Archive for the ‘1940s childhood’ Category

Overheard at the World War Zoo Gardens

August 6, 2018


Rationing Section – World War Zoo Gardens sign, Newquay Zoo, Cornwall, UK

Overheard early today whilst quietly watering the very dry and thirsty plants at the World War Zoo Gardens recreated zoo keepers’ allotment at Newquay Zoo.

A small family group approached the garden and looked at all the plants and then the garden sign.

Visiting Mum to her small boy: “See this ration book here on the sign?” 

Small boy looks at ration book on the sign and nods.

Mum: “This is what Granny had when she was a little girl.” 

“During the war food was rationed by these coupons and you often didn’t have very much food on your plate.”  

I want you to think about that ration book tonight and the next time you don’t eat all the vegetables and food on your plate.

Small boy stayed thoughtful and quiet throughout this last bit, before the family all walked away to look at more animals.

Point well made, I kept respectfully quiet, as this child was already outnumbered by family adults.




World War Zoo Gardens allotment, Newquay Zoo, July 2018 

I have overheard some fantastic family learning and conversations going on amongst visiting groups, whilst working in our zoo wartime  garden allotment next to the Lion House.

I have had great conversations with zoo visitors old and young about the plants and the history side.

I have heard the garden talked about and identified variously as Mr Bloom’s Garden, Mr McGregors’ Garden (hopefully without Peter Rabbit) or Granddad’s allotment.

Today’s overheard conversation  taught me one thing:

You can read books on interpretation and signage.

You can undertake brilliant visitor evaluation research on signage impact.

You can write wordy Learning Outcomes for your education project.

You can use long words like food security, Education and Engagement, cross-generational learning or  inter-generational learning.

What you can’t easily do is measure how wonderful and simple that parent / child / family interaction was. 

Thanks to that Mum, she made my day. It made the whole garden project worthwhile.

I will make sure to clear my plate tonight.

Herbs and garden sign Newquay Zoo 2015

On the fence next to the lion enclosure, bundles of herbs and some garlic seed heads for our monkeys, harvested October 2015 (Image: Mark Norris)

Blog posted by Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens project, Newquay Zoo, 6th August 2018.


Happy 100th birthday Dame Vera Lynn

March 20, 2017

vera lynn signature

One of my treasured books that I tracked down, because it had been signed by Vera Lynn!

Happy Birthday Dame Vera Lynn, 100 years old today 20 March 2017, from all at the World War Zoo gardens project, Newquay Zoo.

I watched an excellent new BBC documentary at the weekend shown to mark Dame Vera Lynn’s 100th Birthday on 20 March 2017. Many famous people and Burma veterans talked about their personal connection with Vera Lynn and her music in person or through her radio broadcasts.

I was very happy to see a brief momentary glimpse in Vera’s post-war home movies of her family garden and orchard.

Dame Vera Lynn has long been a treasured part of my family memories, growing up with wartime evacuee parents who played many of the old wartime songs.

Little did I realise until I started the World War Zoo Gardens project at Newquay Zoo back in 2008/9 that my late Mum would reveal a strange wartime connection to Vera Lynn, that she had had as a tiny and unhappy evacuee in Ditchling, Sussex where Dame Vera Lynn lived:

I was very proud to show Mum a copy of the book when this experience of Mum’s  was briefly written up in Duff Hart-Davis’ Our Land At War.

Last year my brothers scattered Mum’s ashes from Ditchling Beacon out over the Sussex countryside where Mum  had lived as an evacuee and had been an unwilling look out for an evacuee scrumping gang in Vera Lynn’s orchard.

Coming from similar parts of London and not that far apart in age, Mum and Vera Lynn also had a few spoken phrases in common, that watching Vera Lynn interviewed reminds me of my late Mum.

Whilst I never planted an apple tree in the World War Zoo Gardens wartime allotment, we now have two container planted English apple trees in my home garden, one named Vera and the other named after my Mum.

This Vera Lynn story is a family one  with photos that I tell school children who are visiting Newquay Zoo for our Wartime Zoo / Life schools workshop.

World War Zoo exhibition photos and garden launch Vera Lynn 1 30310809 058

Part of our August 2009 wartime garden launch exhibition display – sheet music and “Sincerely Yours” BBC  original press 1940s photos of Vera Lynn.

vera lynn book cover

An excellent book written by Vera Lynn, well worth tracking down (1990)

Whilst we tend to think of Dame Vera singing to servicemen, she also had an important role through her radio broadcasts in the lives of wartime women, at home and in the services. She wrote a fabulous book about it, Unsung Heroines, cleverly titled, alongside her own autobiography Some Sunny Day.

vera lynn intro 1

vera lynn intro 2

Dame Vera Lynn pictured centre with Dutch resistance heroines Joke Folmer GM and Nel Lind, Utrecht, July 1990.


vera lynn back cover

Lovely pic of Dame Vera Lynn Burma 44 surrounded by nurses, the unsung heroines of the Forgotten Army.

Vera Lynn, The Forgotten Army and the Burma Star

Dame Vera Lynn is much praised for her front line ENSA concerts to the Forgotten Army in Burma, where many of the proud Burma Star veterans had served that I was privileged to meet at Newquay Zoo one day.

Sadly my wartime zoo researches also reveal that some of the London Zoo and Kew and Melbourne Botanic Gardens staff serving in the Far East never survived, dying in the Burma and Singapore jungles or in the infamous Far East Prisoner of War camps:

I believe that my navy grandfather helped transport many of these skeletal POW survivors  home on his aircraft carrier. My Mum did not see him for most of / during the War due to her evacuation and his naval service.

Dame Vera will be much in the thoughts today  of many of the Burma Star veterans like those interviewed for the BBC programme at the weekend.


Happy 100th Birthday Dame Vera Lynn! May you have good health and many more birthdays!

Posted by Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens project, Newquay Zoo, Cornwall.

and a link to Dame Vera’s special charity

vera lynn 100

Happy Wartime Christmas Birthday Peggy Jane Skinner

December 20, 2016



Peggy Jane Skinner’s 1943 diary and a photo believed to be her. Source: Mark Norris, WWZG collection.

Today is a birthday reminder of one of our wartime diarists from our wartime collection, wartime student Peggy Jane Skinner:

On what would have been her 92nd birthday (Peggy was born 20th December 1924 and died in 2011), we send her  giftwrapped her favourite 1940s film star Tyrone Power.


1940s heart throb Tyrone Power (Image: Wikepedia source)


Happy birthday Peggy!

Scheduled Blog post by Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens project, Newquay Zoo. 20 December 2016

Blitz and pieces at our Wartime zoo workshops

March 10, 2016

Another successful wartime zoo workshop at Newquay Zoo in Cornwall.

Before busily  packing away our interesting archive of wartime items until their  next outing for a schools workshop, so I thought I’d photograph a few more items in our collection to share with you.

wartime toys

Previously we showed a little of our  wartime workshop for schools about how  wartime changed life for zoo staff, animals, visitors and more generally for people on the Home Front in Britain in World War 2.

It’s always interesting to see what items attract children’s attention each time. The handmade toys proved popular and the school may well have a go at making some of their own. (I have a few plans and books of these).


A wartime toy ark made from whatever wood was available by Mr Ernest Lukey, teacher from Poole, Dorset for his daughter Wendy (kindly loaned to Newquay Zoo).

wartime toy ark

Mr Lukey’s  hand carved wooden toy animals are the only time you’ll see elephants, rhinos, camels and giraffes at Newquay Zoo. The real ones are usually seen at our sister zoo at Paignton, operational throughout World War 2.

wartime wooden animals

Trying on helmets and heavy woollen wartime uniforms and clothing was also popular:

wartime clothing.png

land army greatcoat label

Inside the Women’s Land Army greatcoat was this 1943 label and inside the pocket this curious cardboard roll of labels – maybe to do with size?

land army greatcoat label and size tags.png

In our next Blitz and Pieces we’ll feature another popular item on display – the insides of the family ARP (Air Raid Precautions) First Aid Box, still intact 70 years on.

Posted by Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens Project, Newquay Zoo (March 2015).


Peggy Skinner’s Wartime Christmas 1940

December 10, 2015

December 1940  – a schoolgirl’s wartime Christmas in Scotland

If you are struggling to choose or afford Christmas presents this year, spare a thought for the fashion conscious 1940s wartime young woman like Peggy Skinner!

Peggy Skinner is a 15 to 16 year old schoolgirl in her final years of school, transplanted in wartime to Paisley in Renfrewshire, Scotland from her South London home.


Peggy Jane Skinner’s 1943 diary and a photo believed to be her. Source: Mark Norris, WWZG collection.

Like many school girls she is worrying about exam results and making it into her  school leaving year in 1941. She makes it to wartime Glasgow University on a Carnegie Grant to study Astronomy, Maths, Radio and Science, but all this seems far away in Christmas 1940. [I’ve added additional notes in brackets].

Much of her social life revolves around school friends and a church youth group, attending a Bible Class en route to becoming a Sunday School teacher of a weekend throughout her wartime student years. 

Peggy is obviously a bright girl, daughter of an engineer and draughtsman. School is thankfully going well for her despite relocation and wartime disruption. Unusually at the time for a female student, she is doing well studying Science and Maths.


Glasgow schools in wartime

Many Glasgow schools were closed early on in the war or requisitioned for military and civil defence use. Peggy’s school seems to have a range of teachers on loan from other schools.

Amongst the range of teacher names and nicknames somebody in Paisley or Glasgow might recognise or identify Peggy’s school:

Jetta Yuill her French teacher from Renfrew High School, Bone her Latin teacher, ‘Fanny’, Miss Buchanan, Miss Reid and Miss Blair her Gym teachers, ‘Doc’ and Billy Robb her Science teachers, Stoney, Denham or Denman her Physics and Science teacher, Tommy Henderson, Alice Young, Miss McKim, Miss Walker, Hutchison or Hutchie, Stevenson her History teacher, Mr. Reid her music teacher and McCrossan who produces the school play.

Does anyone recognise any of these names from wartime school days?

Peggy Skinner’s summer in Scotland safe from the London Blitz and Battle Of Britain in July to September 1940 were covered in a previous blogpost:

More about Peggy’s life (1924-2011) and other wartime birthdays and Christmas entries can be found here on what would have been her 90th birthday tribute in December 2014:


Peggy Skinner’s wartime diary, December 1940

Sunday 1st                    As [the local vicar] Mr Laming is away, the Marines’ chaplain took the Eucharist. Mr [Bovey?] took Bible Class and some one from Trinity Paisley took evensong. His profile was like Tyrone Power’s but he spoke so slowly.


[Tyrone Power, the famous U.S. film actor of the time, was a bit of a Peggy Skinner favourite!]

 Monday 2nd                  Physics marks back, they were really out of 120 but they were counted out of 100 since we didn’t get all the time we were supposed to. I’ve got 50% for my Latin.

Tuesday 3rd                 I have found out that I am the highest in lower History in our class, so I’m quite bucked. I got 67% for my Chemistry which is far better than I’d expected.

Wednesday 4th            Dance practice with boys at Gym. Latin sentences in place of or in addition to the exam ones, of course I couldn’t do them. AYPA – went to Youth welfare meeting, pretty boring.

[Anglican Young People’s Association, a church youth and social group of the time]

Thursday 5th                Dance practice with boys. Latin marks back, the sentences we had yesterday were counted in place of the ones in the exam. They brought my marks up a bit. It is 55% which I think is good.

Friday 6th                     Half day. Went to Whist drive round church hall. I just filled in, had to help Mum get the hall ready first.

Saturday 7th                 Went to Paisley with Bunty to see My Two Husbands, it was very amusing.   Altogether, it was quite a good show. Paisley was crowded, it was War Weapons Week.

[See our separate blog post for Paisley War Weapons Week]

Sunday 8th                    Communion and Bible Class. It is very cold. I think it is freezing tonight. Trying to think of Xmas presents.

Monday 9th                   Higher History marks back. I am second equal and first equal when averaged British and European history is taken.

Tuesday 10th                Xmas is getting very near and I haven’t brought any presents. I don’t know what to get. Our parcel from Grandma arrived last Friday.

[Grandma is back home with the family in London]

Wednesday 11th          Literature back, I got 30 ½ out of 45. I’m third equal in our section. Didn’t do much at AYPA tonight.

 Thursday 12th              It is Paisley War Weapons Week this week, our savings collection last week towards it was £175, this week it is £333, making a total of over £500 which is five times as much as we aimed at.

Friday 13th                   English marks back. We got away at 1.30, because of yesterday’s collection. I went to Paisley in the afternoon, Xmas shopping, I wasn’t very successful, everything’s so expensive.

Saturday 14th               Very miserable day. Went to Paisley with Mum in afternoon, got nothing we went for. Stockings are 2 to 3 times the price they used to be.


Editor’s note: This shortage and price increase was pre-clothes rationing, which would arrive in six months time on Sunday June 1st 1941, partly to manage and organise scarcity, profiteering  and excessive prices.

The shortage of shoes and everyday clothes became a major irritation for Peggy throughout her diary including into the austerity and rationing period long after the war, especially being tall.

Thankfully her family were competent makers of clothes with whatever remnants became available.


Sunday 15th                  Poured with rain again, I had to borrow an umbrella to come home from church this morning. I went to Bible Class and evensong.

Monday 16th                 We had our report cards back. The Rector [the School Headmaster] sent for some people but luckily not me. Packed Xmas presents this evening.


[These presents are to be posted to her remaining family down south in London.]


Tuesday 17th                I hate Maths now (although the periods are often quite good, like the ones today) because we always seem to be so keyed up.

Wednesday 18th          Dancing in boy’s shed this morning because the Gym was being decorated. Only 7 at AYPA tonight, so as usual did nothing.

Thursday 19th              Half-day for 4th, 5th, 6th year dance – I did not go. I’ll hear all about it tomorrow I expect. It was just an afternoon affair.

Friday 20th                   [Peggy’s 16th birthday] Black velvet for frock, jumper, ring and money to buy books were my presents. Half-day for 3rd years dance. We have a big Hamlet crossword puzzle to do. Short air –raid warning this evening.

Saturday 21st               Another short warning, which I did not hear last night. Bessie and Jean came to tea, just talked. I at any rate quite enjoyed myself.

 Sunday 22nd                 Woke so late that I had a job to get to church in time but service was only beginning as I went in. I went to Bible Class. I tried to finish the [Hamlet school] crossword but couldn’t.

Monday 23rd                Two boys had managed to get the crossword done. We only had two periods this afternoon then got away early. I’ve still some Xmas shopping to do.

Tuesday 24th                Half day, broke up, we did X-word puzzles in Maths, nothing in History and Bible and worked in English and Chem. I went to midnight Eucharist, took communion. Church was crowded.

Wednesday 25th            Christmas Day  Went to [neighbours] Read’s for tea and evening, two other people there, we had a very good time but I’m so sleepy now Xmas is over. This year it’s come unexpectedly and passed quickly.


Christmas in Wartime

Not the first Christmas of the war, but this was the first Christmas in wartime where rationing was beginning to have an effect on food and gifts. Later entries by Peggy Skinner for 1943 and 1946-9 record the ongoing difficulties of finding suitable presents and making of things to sell for charity fundraising.


Thursday 26th              Didn’t wake till midday. Went round to Bunty’s but I got no reply So I just came home and read. I haven’t started my homework yet.

Friday 27th                           Saw Bunty this morning. We have a [barrage] balloon opposite us now, the site has been prepared for months but the balloon wasn’t brought till today.


Peggy Skinner’s wartime home  is towards the top of the photograph,  (top right) a barrage balloon on the balloon site nearby protecting the Hillington Rolls Royce and other factories at the bottom left. ID 211548

This barrage balloon site near her house is on the National Historic Monuments Record for Scotland in the Glendee Road area of Paisley, protecting factory areas at Hillingdon.

Saturday 28th             Got letters from Bessie and Jean this morning, they were very amusing, especially if they were compared. Went to see Pinocchio the full length cartoon alone this afternoon.

Sunday 29th                    Good crowd at Communion, had service in church at Bible Class. Good number of carols at evensong, choir alone sang them all, quite a few I didn’t know.

Monday 30th                   Went round to Bunty’s this afternoon, we both tried to do some history. She and I went down to library this evening . Miserable cold wet day.

Tuesday 31st                   Reads came over this evening, had a little party, quite a good time. I’m full and tired. Mr Read saw the ‘New Year’ in,  so this should actually be here.


Editor’s note: This list entry about ‘first footing’ by neighbours gives you a clue when her diary was sometimes written, often at the end of day before sleep.


January 1941

Wednesday 1st               I did not get up till dinner-time today, all the family was late up. Did some English this afternoon. Snow.

Thursday 2nd                  While I was down the town this afternoon the siren went but I just finished my shopping and then wandered home. Nothing happened, the [barrage] balloon opposite didn’t even go up.

We have no diaries from Peggy for 1941 and 1942. These two January entries give us a few clues as to what was to happen in coming months.

Like her entries for January 1940, the winter of 1941 is recorded by other diarists in our collection and other published diaries as a harsh one of frozen pipes and snow.

The lack of reaction to the air raid siren and ‘nothing happened, the balloon opposite didn’t even go up’ would change on 13 and 14th March 1941 when Clydebank and the Glasgow area were heavily bombed. Sadly we don’t have Peggy’s diaries for this eventful year.

Happy Christmas!

Posted by Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens project, Newquay Zoo.


Paisley War Weapons Week December 1940

December 9, 2015

Close up of a portrait possibly of Peggy Jane Skinner, enclosed in her 1940s diaries. Source: Mark Norris, WWZG collection.

Close up of a portrait possibly of Peggy Jane Skinner, enclosed in her 1940s diaries. Source: Mark Norris, WWZG collection.

Paisley War Weapons Week, 9th to 14th December 1940.

15 year old Peggy Jane Skinner’s 1940 diary records how this national fundraising event happened 75 years ago in Paisley in Scotland,  where she and her SW London born family were based during the war.

Today we are used to charity appeals at Christmas but this was one appeal with a difference in 1940.

Saturday 7th                 Went to Paisley with Bunty to see [the film] My Two Husbands, it was very amusing.   Altogether, it was quite a good show. Paisley was crowded, it was War Weapons Week …

Thursday 12th              It is Paisley War Weapons Week this week, our savings collection last week towards it was £175, this week it is £333, making a total of over £500 which is five times as much as we aimed at.

‘Our savings collection’ probably refers  to a local area or school collection.

I found an interesting reference to this 1940 War Weapons Week in Glasgow and Paisley in a poem by Lance Corporal Alexander Barr,  193 Field. Ambulance, R.A.S.C.  on the BBC People at War website, contributed by elsabeattie on 14 September 2005 as Article ID: A5748933


Well done Glasgow, and all the rest

For Savings Week you’ve done your best

Now it’s Paisley’s turn to show

How keen we are to crush the foe.


We need more tanks, more ‘planes, more guns

We need them all to beat the Huns

The road to victory we can pave

If all will do their best to save.


We’ve got the men, they’ve proved their worth

In every corner of the earth

Our need today is £.S.D.

Each shilling helps to keep us free.


Great Britain always has been free

The ruler of the mighty sea

If everyone will do his bit

Britain can still be greater yet.


Our Provost asks a million pounds

Paisley with patriots abounds

If each will save that little more

Above that figure we can soar.


Go to it, Paisley, show your mettle

And Hitler’s heroes we’ll quickly settle

Soon then this dreadful war will cease

And we shall live once more in peace.


© L/Cpl. Alexander Barr. 193 Field. Amb. R.A.S.C.

Alexander Barr’s photo and poem can be found at Article ID: A5748933 BBC People at War website,

Remarkably a short silent black and white 3 minute film exists of the Paisley War Weapons Week 1941 inaugural procession parades in the National Library of Scotland archive amongst several other Paisley clips.

The film shows according to their archivist a “pipe band leading a procession of navy, army, home guard(?), women’s army, police force and the fire brigade through the streets, past crowds and the Lord Provost of Glasgow and army officers standing on the rostrum taking the salute. Procession along the streets past the La Scala cinema and shops.”

Somewhere amongst the crowds on the film may have been a young Peggy Skinner! Amongst the parade may also have been her Home Guard father William Ernest Skinner, an engineer and draughtsman from London, working for the war effort in Paisley.

Part of the fundraising drive and parades through Paisley was a crashed German fighter plane, 4 (S) /LG 2 Bf109E White N flown by Ofw. Josef Harmeling which was shot down or force-landed at Langenhoe near Wick, Essex on 29th October 1940. According to Larry Hickey and Peter Cornwell, the plane was widely displayed   “across Northern England and Southern Scotland in support of several local War Weapons Weeks and visited many towns including Glasgow and Paisley during late November 1940…” Source:

Closer to our World War Zoo Gardens project base at Newquay Zoo, we have in our collection an interesting example of a competition to design a poster  for local and evacuee schoolchildren, in this case Benenden School. These girls were of similar age to Peggy Skinner.


Spitfires, Stukas, George and the Dragon: Newquay War Weapons Week poster design from Carmen Blacker and Joan D Pring at Benenden Girls School, evacuated to Newquay in the 1940s. Copyright: World War Zoo project, Newquay Zoo

Spitfires, Stukas, George and the Dragon on Newquay War Weapons Week poster design from Carmen Blacker and Joan D Pring at Benenden Girls School, evacuated to Newquay in the 1940s. Copyright: World War Zoo project, Newquay Zoo

We will post a little more of Peggy’s 1940 Christmas diary this week, so you can read it day by day 75 years on, a little of the everyday lives and anxieties of wartime folk.

Happy Christmas!

Posted by Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens Project, Newquay Zoo.

Battle of Britain Day remembered 15 September 1940

September 15, 2015

Spitfires over Truro: Trafalgar Roundabout, Cornwall. An impressive flight of two floral spitfires with turning propellers over a field of Poppies, planted by Truro's Parks Department. The Pannier market nearby used to be a Spitfire and Hurricane secret aeroplane part repair shop. Image Source: Mark Norris

Spitfires over Truro: Trafalgar Roundabout, Cornwall. An impressive flight of two floral spitfires with turning propellers over a field of Poppies, planted by Truro’s Parks Department. The Pannier market nearby used to be a Spitfire and Hurricane ‘secret’ aeroplane part repair shop. Image Source: Mark Norris

Battle of Britain Day remembered 15 September 1940

“It is marvellous the way the RAF are adding to their cricket score. We put on the wireless at every news to hear how many more Jerries they’ve added to their score. Yesterday it was 180 for 34 of ours (from whom many pilots are safe). Since the beginning of the week excluding today they have brought down over 400.” Peggy Jane Skinner’s Schoolgirl diary, Friday 16 August 1940

The Battle Of Britain in miniature for a wartime boy! A beautiful wartime handmade wooden Spitfire toy, our other favourite suggestion for the wartime object collection on the BBC A History of The World.

The Battle Of Britain in miniature for a wartime boy! A beautiful wartime handmade wooden Spitfire toy, our other favourite suggestion for the wartime object collection on the BBC’s  A History of The World, 2009/10. This very popular object is currently on display  in our Tropical House display cabinet, c. 2015

The Battle of Britain now forms part of the New National Curriculum primary history unit, such as this interesting Year 6 unit from Cornwall Learning studied by many Cornish schools  Inspire Curriculum Year 6 unit The Battle of Britain Bombs Battle and Bravery. inspire yr 6 ww2 doc The 75th anniversary year 2015 is being marked by many memorial events, especially around Battle of Britain Day 15 September 1940. Now commemorated as “Battle of Britain Day”, 15th September  was the day people in Kent and London witnessed large battles between Fighter Command and the Luftwaffe. German casualties were heavy, although not nearly as heavy as was claimed at the time.

There is an interesting Wikipedia entry on this other claimant to the “Hardest Day” (18th August is also cited as a very tough day):

It’s interesting to see the Royal Mail Battle of Britain commemorative stamps , as we did a whole schools stamp project / blog (blending history and science) with RZSS Edinburgh Zoo on Darwin and the Victorians through stamps 2009.

battle of britain stamps 2015

Royal Mail’s recent Battle of Britain tribute stamps 2015

battle of britain The Battle of Britain and Blitz seen through a teenager’s diary, Summer 1940 My collection of mostly civilian WW2 wartime diaries  is the source for many blogposts and anecdotes for teaching our wartime zoo history workshops.

Amongst my favourite is that of teenager Peggy Skinner (1924-2011). Peggy was a London schoolgirl  who was studying in Glasgow as her engineer father was on war work there, probably in the Hillington Rolls Royce or other Clydeside war-related engineering works). We wrote about her in the past on what would have been her 90th Birthday in 2014:

Peggy Jane Skinner's 1943 diary and a photo believed to be her. Source: Mark Norris, WWZG collection.

Peggy Jane Skinner’s 1943 diary and a photo believed to be her. Source: Mark Norris, WWZG collection.

Here in a new selection of diary entries from her Letts Schoolgirl Diary 1940, Peggy recalls  the bombing in Glasgow / Clydeside and the air battles down South over Surrey and London, where the rest of her family live. I have included some of my research in the Editor’s Notes on what is happening in the diary and the wider war. I have put these dairy entries online to be available to teachers and students; Copyright remains with the Mark Norris /World War Zoo Gardens collection if you quote from or publish these elsewhere. Please contact me via the comments form if necessary.

Peggy Skinner’s diary , Renfrew, Glasgow 1940 Tuesday 11th June 1940 –             Nice early on today but very cloudy and dull later on. The news is very black now with I [Italy] against us, but we’ll win.

Saturday 13th July 1940 –            Lovely afternoon but raining this morning. I went to tennis this afternoon, had one game a singles with Bunty. An air raid warning last night which I slept through, this is the second we’d had.

Sunday 14th July 1940–             Went to church this morning, a terrible lot of people came in late. I went for a walk this afternoon right round the factories.[2] Editor’s Note: ‘factories’ – Hillington, to the southeast of Peggy’s house, was home to an industrial estate built in the late 1930s, including the Rolls Royce aero engine factories, protected by Anti-Aircraft (AA) batteries on Renfrew golf course. This area was bombed again on 24th July 1940.

Friday 19th July 1940–                A bomb was dropped in Yoker which hit a tenement and killed five people (three of them children) and injured a lot of others, and one was dropped in Hillington this morning. No warning was given but the aeroplane and bombs were heard. Editor’s note: The Yoker bombing is widely covered on various Glasgow blitz websites.

Saturday 20th July 1940–            Went to Ninotchka this afternoon with Bunty. It was very funny in parts but it was inclined to be sloppy. We had an air raid last night I slept during [it], time bombs were dropped,  but woke up later on.

Tuesday 23rd July 1940–             Had a raid warning just after dinner time, lasted about an hour. Nothing happened, very disappointing.

Wednesday 24th  July 1940 –       I was woken this morning about 6 o’clock because bombs were being dropped and there was a lot of noise from A-A guns. Factories at Hillington hit. No warning.

Thursday 25th July 1940         Went with Bunty to see damage done at Industrial Estate. Not much at all, one factory or block of factories pretty badly damaged, nothing else except broken windows.

Saturday 10th August 1940 –            Rotten day, very windy tonight. Finished giving book-case first coat of paint, barely enough. Played table tennis at Bunty in afternoon. Editor’s Note:  What was to become known as ‘The Battle of Britain’ was beginning far to the south above the skies of Peggy’s family and old home area of Surrey on this date.

Friday 16th August 1940 –                We listened to Haw-Haw, just as he said Britain never attacked he suddenly closed down, just as though the RAF had decided to pay him a visit.

[Additional note in Memoranda section:] It is marvellous the way the RAF are adding to their cricket score. We put on the wireless at every news to hear how many more Jerries they’ve added to their score. Yesterday it was 180 for 34 of ours (from whom many pilots are safe). Since the beginning of the week excluding today they have brought down over 400.

Editor’s note:  German propaganda radio such as William Joyce (‘Lord Haw Haw’) was broadcast from major cities like Berlin or Hamburg and often shut down when an RAF air raid was in progress in order to avoid the planes homing in radio signals to find the cities – a form of radio blackout – see Roger Moorhouse, Berlin at War 1939-1945. It’s interesting too how Peggy picks up what seems today slightly callous but then popular, media approach of sporting ‘scores’ of planes and lives lost, still  represented in the modern infographic (below).

Sunday 18th August 1940 –             Went to church, saw all the soldiers marching down both from Renfrew and from Moor Park afterwards. Lot more raids along the South Coast.

Editor’s note:  These south coast raids and next day’s German losses are during what is often called the ‘Hardest Da’y of the ‘Battle of Britain’ 18th August 1940 – see inforgraphic below for 18th August 1940.

Monday 19th August 1940 –            Quite a nice day, though chilly towards evening. 140 Jerries brought down yesterday. Walk in evening.

Friday 6th  September 1940 –                  Air Raid Practice yesterday, fire drill today. Played table tennis at Bunty’s tonight. Latin was terribly boring. Made an awful lot of smells in Chem.

Editor’s Note: Air Raid practice for Peggy and her classmates was timely as down South on September 7th 1940, the London Blitz bombing began. From September 1940 to May 1941 40,000 civilians were killed out of the overall 65,000 civilian casualties.

By 27th September, Mrs Skinner is thinking of asking Peggy’s cousins or young relatives up to the relative safety of Glasgow. The bombing of Glasgow continued but the devastating Clydebank Blitz was not to take place until March 1941; sadly we don’t have another of Peggy’s  Diaries until 1943.

Sunday 15th  September 1940  –   Communion, Bible class, evensong. Was round [church] hall this evening when sirens went so I just had to trot home. Warning didn’t last long.

Thursday 19th   September 1940      –   There have been two short raid warnings so far this evening. There was a lot of gun-fire and we think some bombs dropped as we had to get up last night although there was no warning. Four warnings night before last.

Editor’s Note:  The 18th September marked, according to some, the first serious night raid on Glasgow, destroying a building in Royal Exchange Square and setting fire to a cruiser in Yorkhill docks. The nearby Yorkhill hospital had to be evacuated.

Friday 27th   September 1940    –            An awful lot of planes have been brought down today, over 120 so far, I hope it goes past the 200 mark by tomorrow. Mum is thinking of asking Peter and Madge up. Peggy’s diary (which I am currentlyediting) gives a  little glimpse of the civilian experience of the air raids. Peggy went on to work after graduation from Glasgow University in 1944 at RAE Farnborough aircraft research on radio and electronics.

A WW2 fundraising Spitfire clip or pin badge made of metal, possibly the smallest item in our World War Zoo Gardens collection (Image source: Mark Norris)

A WW2 fundraising Spitfire clip or pin badge for your lapel. Made of metal, this is possibly the smallest item in our World War Zoo Gardens collection (Image source: Mark Norris)

Somebody mentioned to me that similar fundraising Spitfire lapel pins are still made from real Spitfire metal “crafted of Duralumin originating from Spitfire X4276”

Flying over the skies of London by day and night, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz affected the life of many in the South. London Zoo, Chessington Zoo, Kew Gardens and the London museums were amongst some of the venues affected by the 1940/41 Blitz.

In future blogposts this autumn we will update what happened to these venues in the Blitz and WW2.

Battle of Britain Day remembered 15 September 1940

battle of britain infographic

Modern 2015 infographic of 18th August dubbed the “Hardest Day” Source: RAF Benevolent Fund. Compare to Peggy Skinner’s cricketing scores dairy entry for Friday 16 August 1940.

Further Battle of Britain sources:

Posted by Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens project, Newquay Zoo.

Remembering the start of the Blitz 7 September 1940 (and a happy new school term )

September 7, 2015

Remembering the start of the Blitz 7 September 1940 (and a new term starts in school)

Today is the 75th anniversary of the day in the middle of the Battle of Britain that day bombing of RAF airfields and dogfights turned to night bombing of cities like London which went on for months almost without ceasing. The Blitz on London had begun.

There are widespread commemorations online and around the country of these events 75 years including the Battle of Britain Day 15 September, so that the next generation can pay their respects to and learn from the passing generation who lived through WW2.

Thankfully WW2 is still on the Primary School History Curriculum as schools go back in Cornwall.


Small part of a WW2 display in a Cornish School c. 2012

Working out of Newquay Zoo on its Education section, I often get to visit primary and secondary schools and am  usually  impressed by the displays I see and work I hear going on.

This ranges from hearing “Hey Mister Miller”, a medley of 40s music and songs being rehearsed by student teachers with children at Antony School to seeing great mock up Anderson shelters in a 40s corner.

In another school which I think it might have been Devoran whilst taking rainforest animals in c. 2011/12,  I saw this simple WW2 display in its entrance / hall area. This must have been by Year 3 /4 (before the curriculum change that WW2 is now studied in Year 6).



Interesting Year 3/ 4 artwork studies of famous WW2 photos.

Year 3 in the past focussed on evacuation and a child’s view of the war. There is now a different WW2 history curriculum unit for year 6 in the New 2013/14 Primary National Curriculum.

inspire yr 6 ww2 doc

Year 6 now have an  interesting wartime history unit in Cornwall Learning’s Inspire Curriculum Year 6 Battle of Britain: Bombs Battles and Bravery for the Spring Term Year 6

Mark Norris delivering one of our World War Zoo Gardens workshops in ARP uniform with  volunteer Ken our zoo 'Home Guard' (right)  (Picture: Lorraine Reid, Newquay Zoo)

Mark Norris delivering one of our World War Zoo Gardens workshops in ARP uniform with volunteer Ken our zoo ‘Home Guard’ (right) (Picture: Lorraine Reid, Newquay Zoo)

You can read more about the wartime history schools workshops that we offer here at Newquay Zoo in two blogposts:

Studying and  Designing WW2 Posters makes an appearance in the Year 6 History Unit – this original 1941 poster design in our collection was designed by two teenage evacuees the late Carmen Blacker and the late Joan D Pring at Benenden Girls School, evacuated to the Bristol Hotel Newquay in the 1940s.

WAAF servicewomen and an RAF sergeant at an unidentified  Chain Home Station like RAF Drytree, declassified photo 14 August 1945 (from an original in the World War Zoo gardens archive)

The importance or miracle  of RADAR – WAAF servicewomen and an RAF sergeant at an unidentified Chain Home Station (like RAF Drytree, Cornwall) declassified photo 14 August 1945 (from an original in the World War Zoo gardens archive)

Very shortly in the next three weeks we will be blog posting about:

  • the Battle of Britain Day 15 September, stamps  and lots of Spitfires …
  • Peggy Jane Skinner’s teenage 1940 Blitz diary from our collection
  • the bombing of London Zoo 1940/41
  • the bombing of  Chessington Zoo and its partial evacuation to Paignton Zoo (our sister zoo) .  
World War Zoo Gardens sign, Newquay Zoo, Cornwall, UK

London Zoo’s ARP shelter pictured on our World War Zoo Gardens sign, Newquay Zoo, Cornwall, UK

Remembering the start of the Blitz 7 September 1940 75 years on.

Posted by Mark Norris, Newquay Zoo / World War Zoo Gardens project

Contact us via the comments page or via the Newquay Zoo website.

Happy 90th birthday Peggy Jane Skinner!

December 20, 2014

Back in 2012 I published a few excerpts from wartime diaries from my collection; amongst them my favourite is a selection belonging to Peggy Jane Skinner, born 90 years ago on 20 December 1924 in Kingston-upon-Thames, Richmond, Surrey.

Several years of research eventually tracked down a death certificate stating that Peggy died in 2011, aged 86.

Peggy Jane Skinner's 1943 diary and a photo believed to be her. Source: Mark Norris, WWZG collection.

Peggy Jane Skinner’s 1943 diary and a photo believed to be her. Source: Mark Norris, WWZG collection.

In 1940 Peggy was a 15 year old Kingston / Richmond schoolgirl living in Glendee Road, Renfrew on the edge of Glasgow and Clydeside, Scotland. She spends her summer with relatives back in Kingston-upon-Thames and Richmond, London. Her father William Ernest Skinner appears to have been working as an “co-ordinating engineer” in wartime Glasgow factories and became a sergeant in the local Home Guard battery (probably anti aircraft guns or rocket batteries protecting Glasgow factories and shipyards).  Originally from a Hartlepool maritime family, her father is described on Peggy’s birth certificate as a cycle agent, a year earlier as a draughtsman. These were skilled jobs and maybe where Peggy got her scientific side from.

By 1941/2 she had made it on a Carnegie Trust Grant and Renfrew Education Authority grant to the University of Glasgow as a wartime science student in botany, radio, astronomy and ‘Natural Philosophy’ (science), again working though her summer in wartime London as a council clerk.

Over the next year or two, we’ll feature a little more about Peggy Skinner’s diaries for 1940, 1943 and 46-49 in later blogposts; eventually part of the 1943 diary section will be added to the Glasgow University Story website and  blog

The 1943 diary is full of interesting detail about being a female student at a wartime university, of her friends attending Daft Friday dances, complaints about catering and problems with wartime transport (by tram or trolleybus) making it to lectures on time.

Together with the 1940 diary, we get many glimpses of the highs and lows, stresses and strains of her school and student life as a civilian on the Home Front in Scotland and London. There is much about clothes rationing, Paisley War Weapons Week 1940, balloon barrages behind her house at Glendee Road in Renfrew,  fundraising for wartime charities, firewatch, canteen work for the war effort as a university  student  after completing her chaotic wartime schooling with schools requisitioned by the military and school windows meshed against bomb blasts, for example:

Friday 6th September 1940: Air Raid Practice yesterday, fire drill today …

Thursday 12th … half day from school as net was being put on windows …

Thursday 24th October … Air raid last night lasted for two hours. It’s the first time that anything’s happened when the siren’s gone. Several bombs dropped in Joyhnstone and round about. An awful lot of noise last night. 

We don’t have a diary for 1941 and the period of the Clydeside Blitz, but she survived and passed her matriculation exams to attend university.

In our 2012 blog post we quoted from her 1943 diaries. Like Churchill with his view that the end of 1942 was the ‘end of the beginning’, Peggy’s  1943 wartime student  diary entries start on a more optimistic note than her (missing) 1942 diary would have done:

Tuesday 2nd     February 1943:                I’m going to bed very late again as I had a bath and once I get in I can never be bothered getting out. The war news has been good now for a month or two, it is the best spell we have had since war began, the only trouble seems to be in Tunisia and it’s not too serious there – yet. It must do the occupied countries a lot of good to hear good news for a change.

Saturday 9th  January 1943:      Very uninteresting day for my last Saturday of holiday.  I would have liked to have gone with mum and dad to see Noel Coward In Which We Serve but I did not like to ask and anyway I’d made up my mind that next term I must work harder (what a hope but I must try) and must try also to enjoy myself more, but how I could do that without going to dances which is impossible, I don’t know.”

When she saw it later, she liked the film, more so than Mrs Miniver:

Wednesday 7th  April 1943  –  I went to pictures by myself this evening to Paisley to see “Mrs Miniver” with Greer Garson  and Walter Pidgeon. As I rather expected I would be I was rather disappointed with it. I’d heard such a lot about it  that I’m doubtful if any picture could come up to standards which were to be expected of a film  of which I’d heard such glowing stories. The little boy in it was awfully good, also the clergyman and Walter Pidgeon and the Young Mrs Miniver but Greer Garson seemed to have an awful fixed grin on her face.

Postwar life

9 November 1943 – Joint Recruiting Board … Had interview this morning, after first two girls had asked for the forces, we were all called in and told that the only option we have is Research or Industry. I did not know for sure which to sy, so said Research. Air Force bloke spent so much time talking to each person that I did not get away till 10.30 and so missed Geography again.”

Graduating in 1944, the  next diary in my collection  picks up Peggy’s story in 1946 working at RAE Farnborough aircraft development factory on Radio and Mica Condensers. As RAE Farnborough was scaled down after the war, she moved to TCC Condensers in Acton (which later became part of Plessey). The TCC  building and firm closed mid 1960s, becoming later a BBC building used for Doctor Who 1970s filming.

Peggy kept regular diaries but we only have a few, covering the next 3 years to 1949. She worked on electronics, condensers and batteries, radio and early television, including visits to Alexandra Palace in its early BBC TV days.

Her diaries are full of technical information on condensers, capacitors, Schering Bridges and Q-Meters. FAST, the RAE Farnborough collection have expressed their interest in the early 1946 sections about life at the Ambarrow hostel and RAE Farnborough as it was changing over into peacetime. Her job at RAE from 1944 onwards on Radio was obviously of support for the war effort; there are wartime TCC Condensers for radio equipment in the Imperial War Museum.

Her late 1940s diaries evoke a London of post-war Austerity, power cuts, strikes, heatwaves, wet Victory Parades and continued rationing shortages, including of clothing. Peggy spends a lot of time ‘mending stockings’ and buying  ‘remnants’ of cloth to make clothes.

Peggy Skinner's patent on batteries, Yardney Corps 1956/60 USA

Peggy Skinner’s patent on batteries, Yardney Corps 1956/60 USA

And after that no more diaries, just a few traces that I’ve found through family history websites. She took out a co-patent on battery developments for Yardney Corp USA /UK in the 1950s /60s. No doubt that Peggy who had a wartime Astronomy and Science BSc Degree from Glasgow would have been delighted to learn 60 years later that modern Yardney Lithion batteries were in use with the Mars Rovers in her lifetime and are still going strong on Mars in 2014.

Peggy Skinner's patent on Lithion batteries, Yardney Corps 1956/60 USA

Peggy Skinner’s patent on Lithion batteries, Yardney Corps 1956/60 USA

Peggy Skinner comes across in her diaries as an inquisitive, spirited but  quite a shy young woman with many friends and  large London family of aunts, uncles and cousins. She never married for some reason; maybe the missing diaries cover lost romances.

Throughout life she was involved with the church, teaching Sunday school (quite reluctantly at times) and as part of the postwar Christian revival crusades of the late 1940s such as the Norbiton Fellowship. She seems to have worshipped at local Anglican churches including St. Peter’s Norbiton for many years. She also appears to have spent much of her later adult life living with or caring for her mother Minnie Letitia Skinner who died in the mid 1970s, sharing a house in Woodfield Gardens, New Malden.

The diaries came into my collection via an online auction  from a house clearance in that area.

So far we have found no surviving relatives either from the Field or Skinner families, including her younger brother Mick / Michael (who died late 1990s?) or cousins Peter and Madge.

In the early raids of 1940, her father considers having her and Mick evacuated overseas (before the SS City of Benares disaster). As the Battle of Britain raged over her home London skies and merged into the Blitz, her family consider asking her cousins Peter and Young Madge up to the apparent safety of Glasgow, only to have bombing raids visit thir area too in 1940 and 1941. By the end of her 1948/9 diaries her brother Mick is doing his National Service.

If Peggy Jane Skinner were still alive, she would be celebrating her 90th Birthday on 20 December 2014. We would love to hear from anyone who knew Peggy Skinner via our comments page.

Wartime Christmas and Birthdays
On her 16th birthday 1940 she records: “Black velvet for frock, jumper, ring and money to buy books were my presents. Half Day for 3rd Years Dance [at School] … Short Air-Raid warning this evening.”

There is little recorded in the way of gifts for Christmas 1940, although being in Scotland there is first footing by neighbours: “Saw New Year in. Mr Buchanan was first foot” (Glasgow, 1 January 1940) and “Mr Read (neighbour) saw the New Year In so this should actually be here” (Glasgow, 1st January 1941).

A rare survival of a cardboard Christmas stocking toy in our World War Zoo gardens collection alongside the excellent Christmas on the Home Front book by Mike Brown

A rare survival of a cardboard Christmas stocking toy in our World War Zoo gardens collection alongside the excellent Christmas on the Home Front book by Mike Brown


The book Christmas on the Home Front by Mike Brown gives a good idea of how tight things were trying to obtain Christmas presents as the war went on. Peggy was hand making bead doll brooch presents for a ‘sale of works’ by the AYPA (Anglican Young People’s Association) at Christmas in 1940. Peggy’s  1946-49 diaries show that things didn’t ease rapidly as she tries to track down suitable gifts for family.

On her 19th birthday like many wartime celebrations gifts were sparse: “a pot of cream from Mrs. Baine … a pixie hood and very cute bookmark from Aunt Madge” and for Christmas equally sparse: “Auntie Madge’s parcel arrived. I got cold-cream and powder from her and a collar from Grandad [Field]. Also received a diary from Eileen Swatton.” Sadly we don’t have this diary for 1944 or 1945.

Close up of a portrait possibly of Peggy Jane Skinner, enclosed in her 1940s diaries. Source: Mark Norris, WWZG collection.

Close up of a portrait possibly of Peggy Jane Skinner, enclosed in her 1940s diaries. Source: Mark Norris, WWZG collection.

If Peggy Jane Skinner were still alive, she would be celebrating her 90th Birthday on 20 December 2014.

We would love to hear from anyone who knew Peggy Jane Skinner via our comments page.

Happy 90th birthday Peggy Jane Skinner, not forgotten!



Our Zoo: Chester Zoo and the drama of zoo history

September 5, 2014

I have been looking forward to watching this autumn BBC’s “Our Zoo” about the  early days of Chester Zoo, with some excellent links to past and future on the Chester Zoo website –

Researching zoo history is often a “Cinderella” subject, many people wondering why it’s worth it (outside of the zoo history enthusiasts of the Bartlett Society – see blogroll links) and rarely makes it to mainstream television!

Back in May 2011 I spent an interesting couple of days tracking down wartime concrete at Chester Zoo, during a zoo history conference. Here is an edited blog post I wrote at the time tracing an intriguing bit of Chester Zoo’s history and on the way discovered four wartime hippos in Budapest.

Mr. Mottershead, founder of Chester Zoo – memorial plaque near Oakfield House, Chester Zoo (Image: World War Zoo gardens project)

May 2011, Chester Zoo: We weren’t sure whether to called this post Zoo Do You Think You Are? (after the BBC TV Family history series), thanks to a quick quip from Richard Gibson at Chester Zoo or maybe  Zoo Do You Think You Are Kidding Mr Hitler? (to the theme tune of Dad’s Army) in view of the wartime concrete, Home Guard and Zoo family history connections I was tracking down.

Family history is big business now on the internet and on television, genealogy being the social or leisure side of genetics. Genetics is now the everyday business of zoo breeding programmes. Looking back at baby photos past for a glimpse of a familiar adult expression or looking at your children for a fleeting recognition of family faces, it’s something we all do over time. Like gardening, it’s probably age-related, primal and territorial. My family, my birth place, my tribe. So why should it be any different for zoos to look back at where they came from? Can we catch a glimpse of the future from a look at their past? This is partly what I’ve been researching through the World War Zoo Gardens project.

Chester Zoo history symposium 20 May 2011 from the SHNH website

What are zoos for? How should zoos work together? Why should zoos keep an archive of past events and what should they do with this material? These were some of the many questions raised by the May 2011 Symposium on Zoo history / Zoo future hosted at Chester Zoo “From Royal Menageries to Biodiversity Conservation” and and  a joint celebration of the work of several societies together. The Bartlett Society (, World Association of Zoos and Aquariums   (WAZA) , Linnaean Society and celebrating its 75th birthday, the Society for the History of Natural History (SHNH) The proceedings or symposium was recently published in 2014. It reflected the World of Zoos and Aquariums as it was attended by delegates from Britain, Ireland, Europe, North America and South East Asia / Australasia.

Only 91 animals remained amongst the ruins of wartime Berlin Zoo by 1945 from an old German / US archive press photo (World War Zoo gardens collection at Newquay Zoo)

Dr. Miklos Persenyi, Director General at Budapest Zoo in Hungary showed some beautiful slides of how the once war ravaged zoo in Hungary has been restored, even the 1960s buildings are being ‘restored’ to match the striking Hungarian Art Nouveau architecture of the early 20th Century. Miklos joked that he is employed by the Budapest Tourist Bureau, as the zoo, botanic garden and ‘cultural centre’ that it has become looks well worth a visit. After my short presentation on wartime zoos which mentioned Berlin Zoo being left with 91 animals after air raids and street fighting, Miklos quietly capped this with his story of the 15 animals left alive at Budapest zoo after the freezing winter months of 1944 when the Zoo and city of Budapest became a besieged town and battlefield between the Germans and the Russians. Amazingly, whilst the local people eat anything they could to survive, four or five of these surviving animals were Hippopotami (or Hippopotamuses). These plant eaters survived in the warm waters of the thermal springs there, alongside a handful of ‘singing birds’. The people of Budapest rebuilt their zoo after the war, whilst bombsites of local buildings and churches near the zoo were unofficially commandeered to grow crops for people and animals Miklos has been involved in the writing of an interesting and beautifully illustrated history of Budapest Zoo, with a version in English well worth tracking down.

This comment by Miklos about the last fifteen animals left in Budapest Zoo and the efforts to rebuild it by gave some important human detail to the broad sweep of zoo history, of different groups and associations which eventually became the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums (EAZA) in a reunified Europe after the Berlin Wall and collapse of Communism / end of the Cold War c. 1989  Equally moving was the long slow progression to today’s World Association of Zoos and Aquariums from its late Victorian beginning in Germany, through wartime disruptions, revolutions  to today’s worldwide organisation “United for Conservation” at last! It was long time coming.

One of the Symposium concerns was the lack of original zoo history research being done into the past life of zoos, as often what we read is simply a regurgitation of the same old sources. The published proceedings (available through Chester Zoo’s marketing department) are a good example of this new research.

Newquay Zoo’s wartime roaming ‘gnome gaurd-ener’ in front of some original wartime concrete pillars with a historic past, Chester Zoo May 2011 (Image: World War Zoo gardens project)

Chester Zoo the conference host is home itself to an interesting wartime story. As part of my World War Zoo gardens project at Newquay Zoo, I have been researching what happened in wartime zoos, with an eye to what lessons we can learn from surviving our wartime past for the management of zoos through future challenges. This work is often hamstrung by the lack of (accessible) archives in many zoos. Not so Chester Zoo which has an excellent and accessible archive, partly scanned and the Chester Zoo News (1930s-1980s) available to buy on CD-Rom from their library!

These magazines must have refreshed memories and dates with lots of detail in June Mottershead’s vividly remembered account Reared in Chester Zoo (written with Janice Madden, Ark Books, 2009) of growing up at Chester Zoo, helping out as it was built by her father and as it struggled to survived through the slump and wartime shortages of the 1930s and 1940s to her marriage to Keeper Fred Williams.

Chester Zoo history timeline banners, Chester Zoo, 2011

This story of George Mottershead and family is well told in banner panels for each decade of the zoo’s 80 years, over near the ‘new’ 1950s Aquarium and the modern Cedar House which houses the library and archive.

My guide for that day in 2011, the then Head of Discovery and Learning archivist Stephen McKeown told me that the concrete pillars of the aquarium were hand-cast by June and Fred, often working into the night by lamplight. So like George Mottershead, they literally did build their zoo by hand. Sadly the original Chester Zoo Aquarist, Yorkshireman Peter Falwasser died of wounds on active service in North Africa, 1942. Before his death, Peter wrote excitedly to Chester Zoo colleagues of all the wildlife and especially fish he was seeing in the Middle East and wondered how to get them back to Chester Zoo. So this new aquarium  in the 1950s was maybe a quiet sort of memorial to ‘gentle’ Peter Falwasser, as June describes him.

In 2013 I received scans from the Chester Zoo archive of letters from and to Peter Falwassser, which I turned into the following blog post, Last Wartime Letters:

Sometimes research does a little back-flip of name recognition in an unexpected place, a little cross-over between themes. Strangely following another wartime gardening lead into 1940s and 50s garden  books linked to Theo Stephens’ little garden magazine, My Garden, I havecome across  a late 1940s garden article that may well have been written by Peter’s older sister Christine Rosetta ( b. 1905, Cawthorne, Yorkshire). She may have been the  C.R. Falwasser, a gardener and writer,  who wrote the article in My Garden’s Bedside Book (1951?)  called “I Swept the Leaves” mentioning “But when you hire yourself during wartime and become part of a staff …” by the 1950s she pops up in the phone book in horticulture at Alltnacree, Connell, Argyll.  Strange coincidence.  I wonder if she would have got on with the Mottershead family of Market Gardeners, including Grandad Albert, Chester Zoo’s first Head Gardener, who fed the animals and people of Chester Zoo in wartime.

Inside June’s Pavilion, Chester Zoo May 2011

A quick trip downstairs to the public toilets in Oakfield House today takes you to the site of the ‘old’ or first wartime Aquarium and air raid shelters for staff,  based in the cellars and former kitchens of Oakfield House. This listed red brick building was the big house or mansion of the estate that became Chester Zoo in the 1930s. It was in poor condition after serving as a VAD convalescent home for officers in the First World War as many such houses did around Europe. This must have had strong associations for Private George Mottershead, who  apparently spent several years recovering after the war in a wheelchair.

Looking at the 1930s map by George Williams inside June’s book, it is still possible to glimpse a little of the original zoo, especially starting from the red brick house and stables block, used extensively for temporary animal houses in the first decade or so. Lion scratches and a small plaque by the stables archway give a clue to what once happened here, the nucleus of what has today grown to become Chester Zoo.

The roar of big cats can still be heard across the path from the old temporary ‘pen’, the site of George Mottershead’s lion enclosure that he started to hand-build in 1937 but was delayed by wartime, only finished in 1947. Scratch marks in the brickwork of the stable block, reputedly made by lions, are marked by a simple plaque.

A link to the Chester Zoo lions of the wartime past – within roar of the present. Chester Zoo Stables and Courtyard gateway, May 2011

The stables and courtyard of the big house of another era are closed to the public but very visible from public walkways, the stables now house the works depot and offices.

History in the Chester area is never far away – usually just inches under your feet. The Romans had a garrison town (Deva) here, into whose near-complete buried amphitheatre in town were dug the air-raid shelters for June’s school. Behind Oakfield House, recreated Roman Gardens and new glasshouses now lie where food was once grown in the kitchen gardens and conservatory area by June’s  ‘ Grandfather’ Albert, George Mottershead’s father.

This glasshouse like those in many zoos was a victim of wartime shrapnel, in this case probably anti-aircraft or ack-ack ‘flak’ from nearby AA guns firing at enemy raiders heading for the towns and ports of the Northwest. Friendly fire like this also killed a Coypu, one of the only direct wartime casualties amongst the animals from enemy action (many other zoo animals like penguins slowly declined from wartime substitute feeding). Here in these vanished glasshouses and kitchen gardens, food was once grown for the mansion and for the early zoo. The Mottersheads were nurserymen and market gardeners, originally in the Sale area. ‘Grandad’ Mottershead working well into old age and through wartime to provide food for his son’s zoo animals.

Three of June’s Mottershead uncles and step-uncles from this gardening family were killed in the First World War, two others on her mother’s side, whilst her father George was so badly wounded on the Somme that it took him years to teach himself to walk again. Albert and Stanley Mottershead’s  names are on the Sale War Memorial, recently researched by George Cogswell and pictured here. This could so easily have been George Mottershead. no George, no Chester Zoo.

George Mottershead in uniform with wife Elizabeth, World War One, one of mnay family photos in the new June’s Pavilion, Chester Zoo

Family photographs of these friendly ghosts can be found in June’s book but also mounted on the walls of the newly opened June’s Pavilion catering area near Oakfield House, next to the Growzone conservatories for today’s Chester Zoo gardeners. Zoos, like armies, march on their stomachs and good food is very important to the human and other animals at the zoo. It is often the make or break of a zoo visit and probably one of the harder things to get right for everyone. I learnt this lesson on day one of zoo management at Newquay Zoo, the afternoon spent with sleeves rolled up and rubber gloves in the sink partly alongside Pete the Ops Manager washing up and KP-ing in the Newquay Zoo café during an afternoon rush and shortage of café staff. So I understand how important June, her sister Muriel, her mother Elizabeth and Grandmother Lucy like all the women in her family were in feeding zoo staff, evacuees and zoo visitors as well as zoo animals before and during the war. [Note: 2014, This is something that comes across strongly in the BBC series Our Zoo broadcast in Autumn 2014 and I interviews with June Williams.]

It is very fitting to have ‘June’s Pavilion’ as not a museum or a memorial but something practical, and fun – a family eating place with family photographs on the wall. George Mottershead in First World war uniform with Elizabeth and baby Muriel, Grandad Mottershead, June and Fred, all look down, alongside many other of the army of Chester Zoo staff of the past, over another generation of zoo visitors tucking in to food before heading off to look and learn about more animals.

Having read June’s account in hindsight and the detailed newsletters month by month during uncertain times gives you chance to relive the early years, month by month, almost to glimpse through the windows of Oakfield House and spot familiar ghosts on the lawn.

Next to Oakfield House beside the lawn in its own small garden stands a small simple memorial plaque to George Mottershead, erected by the zoo members and staff after he died in 1978. George looks out of the photo back towards the stables and the windows of Oakfield House which must have seen so many stories, from the gentry and hunting at the big house to wounded soldiers of his own war, wartime evacuees in the next war, refugee elephants and their mahouts, a place of family weddings and still a venue for an excellent quiet lunch in the panelled dining room.

After the war, things did not become easier straight away. There was still food rationing and materials for building were in short supply.

Round the back of the Europe on the Edge aviary, once the 1940s polar bear enclosure can be seen wartime surplus concrete tank traps built into pillars, a clever bit of wartime / austerity salvage, Chester Zoo, May 2011 (Image: World War Zoo gardens project)

Britain had to feed itself, the displaced millions of Europeand repair huge numbers of bombed factories, schools and houses around the country. A short walk away from Oakfield House, you can still glimpse one of George’s practical bits of post-war salvage. Fred Williams, June’s husband, as Clerk of Works carried on this salvage tradition.

At the rear of what was once built as the Polar Bear enclosure can be seen some at first rather plain and ugly concrete pillars. Ironically now part of the Europe on the Edge Aviary, these pillars started life for a very different purpose – heavy concrete road blocks and tank traps from the desperate days of improvisation by the Army and Home Guard against invasion by the armies of Hitler’s Germany after softening up by Goering’s eagles of the Luftwaffe.

The round shapes of these concrete blocks can be seen clearly in Frith picture postcards featured in a recent zoo postcards book by  Alan Ashby ( These pillars  are an unlikely memorial to a past generation, though thankfully June is still (2011/2014very much with us, still interested in the zoo they built and the recently opened June’s new Pavilion.

Stephen McKeown spoke in 2011 about further ideas for developing family history on the way to our Chester Zoo members talk at the Russell Allen lecture theatre at Chester zoo (named after Maud Russell Allen, an early council member or benefactor in the 1930s and 1940s). Chester are thinking about developing the guided or self-guided history tour – so watch the Chester Zoo website for details [including on the Our Zoo BBC related events].

BBC clip about June at wartime Chester Zoo:

Since 2011, I have been sent by Chester Zoo Archive  the scans of many letters to and from George Mottershead to (the late) ex Cheter Zoo staff member Peter Lowe, who became the first curator and designer of my home zoo, Newquay Zoo, something worth a blog post in future. So George Mottershead surviving the Somme to open his own zoo helped indirectly in the early history of my own zoo at Newquay Zoo.  You can read more about our wartime garden project at Newquay Zoo on our blog, contact me via the comments page or check out our zoo website pages about World War Zoo on

The new World War Zoo gardens sign at Newquay Zoo, 2011

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