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Whipsnade Zoo

The White Lion January 2009
The White Lion January 2009

In 1981 Bedfordshire Library Service produced a sheet with a brief history of Whipsnade Zoo to commemorate its fiftieth anniversary. The piece [Lei/LI/Pu28] reads: “Whipsnade Park was pioneered by one man, the later Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell (1864-1945), Secretary of the Zoological Society of London from 1903 to 1935”.

“As early as 1903 it was proposed that the Society should found a zoological park in the country, to which sick animals from London Zoo could be sent for rest and recuperation. There was also a growing opinion that all animals, inch those from the tropics, thrived better in fresh air and sunshine than in the confine of a heated house, and Sir Peter and his colleagues set out to prove this. They searched for a site of some 200 acres, not more than 70 miles from London, with east access and eventually found a farm on the Dunstable Downs”.

“Work started in 1928, hedging, ditching and clearing of elder from the woods. A well was sunk, a reservoir built and roads were made. Paddocks were reshaped, trees were planted to provide both wind-breaks and shade, and a fox-proof boundary fence was erected. Chalk pits were converted into sheltered, sunny enclosures for lions and tigers and Whipsnade’s famous 140 yard long white lion was carved out on the chalk downs”.

“The Park was now ready to receive its animals. Some were purchased and others were gifts from generous donors. On Whit Sunday, 23rd May 1931 the park was opened to the public. It was an immediate success and visitors came in thousands”.

making the new road for Whipsnade Zoo in 1931 [Z55/5/511]
Making the new road for Whipsnade Zoo in 1931 [Z55/5/511]

Along with hedging, ditching, water supply and road building a less obvious activity was stopping up the various footpaths which crossed the new zoo. A book of reference to the act enabling the zoo to establish itself at Whipsnade [CCS54/3] lists three rights of way in Eaton Bray, eight in Studham and one in Whipsnade which were all stopped up.

The Guide to Whipsnade Zoological Park by the aforementioned Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell was issued in 1931 [Z402/12/3] in time for the park’s opening (price sixpence). The introduction notes: “The [Zoological] Society [of London] was a century old when in bought Whipsnade Park … It will be content, if at the second centenary, in 2029, its wise foresight will be applauded … Ultimately, it is hoped, every wild plant, tree, shrub or flower native to the chalk downs, upland pastures and rough woodland, will flourish; every British wild bird, resident or migrant, that the district suits, will find itself in sanctuary, and the animals which have been introduced from other countries will live and breed in almost natural freedom, separated from the visitors not be visible bars and fences, but by ditches which do not offend the eye, and with concealed shelters, warmed where necessary by electric heaters. When the estate was bought, it was a farm in not very good order”.

The guide lists the animals on display as follows:

Antelopes

  • Blackbuck from India;
  • Eland from Africa;
  • Nylghaie from India.

Bears

  • Brown Bears from Europe;
  • Himalayan Black Bears;
  • Sloth Bears from India and Sri Lanka

Black Swans from Australia

Brush-Turkey from Australia

Camels

  • Alpacas from South America.
  • Arabian Camels;
  • Bactrian Camels;
  • Llamas from South America.

Cattle

  • American Bison;
  • Chartley White Park Cattle from England;
  • European Bison;
  • Highland Cattle from Scotland;
  • Yak from Asia

Cranes

  • Demoiselle Cranes from Southern Europe;
  • Manchurian Cranes;
  • Sarus Cranes from Asia;
  • Stanley Cranes from South Africa

Deer

  • Axis Deer from India and Sri Lanka;
  • Chinese Water Deer;
  • Fallow Deer from North Africa;
  • Muntjac from Asia;
  • Pudu Deer from Chile;
  • Red Deer from Britain;
  • Swamp Deer from India

Elephants from India

Emus from Australia

Flamingos from Europe

Frogs

Geese

  • Canada Geese;
  • Cape Barren Geese from Australia;
  • Spur-winged Geese from Africa;
  • Upland Geese from the Falkland Islands

Horses etc.

  • Kiang or Tibetan Wild Asses;
  • Mongolian Wild Horse;
  • Tarpan from Asia;
  • Przewalski’s Wild Horse from Asia;
  • Shetland Ponies;
  • Zebras from Africa

Kangaroos and Wallabies from Australia

Lions from Africa

Lizards

Marmots from North America

Newts

Ostrich from Africa

Paradise Ducks from New Zealand

Peafowl from Asia

Pheasants

  • Amherst Pheasants from China;
  • Common Pheasants from Europe;
  • Crimson-horned Tragopans from Asia;
  • Gold Pheasants from Asia;
  • Indian Monauls

Rheas from South America

Salamanders

Screamers (birds the size of geese) from South America

Sheep and Goats

  • Barbary Wild Sheep from North Africa;
  • Moufflon from Corsica and Sardinia

Slow Worms from Europe

Toads

Turkeys from North America

Wolves from Europe

Woodchuck from North America

The famous white lion chalk-cut figure of the white lion - emblem of Zoological society of London, was begun in November 1931. It was designed by R. B. Brook Greaves and took eighteen months to finish. "The dimensions of the lion from the nose to the end of the tail is 480 feet; the depth of body is 122 feet, length of front and hind legs 103 feet and 145 feet respectively, the tail is 13 feet wide and 205 feet long". There was some talk of painting or turfing it over during World War Two as it was felt to be too good a landmark for German bombers but in the end it was left as it was felt that the long, straight Watling Street was just as good a landmark about which nothing could be done. Until 1985 it was, along with much of the zoo itself, in the parish of Studham but zoo and figure were then transferred into Whipsnade.

The Bedfordshire Library Service 50th anniversary sheet [Lei/LI/Pu28] notes the success of the zoo: “The advantages of keeping many mammals in groups, herds, packs or prides means that provided interference is kept to a minimum, breeding and, more importantly, rearing will be successfully achieved. Today, nearly 9 out of every 10 mammals and 6 out of every 10 birds will have been born in captivity, mainly at Whipsnade. Many UK “first” captive breedings have been recorded at Whipsnade, for example snow leopard 1960, cheetah 1967 and white rhinoceros in 1971. Although the list if firsts is impressive it is more important that continuity in captive breeding is maintained. No new stock has been added, for example, to the following herds since the dates mentioned – timber wolf pack (1952), Thomson gazelles (1954) and American bison (1954)”.

It is a little known fact that the zoo contains two listed buildings, both listed in September 1988 as Grade II*, more important buildings of special interest. The elephant house, dating from 1935. It was designed by the firm of Lubetkin and Tecton and is built from reinforced concrete. The other is a bungalow built between 1933 and 1936. It was designed by Lubetkin and Tecton’s Berthold Lubetkin and, again, uses reinforced concrete. It has one storey and a flat roof composed of thermalite panels. The listing explains: “One of two bungalows designed as a pair by Lubetkin, the other intended for his own use and also listed grade II*. The two buildings are the only private houses designed by Lubetkin himself, rather than by the junior partners of Tecton, and - though very small - encompass many of the ideas of free planning and the opening up of facades to admit greater areas of light found in his later, larger works, such as Highpoint II and the Finsbury Health Centre in London, themselves listed in high grades. The small weekend house, appearing to float over the landscape because of its recessed plinth, was also to be extremely influential in the post-war period when Lubetkin's ideas of concrete framing were more widely adopted. The idiom itself, of a weekend house in a beautiful setting, owes much to Lubetkin's experience in his native Russia”.