War and the Whitleys: Para-medics, Peacocks and Paignton Zoo

Herbert Whitley, trademark cigarette in mouth (Image source: Paignton Zoo website)

Herbert Whitley, trademark cigarette in mouth (Image source: Paignton Zoo website)

It is 70 years this year since the events of D-Day, and this month 75 years since World War Two began and also 100 years since the outbreak of World War One – both wars were to cost the Whitley family dear. The 29th August 1944 / 2014 is one such sad anniversary.

Our sister zoo at Paignton was started in 1923 by an eccentric and wealthy figure with hard business sense, a passion for the colour blue and an eye for good breeding stock amongst plants and animals – Herbert Whitley.

Herbert Whitley (1886 – 1955) was one of four sons of Edward Whitley, a Liverpool based brewer (Greenall Whitley) and Victorian MP (1825 – 1892). Herbert’s father Edward has an impressive entry in Debrett’s 1886 House Of Commons directory from the year Herbert Whitley was born.  On his father’s death, Herbert Whitley, two brothers William and Charles and a sister Mary moved from Liverpool and Lancashire to Devon around 1904 to 1907 with his widowed mother Eleanor (1848 – 1929). Here Herbert quickly established an estate of several farms in the area with his brother William. His older brother Edward Whitley Junior (b. 1880) remained with his young family  in Liverpool, after studying medicine.

With an agricultural or science based degree behind him, Whitley quickly used his family wealth to establish stud kennels and farms for his experiments in breeding dogs, farm animals, pigeons, horses as well as building greenhouses for exotic plants.  Unlike Picasso, Herbert Whitley never grew out of his ‘blue period’. He had a lifelong passion for blue animals and plants, from peacocks to rosemary. Paignton Zoo has recently been searching for ‘lost’ cultivars from Whitley’s Primley Botanic Nursery,  named ‘Primley Blue’ (including mallow, rosemary and hebe).

These plants and animals would by summer 1923 be transformed into the nucleus of the collection which became Primley Zoological Gardens, opened to the public for educational rather than just purely entertainment reasons (see below). A fight ensued with local authorities over its educational role, rather than pure entertainment which saw Herbert close his zoo for a number of years rather than be liable for an ‘entertainment tax’ on zoo visits.

It is said that Herbert Whitley’s zoo began as a child, when his mother gave him a pair of canaries. He went on to breed and exhibit finches, rabbits, poultry and pigeons. His archive or library has scrapbooks and bound journal volumes featuring his many breeding successes, some featured in Jack Baker’s ‘biography’ of Whitley (see below).

Herbert and his brother William formed a partnership to manage the Primley estate farms. Their  plan was to create a breeding centre for pedigree livestock, but exotic animals soon appeared. The first monkeys arrived in 1910 and a pair of sulphur crested cockatoos in 1911 – the foundation of Herbert’s bird collection which was later to feature secret carrier pigeons and unfortunate GI snacks in the shape of peacocks.

Going public after a private wartime tragedy
In 1923, in the aftermath of the First World War, Herbert Whitley opened his collection, then known as Torbay Zoological Gardens, to the public. The Zoo closed briefly in 1924 due to a dispute over entertainment tax; Whitley felt very strongly that his collection was a place of learning and not entertainment. In 1930 the collection changed its name to Primley Zoological Gardens.

Sadly by the time his fledgling zoo opened in 1923, one of the four Whitley brothers was dead. Charles Whitley, one of the four Whitley brothers was dead, killed in the First World War. Some of the family of his estate workers and no doubt some of his horses would no doubt have perished too on the Western Front.

Hibers cemetery, where Herbert's brother Charles Whitley is buried, on the brow of the hill to the left of the cross of sacrifice (Image; CWGC website)

Hibers cemetery, where Herbert’s brother Charles Whitley is buried, on the brow of the hill to the left of the cross of sacrifice (Image; CWGC website)

Captain Charles Whitley, 7th Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps, Military  Cross, died aged 28 on 11th April 1917 during the Battle for Arras. He is buried at  Grave Reference C. 15, Hibers Trench Cemetery, France. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website lists him as born at Halewood, Liverpool and as the Son of the late Mr. Edward and Elizabeth Eleanor Whitley, of Primley, Paignton, Devon.  There are several websites which describe Charles Whitley including portraits:


Several zoo keepers from London Zoo were also killed in this same period and battle. One wonders what might have happened if Herbert Whitley had been fit enough to fight?

Herbert Whitley was lucky in someways to have poor enough eyesight to fail an army medical, likewise his brother William who had severely damaged his leg in a riding accident years before. Their contribution to the war effort would be as estate owners, animal breeders and farmers, then a reserved occupation.

The agricultural challenges of 1914 -18 are described in a new book on the People of Devon in World War One by David Parker (History Press, 2013), an interesting social history to complement Gerald Wasley’s Devon in the Great War (Halsgrove, 2013).

With disastrous harvests in 1916/17, enlistment and call up of agricultural workers and horses and a deadly U-Boat campaign targetting Allied supply routes and merchant shipping, Britain experienced a potential food crisis that would severely affect its ability to feed itself, maintain maximium war production and win the war. In spite of the agricultural and mineral wealth of its vast Empire, the British people saw increasing price rises in basic foods which eventually saw an early form of rationing introduced in 1917/18. Remarkably throughout this period of the U-Boat campaign, Primley stud  pedigree farm stock was being  shipped overseas, business as usual,  to bolster the Empire livestock.

British farming was at the start of the First World War struggling to keep up with imported cheaper food. It was in one of its many picturesque but poor states, in recession and the doldrums again at the end of the Victorain and Edwardian period, one well recreated in the BBC’s Edwardian Farm (filmed in Devon and Cornwall around the Tamar Valley and Morwhelham Quay).

Herbert and William Whitley took up farming or running an estate in an age of agricultural revolution, of new machinery such as the first tractors, steam farm machinery and interest in new chemical fertilisers. Devon farms however were still largely powered by men and horses, two valuable assets that would be drawn away by the demands of war.

‘What If’ History?

Captain Charles Whitley served on the Western Front, gaining a Military Cross for gallantry before being killed in 1917. If Herbert had been fit to serve, this could well have been his fate, a “What If?” History that would see no Paignton Zoo opened, no Slapton Ley Nature reserve preserved for the nation from inappropriate development and ultimately no Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust (WWCT) formed on Whitley’s death in 1955.

In 2003 my 1960s home zoo at Newquay, host of our World War Zoo Garden project, became part of the WWCT alongside Living Coasts, built on the old Marine Spa site of the Beacon Quay area of Torquay and Brixham, which had its own unusual wartime history, worthy of a future blog post.

Much of what we know of Whitley today is thanks to the “Blue Book”, the closest we currently have to a biography of Whitley, written by someone who knew Herbert Whitley in the 1940s and 1950s. The book is  appropriately known as the “Blue Book”, not just from the bright blue cover but from Herbert Whitley’s love of this colour; it is a slim and lively volume of reminiscences of Whitley collected by its author Jack Baker in the 1980s called Chimps, Champs and Elephants (out of print but available online).

Herbert Whitley was famously shy of women and never married, but his trusted ‘right hand man’ was unusually for the time and the company of a reclusive bachelor, a woman called Gladys Salter. Gladys had been a land girl on National Service in the First World War version of the Women’s Land Army.

The Whitley family losses in WW2

The Whitley family lost two further members in WW2 before Herbert Whitley’s death in 1955, an RAF pilot and a paratroop medic in the Normandy battles. They share a striking stone memorial in a Devon churchyard.

Herbert’s brother Charles Whitley was killed in 1917. Two Whitley nephews Edward and Peter were killed in World War Two, sons of Herbert’s brother & farmer business partner William Whitley.

Herbert’s nephew Captain Edward Neil Whitley  (born c. 1918), Service No: 252025, Royal Army Medical Corps serving with the Parachute Regiment.  He died back in England on 29th August 1944 of shrapnel wounds received four days after landing on D-Day 6 June 1944. His gravestone reads interestingly:

“Who landed in Normandy on D Day with the 6th Airborne Division,

was wounded by mortar fire on June 10th while succouring a foeman”

suggesting that he died whilst treating a German casualty. His unusual gravestone can be found at  Buckland-in-The-Moor (St. Peter) Churchyard in Devon (see below).

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website lists him as the son of William and Elizabeth Frances Whitley, of Ashburton; husband of Eileen Zender Whitley. B.A. (Cantab.), M.R.C.S., L.R.C.P. He had a son, Micheal Neil Whitley, pictured on the  the Para-Data entry for his father Edward.  Edward literally was a ‘para – medic’ as he parachuted in with the British 6th Airborne Division paratroops on D-Day June 1944 and is pictured on the Para-data history website along with documents to his mother and photographs.

Pictures of the unusual granite memorial in Buckland churchyard to both Edward and his brother Peter can be seen on the Devon Heritage website.

Edward Neil’s brother and Herbert’s nephew Pilot Officer Peter Percy Whitley  (born c. 1910) Service No: 118892, 57 Squadron, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve died on active service, listed as  missing over Cologne on a bombing raid on 15th October 1942. As missing aircrew, he has no known grave and is remembered on Reference Panel 72, Runnymede Memorial, Surrey. He is also listed on a roll of honour in Ashburton, Devon.

Runnymede memorial to missing Allied aircrew of WW2  (Image: CWGC website)

Runnymede memorial to missing Allied aircrew of WW2 (Image: CWGC website)

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website lists him as the son of William and Elizabeth Whitley; husband of Primrose Vinen Heron Whitley, of Teignmouth, Devon and father of Elizabeth Clare Whitley.

Paignton Zoo, Mr Whitley and D-Day 1944

The death of his nephew Edward was not the only D-Day connection for Whitley and his Paignton Zoo. Herbert Whitley bought the unique Slapton Ley area in 1921 to save it from commercial exploitation. Slapton Ley and its surrounding beaches and rural area became part of a massive US Army training ground in 1943-4 before D-Day, although amphibious landing training had happepned there several years before War broke out. This area saw the accidental deaths in training during Exercise Tiger on February 28th 1944. An unofficial memorial, a Sherman tank salvaged from the sea bed nearby and a more official US war memorial cross records the US forces thanks to the sacrifice of local people in giving up their homes and farms now stand near the beach, remembering the wartime losses.

Clennon Gorge, part of the extensive woods and nature reserves on Whitley’s Primley estate (and now part of Paignton Zoo) was an area of quarries and small wildfowl lakes that Herbert Whitley was developing to house animals in a naturalistic style. This style was inspired partly by the Hagenbeck family of German zoo owner and animal dealers that influenced animal enclosures worldwide including at London Zoo’s Mappin Terrace ‘artificial mountains’ and Whipsnade Zoo’s 1930s enclosures.

Clennon’s wooded areas and quarries were to prove perfect cover from German aerial reconnaissance for the campsites and well stocked cookhouses of US troops, secretly hidden close to Torquay and Brixham embarkation beaches before D-Day. On clearing the area after the GIs left, Whitley’s wartime staff found the remains of some of the bored and anxious GI’s last suppers – some of the famous Primley peacocks and wildfowl amongst others of his bird collection.

One possible wartime Paignton Zoo site of Clennon Gorge quarries, possible site for US troops GI cookhouse / campsite before D-Day June 1944, cleaned up after the war to become a now peaceful nature reserve at Paignton Zoo. (Nov. 2010)

One possible wartime Paignton Zoo site of Clennon Gorge quarries, possible site for US troops GI cookhouse / campsite before D-Day June 1944, cleaned up after the war to become a now peaceful nature reserve at Paignton Zoo. (Nov. 2010)

Sadly despite appeals in their veterans’  newsletter, we have unearthed no further memories of this unusual last supper  incident from the veterans and their families of the US 4ID association, once camped at Paignton.


Photographic proof! Peacock (or peahen) sized garden pests peck away at our salad leaf selection, World War Zoo Gardens, Newquay Zoo.

Photographic proof! Peacock (or peahen) sized garden pests peck away at our salad leaf selection, World War Zoo Gardens, Newquay Zoo, 2010.


There is a delightfully dated 1941 newsreel glimpse of  the women staff of wartime Primley or Paignton Zoo in its Chessington partnership era, entitled Ladies Only, worth watching at http://www.britishpathe.com/video/ladies-of-the-zoo-issue-title-ladies-only/query/flamingos

Having looked through Whitley’s wartime zoo and estate ledgers in the Paignton Zoo archive, it was  a case again in wartime of  ‘business as usual’. There are also interesting folders of Whitley’s  fairly random and eclectic press cuttings about animals, the war and Whitley’s interests.

There are many more interesting stories to research about Paignton’s wartime history, from its wartime business partnership with Chessington Zoo & Circus, the evacuation of Chessington staff there (look out for future blog posts featuring interviews with surviving staff children from this time) and further research into Whitley’s wartime ‘secret agent’ carrier pigeon lofts, part of the National Pigeon Service but staffed by Royal Signals staff. Where better to hide secret pigeons than in the middle of a large bird collection?

We would be delighted to hear via our comments page from anyone who has further memories of Herbert Whitley, his family and how his estate and zoo fared in wartime.

Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens project, Newquay Zoo, August 2014.




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3 Responses to “War and the Whitleys: Para-medics, Peacocks and Paignton Zoo”

  1. Chessington Zoo Blitzed 2 October 1940 – eyewitness accounts | Worldwarzoogardener1939's Blog Says:

    […] https://worldwarzoogardener1939.wordpress.com/2014/08/28/war-and-the-whitleys-para-medics-peacocks-a… […]


  2. susan lorimer Says:

    I was delighted to come across this article whilst researching the Whitley family who hail from our village of Alvanley. Family members are buried in the churchyard an I am speaking to a group from St John’s Church in September about the family. Thank you for this information


    • worldwarzoogardener1939 Says:

      Thanks Susan and best of luck for your talk. You might even meet some Whitleys! There are still Whitley family members around including online on genealogical circles. 2016 or 2017 was I think the first year with no member of the Whitley family on our board of zoo trustees as twinned zoos of the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust since it formed on Herbert Whitley’s death in 1955. In a few years, Paignton Zoo celebrates its 100th birthday 1923-2023.


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