Posts Tagged ‘Our Zoo’

George Mottershead’s trip from “Our Zoo” at Chester Zoo to Newquay Zoo …

October 9, 2014

GM PL letters 6Series 1 of “Our Zoo” has come to a close with episode 6  leaving us all wondering whether the Mottershead family can  convince a visiting inspector to overturn the council ban on the fledgling Chester  Zoo. An inspection of the zoo is held but the final decision could take weeks – can the Mottershead family hang on and will there be life after Oakfield House?

If you miss it on BBC I player, the DVD is due soon – and leaves me hanging on for the wartime section which will surely come in future series.

OurZoo (October 2014) the latest version of June Mottershead's memoirs.

Our Zoo (October 2014) the latest version of June Mottershead’s memoirs.

I’ve written several previous blogposts about Chester Zoo’s wartime history. A story that not many know  is how an elderly George Mottershead in his last decade (he died of a stroke in 1978) helped and advised one of his ex-keeping staff, the late Peter Lowe to  design and partly stock my home zoo of Newquay Zoo in 1968/69. George’s correspondence with Peter Lowe into the early 1970s  has been kindly  scanned by Chester’s archive team to help us piece together our Zoo’s early history, ready for our 50th anniversary in 2019.

When someone asks why it’s worth the  bother  my hoarding and tracking down  old photos, record cards and the paraphernalia of our zoo history, I can mention the simple answer: prime time BBC 1.

GM PL letters 1

Letter by Newquay Zoo Curator Peter Lowe to his old boss George Mottershead at Chester Zoo, 12 June 1969

Peter Lowe and the Newquay Council  sent condolences to George on the death of his wife Lizzie Mottershead in 1969. They had been writing to each other about Newquay Zoo since early 1968. In the letters he asks after June Mottershead – the young June of “Our Zoo” – and her husband Fred Williams, both people that he would have known whilst on the Chester Zoo staff.

By 1969 the real cast of “Our Zoo” was thinning – Muriel had now emigrated to New Zealand, one of Lizzie Mottershead’s uncles (merged into one character in the TV series) Robert Atkinson had died fighting in WW2 and Grandma Lucy passed away in 1945. Mottershead’s aristocratic patrons and friends were still strongly supporting Chester, such as the ‘Duchess’ or ‘Sally’ (the Duchess of Westminster) who came down to see and keep in touch with Peter Lowe in Cornwall in August 1971.

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

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

There follows two years of regular correspondence with George Mottershead, trips by Newquay Council staff to Chester and Bristol Zoo and the successful opening of Newquay Zoo on Whit Monday  26 May 1969. There are some interesting letters arranging for  Mr Mottershead to visit Newquay  Zoo in October 1971, staying at the Kilbirnie Hotel (like Newquay Zoo, still open 40 years later).

GM PL letters 3

George Mottershead to Peter Lowe and family, 21/10/71

Miss Howard (Nancy) was George’s secretary and travelling companion on trips to Newquay and American zoos  in his later years. It is to her organisation partly that we owe the survival of this amazing cache of decades of George’s correspondence.

Sadly these all appear to be carbon copies of George’s letters to Peter, so we don’t have signed letters from George but he was obviously a very busy man into his eighties.

GM PL letters 5

The letters run from 1968 to 1971, finishing just after George Mottershead’s visit. It is interesting to read George’s comments on the fledgling Newquay Zoo and the worries of its first Curator Peter Lowe. George speaks with the reassuring wisdom of someone who has built his own zoo, often against criticism or local lack of faith in its future. In several places George with his long experience “strongly advises” against certain ideas. However George in another letter reassures Peter (and by extension the Newquay Urban District Council) that the Zoo’s first few weeks attendance of 15,322 was not too bad, considering the fine weather that saw people head to the beach, not pay the 3/6d adult and 1/6d child rate to see the zoo.A council car parking charge of 2/0d – two shillings – was causing complaint even then.

I don’t think your attendance of 15,322 is too bad for something which has just opened. Why do people want to be right in the top rank as soon as they start. Everything has to grow! When I first came to Chester we didn’t have anything like that in the first twelve months.” George Mottershead to Peter Lowe, 20/6/69

“In a month’s time we shall have been open for 12 months and have had 152,507 visitors through the gates to date”. Peter Lowe to George Mottershead, 27/4/70

This is still not too bad an annual  attendance for us today!

George’s zoo at Chester survived the recession of the 1930s and the difficult wartime years. The early days of Newquay were not without problems. Electricity blackouts, postal strikes and industrial action are mentioned, a glimpse of what was to come throughout the 1970s.

It is good to think that George got to finally walk round our zoo, taking in what Peter Lowe and his colleagues and council staff had achieved.

If you walk round Newquay today, you can still see the ‘bone structure’ of our 1969 zoo that George and Peter discussed in their letters. The  old lion and leopard houses are still standing, along with the bear enclosure,  long converted to other uses and more  suitable animals. Within a few years, these older houses will come down to make way for new enclosures;  I’m sure George would approve, his motto for Chester Zoo being “Always Building!” and that the zoo that Peter and George built is looking towards its 50th anniversary and future task of conservation and education.

Rare 'Yaki' Sulawesi Macaque monkey at Newquay Zoo enjoying fresh broad bean pods, summer 2010. (Picture: Jackie Noble, Newquay Zoo)

Critically Endangered  ‘Yaki’ Sulawesi Macaque monkey at Newquay Zoo, a group with females on breeding loan from Chester Zoo, enjoying fresh broad bean pods from our wartime allotment, summer 2010; this enclosure housed bears from 1969 to c. 1994 (Picture: Jackie Noble, Newquay Zoo)

The Chester and Newquay zoo links are still strong. An education centre and service was written about in 1970; we now teach thousands of local school children and hundreds of HE students on zoology degree programmes based next door  at Cornwall College Newquay. We have several families of endangered animals here at Newquay Zoo on breeding loan or descended from Chester Zoo animals – Humboldt penguins, critically endangered Sulawesi Macaque monkeys – as part of modern studbooks and conservation breeding programmes through BIAZA and EAZA to which Chester and Newquay both belong. George Mottershead and Chester Zoo was  part of the early Zoo Federation in the 1960s which became BIAZA in 2005.

There is more about the early years of the Zoo on our Wikipedia timeline.

The Bison enclosure on the hill outside the zoo – an advert for the Zoo’s presence in the valley –   that once  housed ex-Chester Bison Fred and Freda is now gone, probably by 1973. There are many letters discussing its construction and obtaining the Chester stock.  It is now part of the surrounding fields and crazy golf course.

I never met George Mottershead as he died whilst I was a child. I was lucky enough to meet Peter Lowe and his wife on a rare visit back to Newquay Zoo, shortly before our 35th or 40th birthday. He had with him a large battered sketch plan of the zoo that he had to rapidly sketch out when the Council appointed him to run the zoo. I had no way of copying it at the time and sadly Peter Lowe, like George Mottershead,  has now passed away.

bison record card

One of our surviving stock cards from Newquay Zoo, regarding the Bison that came from Chester Zoo. The female was supposed to be a straight swap for a llama which sadly died of ‘pulpy kidney’ before this could occur in 1971. Money changed hands for animals then in a way it doesn’t now in a modern zoo.

Chester Zoo has made much of its history, with an archive, timeline, tours, a website, and of course the TV series.This is something that we at Newquay and many zoos could learn much from. If anyone has any other archive photos, film or memories, we would love to hear from you at ‘our  zoo’ at Newquay to expand our archive. Contact us via our website.

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)

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)

George Mottershead, Peter Lowe and our World War Zoo Gardens wartime allotment project share a strange wartime ‘make do and mend’ spirit of improvisation that sees a thread or link from our zoo today, our 1960s zoo origins and George Mottershead who was nearly killed on the Somme and nursed his zoo through wartime and postwar challenges. Had George Mottershead been killed or paralysed, maybe Newquay Zoo might not be here today – at least in the same shape or form – if Chester Zoo had never been built. One feels the same ‘what if?’ story about Paignton Zoo, Herbert Whitley and his family experiences in WW1. We have much to be thankful for, especially to men like George Mottershead.

As we work towards our 50th anniversary in 2019, I will scan onto and blog post about some of the early Newquay guidebooks and record cards that have survived or been acquired for our archive, one not as well filed as Miss Howard’s neat Chester Zoo correspondence files.

There are many more interesting snippets to type up and explore of what might have been at Newquay – second thoughts considering housing a baby elephant, strongly advising against whether wolves would be suitable alongside leopards or the noise affect neighbouring houses, whether staying open till 10 pm was sustainable in the summer months. A Zoological Society of Cornwall to run the zoo was hinted at, to relieve the financial pressure on the Council funds and taxpayers; this never happened but many years later, Newquay is now run as part of the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust charity.

Newquay 70s guidebook cover

The cover of the first Newquay Zoo Guidebook from the early 1970s – c. 1974

I’m not sure the early days of Newquay Zoo are quite dramatic enough for a screenplay, although we were established in the Apollo Moon Landing Year of 1969, built as the swinging 60s became riotous, when Newquay had Magical Mystery Tours from The Beatles, early surfers on real waves not in cyberspace, all Pure Heartbeat / The Royal  1960s nostalgia period stuff. The few photographs we have of the staff, visitors and builders’  haircuts and clothes alone are worth a series in themselves …

newquay penguins

Great hair and Humboldt penguins, where our meerkats now roam. Newquay Zoo postcard and photograph in our guide book c. 1974

So Newquay Zoo staff and visitors, past and present, owe a small debt to George Mottershead and his “Our Zoo” family. Thanks, George!

I hope you enjoyed  the “Our Zoo” series, the website coverage on the BBC and Chester Zoo website (including a Chester Zoo YouTube website) and June’s books Our Zoo or its predecessor Reared in Chester Zoo, if you can track a copy down. Happy reading, happy viewing and of course, happy gardening!

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


Reared in Chester Zoo: Reading more about the Chester “Our Zoo” story

October 2, 2014

For the many zoo visitors I’ve spoken to in the last few weeks whilst doing our daily animal talks at Newquay Zoo, quite often the BBC’s series of “Our Zoo” about the early days of Chester Zoo is mentioned.

Those that know of my wartime garden project or interest in wartime zoos and botanic gardens often ask what I think of it and how accurate it is. Until the new book “Our Zoo” by June Mottershead comes out in October 2014, alongside the BBC Series 1 DVD, I direct people to track down a copy of “Reared in Chester Zoo, the Story of June Mottershead” written by June with Janice Batten (published by Ark Books, 2008).

OurZoo (October 2014) the latest version of June Mottershead's memoirs.

OurZoo (October 2014) the latest version of June Mottershead’s memoirs.

Within the 2008 book are many of the wonderful photographs glimpsed in the “Our Zoo” title sequences. You should be able to find copies easily enough online.  June’s earlier book about Chester Zoo, “Zoo Without Bars” (by June Williams, her married name) is now out of print and only available from  secondhand bookshops.

Tucked inside my well read copy, I keep the CD-Rom of scans of the surviving Chester Zoo Newsletters, written by the Mottershead family, dating back to the earliest days of “Our Zoo” in the 1930s (available from Chester Zoo’s library /archive) , which have given such incredible detail to the book. For me this is superb  month by month detail to help understand how the zoo struggled and survived the 1930s and the wartime 1940s. With the speed that the first series of “Our Zoo” is going through the early 1930s section, no doubt this wartime  section will be in “Our Zoo” Series 2, which I hope is in the BBC pipeline …

(BBC staff please note:  I have my own tin hat, spade, stirrup pump and ARP uniform from our wartime zoo schools workshops if the BBC want any 1940s  extras  🙂

I’ve written previous blogposts about Chester Zoo’s wartime history. A story that not many know (and so a  blog post to save  for another day) is how an elderly George Mottershead in his last decade (he died in 1978) helped and advised one of his ex-keeping staff, the late Peter Lowe to  design and partly stock my home zoo of Newquay Zoo in 1968/69. George’s correspondence with Peter Lowe into the early 1970s  has been kindly  scanned by  Chester’s archive team to help us piece together our Zoo’s early history, ready for our 50th anniversary in 2019.

So the next time someone asks why it’s worth the  bother  my hoarding and tracking down  old photos, record cards and the paraphernalia of our zoo history, I can mention the simple answer: prime time BBC 1.

I hope you enjoy the rest of the “Our Zoo” series, the website coverage on the BBC and Chester Zoo website  and the book Reared in Chester Zoo, if you can track a copy down. Happy reading, happy viewing and of course, happy gardening!

I’m off soon to Kew Gardens on 20th October 2014  to deliver an evening talk at 6pm (open to the public) as part of the annual Kew Mutual Improvement Society KMIS session talks, all  about how  zoos and botanic gardens survived wartime,  where no doubt Chester’s canny George Mottershead and wartime surplus concrete will be mentioned. See Kew’s website  for details.

Reared in Chester Zoorearedinchesterzooback

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

Last wartime letters of Peter Falwasser, Chester Zoo aquarist 1916 -1942

February 7, 2013

Arriving at the office in Oakfield House in Chester Zoo  70 years ago this week, the first week of February 1943, the wartime postman (or more likely postwoman) carried  some sad news.  One letter was  postmarked Manchester 31 Jan 1943 (about the time and date that I draft this blog 70 years on) and stamped with an attractive orange  2d and green 1/2d stamp bearing the portrait of the Queen’s father George VIth. Within was a short handwritten letter on one piece of paper:

“I feel sure that you will be sorry to hear of the death of my brother, Peter Felix Falwasser, whilst on active service in the Middle East. He died in hospital on December 23rd as the result, no  doubt of  the serious injuries he had received at Tobruk a long time ago. Subsequently he had operation but he seemed to have made a good recovery. He had for some time been on base duties at GHQ, so that his death, when seeming to be comparatively safe, comes as a severe blow…” (letter by John F Falwasser to the Mottershead, 30/1/43, Chester Zoo Archive).

Selection from letter 27 March 1941 reprinted in Chester Zoo Archive Zoo News, 1942/3

Selection from letter 27 March 1941 reprinted in Chester Zoo Archive Zoo News, 1942/3

This letter is filed away in  the archive of Chester Zoo  amongst hundreds  of letters to and from its enterprising founder George  Mottershead, saved  by the zoo and his daughter June over many decades.

Among this archive has recently come to light a small batch of four poignant letters written by or about  the zoo’s early aquarist in the 1940s, Peter Falwasser.

 “Possibly you had heard from him””, John Falwasser’s letter continues, “but in any event you will like to know that his interests in wildlife and nature were most helpful to him while on Active Service & during a recent leave to Palestine.”

Peter was a 26 year old ‘bomb casualty’ of the desert war, buried in a trench during an attack by a German dive bomberat Tobruk. He lost two of his mates who died from their injuries, lost the hearing in his right ear and received back and chest injuries which put him in the 63rd General Hospital hospital in Egypt for four months. In the same letter (opposite), he describes the wildlife he’d seen. He went back on active service to his regiment in 1942. Gunner P.F. Falwasser, 952126, (Rocket Troop, B/O Battery) 1st Regiment Royal Artillery, Middle East Forces  is buried in a Commonwealth War Graves Commission hospital-linked cemetery at Heliopolis, near Cairo in Egypt.  A photograph taken by the Rogers family of Peter’s grave in Egypt can be seen online at the excellent website of the  The War Graves Photographic Project.  

Peter had written three other surviving letters, one of which was already part published in the Chester Zoo News, all about the wonderful range of fish, birds and other wildlife he hoped to bring back to Chester Zoo after the war. Peter’s last letter to the zoo arrived in the same post as the one from his brother, announcing his death. These letters are a gift to a zoo historian studying wartime conditions in zoos, full of his questions home which prompt other questions 70 years later:

“I often wonder how the zoo is jogging along and whether attendances are keeping up. Rationing of foods must be making things very difficult for you. Since I have been abroad I have twice visited the Cairo Zoo …” (Undated letter to George Mottershead by Peter Falwasser, 1941? 1942? Chester Zoo Archive)

” I often wonder how things have been going on at the Zoo especially through a wartime winter? The only news I have of your activities was a small newspaper cutting sent by my sister concerning the removal of certain animals from Bristol Zoo to Chester Zoo for the war’s duration. This I took as a good sign that the Zoo was still flourishing & I hope it continues to do so … Raids on Liverpool have given me some qualms as to the safety of the zoo  … .” (Letter to George Mottershead by Peter Falwasser, 27 May 1941 falwasser 2, Chester Zoo Archive)

Chester Zoo and its ‘new’ aquarium continues to flourish, 70 years on, in its own way a fitting testament and memorial to the memory and hard work of ‘Mr Mott’, his daughter June and keepers like ‘gentle Peter’ Falwasser (as June describes him in her memoir Reared in Chester Zoo)

“I was very pleased indeed to hear that you have had a record season and really wonder how you have managed it. I’m afraid that any other man would have given in long ago … I should be interested to know what staff you have now and what you have lost in the way of the parrots … as seed became scarcer and more expensive …  I am sorry that Chester Zoo’s aquarium had had to be neglected owing to lack of interest  on the part of the staff. What have you got left and are you still using all the tanks?” (Letter to George Mottershead by Peter Falwasser, 10/11/42, Chester Zoo Archive).

This letter is likely to be his last letter, the one mentioned in Chester Zoo News (all of which newsletters are scanned an available on Cd disk from Chester Zoo’s library). With this last letter is Peter’s photograph of a lion from Tel Aviv Zoo, Palestine, dated 19th Oct 1942.

Peter knew the  Chester Zoo aquarium that he and the young schoolgirl June Mottershead created in the basement of Oakfield House was not faring well. This happened to many wartime aquariums, big and small. Oakfield House is still open for dining and conferences,  part of the attractive gardens of Chester Zoo. As a result  I have spent  several convivial meals and evenings during zoo conferences  below the ground floor there, little knowing what hopes of a fine wartime fish collection and of a zoo career after the war were frustrated by Peter’s  death. His letters were full of plans for the new aquarium after the war, and notes on species to stock:

“If things come out OK after the War, you must build a good reptile house in place of the old greenhouse and as time goes on a Sea Lion Pool as I feel that both would be good attractions; they only have a couple of Sea Lions at Cairo but there is usually as big a crowd there as anywhere. They charge each person 1 pt (two and a half old pence) to throw one fish into the pool, quite a good money maker.”  (Letter to George Mottershead by Peter Falwasser, 10/11/42, Chester Zoo Archive).

At my home zoo at Newquay, where the World  War Zoo Gardens project is run from, we fundraise in the main season in much the same way by selling sprat fish to visitors to feed our Humboldt’s Penguins during keeper talks.  Newquay Zoo Has Chester Zoo links in that Peter Lowe an ex- Chester keeper designed and ran the zoo  including its penguin pool in 1969 with advice from George Mottershead. Many years later Chester-born penguin chicks came to reinforce our breeding programme.

The  two and a half pence a fish  in 1942 has now gone up to 50p a fish today! Peter Falwasser would be pleased to see how Chester Zoo has grown to become an active breeding centre of endangered species, including fish. A Sea Lion pool was built after the war and there are several impressive reptile areas, including Komodo dragon lizards. “Lizards abound everywhere in the desert …” , he wrote in his May 1941 letter. Few could have foreseen in 1942 the need for  Chester Zoo’s new Act Now! conservation projects for endangered wildlife.

Is there a photograph of Peter Falwasser anywhere in a family album? I am currently researching a little more about Barnsley born Peter Falwasser’s family history.You can see my growing Falwasser family tree based  on research in several other family trees on His solicitor father John Felix Falwasser of Cawthorne Lane, Kexborough nr. Barnsley in Yorkshire (1870-1940) and mother Mary Annie (nee Cousins, 1870-1932) appear to be dead by the time Peter joined the Army.

Peter was the youngest of eight children, two of whom died very young (Ione, 1900-1915 and daphne 1909-1912). John Frederick Falwasser, his older brother (b. 1902) had the sad task of dealing with Probate and Peter’s Will, along with help from his unmarried older sister Christine (b.1905). Peter  mentions wartime letters from his sister(s) as he had several other siblings Theodore (1903-1979), Angela (1907-1999) and Katherine (b. 1912) who would long outlive him.

In a recent Chester Zoo blog post  update in September 2014 to link with the BBC series Our Zoo, there is more information about Peter’s older sister Christine Rossetta Falwasser who was a gardener and writer.

I will update the blog as I find out more about Peter and other zoo keepers and botanic garden staff  who served in wartime.

All the Falwasser letters are quoted from with the permission / copyright of the Chester Zoo Archive.

%d bloggers like this: