been a well-liked member of the community since before it was known as The Old Pump, before when it was known as the Pumping Station and before that, when it actually was the pumping station for Aldershot’s sewage system. ‘Some things never change,’ they mutter into their pints.
It was in the early 1970s, as a fresh-faced twenty-something, that Sandra first heard about leopards. ‘It’s strange,’ she says ‘talk to most people, most people back then, and mention leopards. You’d just get a blank stare. I first heard them mentioned at the pictures. The Caprin Cupo character said ‘is that … a leopard?’ in When Fate Sings. I remember it clear as day. That pause before he said ‘a leopard’. He’s there on screen saying ’is it a leopard?’ and I’m sat down there thinking ‘what is a leopard?“.
‘I went round for days asking ‘what’s a leopard’ and no-one I spoke to knew. It was like some kind of conspiracy. I went to the library but there was nothing in the card index. It was like they didn’t want you to know.’
Sandra’s insistent questioning paid off eventually, and for Christmas in 1981 she was given The Ladybird Book of Big Cats. ‘At first I was puzzled. I don’t even like cats but being polite and opening it I discovered what a leopard was, how to spot one and, when you have, how to spell it. I was captivated. I didn’t have the guts to tell uncle Harry that I didn’t like cats so I acted all pleased. To be honest I think everyone was grateful that I stopped asking.’
A Terrible Burden
Sandra has always been allergic to cats. ‘I never much liked them anyway. I prefer dogs because you always know where they are,’ she takes up the story, ‘so I never really went near one until I was fifteen. We were dissecting a cat for O-Levels so the teacher fetches one in and says ‘look at this cat’. Got us to point out all its features before the assistant gassed it and then we did the dissection.’
‘Everyone was in tears, even the boys who tried to brush it off. I wasn’t too bothered, like I say, I’m not really into cats and never really met one. But, like everyone else, my eyes were streaming. That’s when I discovered I was allergic.’
‘So I never really liked cats but my family didn’t know because we never talked about it. That day when I got the book. I must have come across so excited that was it. Every birthday, Christmas, it was cat books, leopard this leopard that’.
‘And then one day I got the phone call ‘your uncle Harry’s died and he’s named you in his will, you’ve got to come home’.
In the will of Henry Westcott Morgan, the sum of fifty thousand pounds was gifted to Sandra Eddington along with the instruction:
I have always been a great admirer of cats, especially the big ones. In a family sadly devoid of cats, it was of great comfort to me to see your interest in leopards develop. It is therefore my dying wish that you use this £50,000 to establish a sanctuary for leopards.
Sandra was conflicted, but she knew what she had to do.
A Bumpy Start
And so, in 1975, at the age of twenty-five, Sandra committed to fulfilling her uncle Harry’s dying wish. Aldershot Leopard Barn Ltd was registered with Companies House as a Charity for the purpose of ‘helping all of the leopards’.
Sandra soon found an excellent location. A local stable-block came up for sale after not too long. ‘It had been used for horses but eventually they all escaped and owner couldn’t afford new ones. He sold up and I got a cut-price stable with room for eleven horses.’
Where some might have seen a decaying stable, Sandra saw a Leopard Barn. Where some saw rotting walls full of holes — large enough for all eleven horses to escape — Sandra saw a great opportunity.
‘I’d still never seen an actual leopard but they looked like they were about the same size as a horse. Here are all these horse stalls, with a place for the horse to put his head through and I thought ‘that’s it’.’
Sandra’s innovation was to allow people to feed and stroke the leopards.
‘I did say hello to that cat at school, I think it liked me. I put my fingers through the cage and it rubbed its head on my hand. I think if I didn’t hate cats so much I might really like them. A leopard is a ‘big cat’, that’s what the book says. I think people would pay good money for that, a chance to stroke a big old cat’.
The Health and Safety Executive didn’t quite see eye to eye. They put an indefinite Suspension of Trading notice on Aldershot Leopard Barn. Despite never having opened to the public and not actually having any leopards, they successfully argued in court that Sandra had the ‘intention to house and exhibit wild animals in such a way as would be injurious to the health and safety of visitors’. They also argued that, with, whilst there may not be any dangerous leopards yet, the gaping holes in the walls of the barn leopards could get in. The tribunal did not agree.
Nonetheless, just like that, Aldershot Leopard Barn was shut down before it opened.
In the year 1986, eleven years after Aldershot Leopard Barn was established, and still without any actual leopards, Sandra struck lucky. Godalming Otter Sanctuary, unable to meet its financial obligations, was forced to sell off half of its stock. Fifty assorted otters were put up for auction. ‘I managed to get twenty-five at a fiver each. The rest failed to meet reserve but I had a word with the owners and they let me take the lot for two hundred. I think it was a bargain.’
With health and safety issues still unresolved, Sandra was unable to open to the public. The otters, which were kept in the leopard stalls, soon found freedom but confined themselves to the barn.
‘I’ve always liked otters,’ says Sandra, ‘they’re loyal creatures. Once they know where home is, where they can get food, they’ll stay put.’
Given evidence that the stalls were now clearly being used to display otters, rather than leopards, the Health and Safety Executive dropped their objections and allowed Aldershot Leopard Barn to open.
‘I recognised the first visitors. Back in the day, when I was trying to work out what a leopard was, I’d asked a lot of people. An awful lot of people. None of them knew at the time and they still didn’t. Luckily the book thing hadn’t spread outside my family so no-one knew. Well they knew once they’d visited Aldershot Leopard Barn. That first day, everyone left happy. I mean, who doesn’t like an otter?’
But as one door opens another one closes. Hot on the heels of the Health and Safety Executive came Trading Standards who took her to court for deceptive advertising practices.
‘I was got all the signs made. The otters were all different — I got a mixed bag, some Eurasian, some Japanese and a couple of very small South American pygmy otters, I mean really small — and they all needed different labels. They wouldn’t stay in the horse stalls — they really can jump when they want to — so I couldn’t just stick the labels to the wall. So I hung them round each otter’s neck. Course otters may be loyal — fiercely loyal sometimes — but of course the signs came off pretty quick. Some wisearse went home and looked up what a leopard is. Must have looked up the spelling from the sign above the gate. And Trading Standards got involved.’
Faced again with closure, things looked bleak for Aldershot Leopard Barn, eleven years with no leopards.
Like many films of its era, When Fate Sings is out of print and very difficult to find. But a bit of detective work indicates that Sandra was not alone. In the Spanish discussion forums of IMDB.com, working from the Spanish translation of the film ‘El cantante de la grasa’, it seems that that box didn’t contain a leopard but a 1950 vintage Jaguar Leafcreeper.
This story is to be continued…