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A day at the zoo in ‘52

With the eyes of the nation on Her Majesty the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, we take a 70-year step backwards in time to take a look at what a day at Paignton Zoo would have looked like in 1952…

Paignton Zoo celebrates its centenary next year, so in 1952 it had already been open for an eventful 25 years and was the third largest zoo in the UK. Its reputation as a botanical garden was second to none, with many people rightly claiming it to be the most beautiful zoo in the country, if not in Europe. It had survived the ravages of World War II, in part because of a wartime partnership with Chessington Zoo which led to Paignton hosting a small circus show during the 1940s. 1952 was actually the final season for the Paignton Zoo circus – visitors that year could see a range of performing animals: Romeo the Hackney stallion, Shetland ponies (Bobby, Charlie and Toffee), Vicky the mathematical dog(!), plus monkeys, Jumbo the baby elephant, clowns and acrobats. The circus was replaced in 1953 – initially with a scale model of the Queen’s Coronation procession.

A look at the 1952 zoo map quickly reveals how different the zoo was 70 years ago. No baboon rock, no large mammal house, no rhino house, no ABC or ape centre, no spacious paddocks for big cats. ‘Bear Cage Walk’, ‘Lion Parade’ and ‘Monkey Row’ convey the style of housing used for many of the animals at that time and illustrate how much zoos have changed in the intervening years.

The zoo’s founder, Herbert Whitley, was still actively involved in running the zoo. His passion for all things ornithological was present for all to see, with a collection of birds that was the envy of zoo directors elsewhere and included, among others, an African grey parrot formerly owned by Lord Kitchener. Herbert had a number of very specific interests, and the bird collection in 1952 highlights the most well-known of these…


Herbert was an avid breeder of fancy pigeons, and in 1952 it was said that there were more varieties of pigeon on display at Paignton Zoo than any other place on earth. He was also actively involved in the breeding of carrier pigeons during the war, and the pigeon aviaries and lofts around the zoo housed a number of birds described in the guidebook as ‘descendants of those that have performed amazing feats in the cause of liberty and freedom’.


Herbert had a well-known obsession with the colour blue, selectively breeding a range of livestock and plants in varying shades and hues. Perhaps the most notable member of Paignton’s ‘blue zoo’ in ’52 (although likely unappreciated by many at the time) was a specimen of Spix’s macaw, a parrot species now extinct in the wild, surviving elsewhere only because of captive breeding.


Paignton Zoo has a strong claim to the title of ‘UK’s first education-focussed zoo’ as Herbert believed very strongly that his zoo was a place for learning. He was also a firm advocate for conservation and this comes through in the zoo guidebook in relation to his flock of Cereopsis geese. Although no longer considered threatened, in the 1950s these geese were believed to be highly endangered and Paignton was ‘endeavouring to make a contribution to their survival by building up a good sized flock’.

Little of the 1952 zoo remains, although there are some notable features still standing. The old zoo entrance (West Lodge) is visible to visitors today as you turn off the main road to the main entrance. Morrison’s supermarket occupies the site of the former car park, with today’s car park then being home to a huge variety of birds, as well as a Palm House, a sea lion pool and the ground-breaking Tropical House & Aquarium housing reptiles, amphibians, fish and plants. The Cottage Aviary still exists, and if you peer through the vegetation behind our current red panda exhibit, you can still see some of the buildings that once housed a wide range of birds of prey.

In 1952, Reptile Nursery (currently closed) was known as ‘Chimp Cottage’ and was home to one of the zoos most popular residents, Charlie the chimp, and what is now Bugs at Home and Amphibian Ark was then a stable block housing zebra, and a zebra–donkey hybrid known as a zeedonk! Next to these stables were yards for Billy the American bison – at that time a species of significant conservation concern – and a paddock for mouflon, a type of wild sheep. Rather bizarrely, the mouflon actually lived at liberty in ‘wild land adjoining the zoo’ having escaped some years previously, but came down from the hills every day for food. Also at large was a male Sykes monkey, who escaped from ‘Monkey Row’ on Easter Monday 1952 and was not recaptured until January 1953!

1952 was also the year that Paignton Zoo appointed a new superintendent: Ken Smith. Ken was a well-known ‘zoo man’ in the UK and took part in a number of animal collecting expeditions with the then-unknown author and founder of Jersey Zoo, Gerald Durrell. Paignton Zoo received a variety of animals from these expeditions, including Charlie the chimp (who arrived from what was then British Cameroon in 1949). Nowadays, of course, coordinated breeding programmes ensure that almost all zoo-housed animals have been born in captivity, however collecting animals from the wild was commonplace at that time.

The last 70 years have seen significant change, and not just in the zoo. The aerial photo of the zoo site shows how the local area used to look, at a time before housing estates when the zoo was surrounded by farmland. But some things remain reassuringly the same: the zoo café is still in its same lakeside location, the monkeys are still mischievous, and the grounds are still a ‘wonderland for wildlife’. As we celebrate the Platinum Jubilee, we reflect on our own history and future, and look forward to sharing both memories of the past and plans for the future as we approach our centenary year.