Newquay’s big sister zoo is Paignton Zoo in Devon, old enough to have several interesting war stories from 1939 to 1945.
Paignton Zoo was opened in 1923, well before its little sister zoo, Newquay. From early seasonal origins in the austerity and rationing of the 1940s and 50s, Newquay Zoo was not permanently built until many years after the war in 1969. I sometimes wonder ‘What if’ the war hadn’t broken out in 1939, a zoo might have been added to the growing seaside attractions in the resort, some like the Newquay Trenance Boating Lake, a Recession or Depression releiving work scheme for the local unemployed in the 1930s. A small zoo may well have been next in the leisure gardens! Who knows how Newquay would have survived the rationing and resource shortages of a wartime zoo?
Paignton Zoo had some unusual wartime inhabitants, according to a chatty and entertaining memoir by Jack Baker called Chimps, Champs and Elephants (1988). Sadly there is not much helpful information for us about growing vegetables and the other unusual elements of a wartime zoo keeper’s job, but some fascinating tales nonetheless. As this book is out of print, we’ll include some of the stories here.
Like many zoos Paignton Zoo would have had to close for several days or even weeks on the outbreak of war 70 years ago. It also had received very strange evacuees. These were not small bewildered evacuee children like my parents, but animals from Chessington Zoo. Whilst London Zoo evacuated some animals, staff and their families to Whipsnade, Chessington Zoo shifted many staff, animals and their miniature railway off to Devon ‘for the duration’.
To confuse any invaders at a time when signposts were being taken down or painted out all over the country, Paignton Zoo was cunningly renamed by its owner the wily Herbert Whitley, ‘Devon’s Zoo and Circus’.
It survived minor bombing prior to D-Day, as well as the miniature train carrying visitors around site being converted from scarce coal to gas, with a cumbersome gas bag on top of it. This was much like the one on Corporal Jones’ van in the film of Dad’s Army – with equally fateful effects, being derailed accidentally by this cumbersome alternative fuel source whilst braking to avoid a free-ranging crane.
Secretly, carrier pigeons were trained on site to be released in occupied Europe and carry messages back from the French resistance. Zoo owner Herbert Whitley had a great passion for pigeons and other show birds, so this was a good concealment for this ‘cloak and dagger’ or ‘cloak and feather’ stuff! Army signalmen were temporarily seconded to the zoo staff and some of these birds won the Dickin medal, the animal VC for bravery.
Paignton Zoo’s strangest invasion was in 1944, just before D-Day. The grounds, like much of the West Country, had become one large secret camp for Allied and GI (American) servicemen, living in the grounds at Clennon Gorge(now a nature reserve and quiet part of the zoo). The stone bear dens carved out pre-war (but never used) now sheltered US soldiers before they disappeared almost overnight in early June 1944 to join the vast armada of ships bound for D-Day.
One strange memorial of their stay is the range of peacock and wildfowl feathers and bones that suggest the army rations were supplemented by something more tasty and some useful target practice. They had, as Jack Baker puts it, “varied the diet of the visiting doughboys“. I wonder how many of these US servicemen survived D-Dayand the war, and still remember their brief and unusual meals during their wartime ‘visit’ to Paignton Zoo?
A sadder memorial is the salvaged US Sherman tank mounted on the beach at Slapton Sands in Devon. Slapton Ley nature reserve is part of the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust that runs Newquay and Paignton Zoo. This area was evacauted of people and turned into one large training and firing range ready for invasion of Eirope in 1944. Disastrously many hundreds of US troops died in their landing craft and swimming tanks on an exercise intercepted by German navy torpedo boats. The disaster was hushed up after the war for many years, as set out in many versions of the Exercise Tiger story http://www.shermantank.co.uk/history.ikml and http://http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exercise_Tiger
Hrad to imagine when visting now this very peaceful haven to wildlife … see this at http://www.slnnr.org.uk/
More tales to tell of life in wartime zoos – watch this space.
Project Background note: Our World War Zooresearch project and blog aims to uncover and collect many of the strange tales from this time not only for their own merit, but as a tribute to people of that difficult time and also for what lessons we can learn for our own future. There are lessons to be learnt for the coming days when our food and fuel, resources and climate may become scarce or more unpredictable.
Our World War Zoo project will be a practical living memorial, almost history that you can eat in the form of a wartime “dig for victory garden” being recreated at Newquay Zoo in Cornwall. More news of this project follows over the next few weeks as we prepare the ground and get planting.
Mark Norris, World War Zoo Project team, Newquay Zoo, Cornwall, UK