Imagine for a moment, that you are taking a relaxing walk on The Common. You are wandering along, minding your own business, when suddenly out of nowhere, you’re shocked by the sound of a trumpeting elephant, let loose in the grounds!
Sound far-fetched? Well, if you cast your mind back thirty years, it wouldn’t be all that far from the truth…
Between 1961 and 1985, in the houses surrounding the area, intermittent growls, roars and squawks could be heard echoing from inside the park. For, tucked away in a corner of The Common, on the site of a bombed eighteenth century cottage, could be found ‘Southampton Zoological Gardens’, home to a plethora of exotic birds and beasts from around the world.
For an entrance fee of just 10p, you could spend an afternoon visiting an exciting host of different species, including elephants, penguins, giraffes, sea lions, chimpanzees, rhinos, lions and tigers and even, at one time, a polar bear, oh my!
Dubbed ‘the intimate and friendly zoo of the South’, this was no ordinary zoo. Its proprietor was none other than Jimmy Chipperfield, a self-professed ‘showman with a circus background’, well known for his place in the Chipperfield Circus family, and later, for his role in establishing Longleat Safari Park. Scorning the design of conventional zoos, he prided himself on reducing the division between animals and humans to a minimum.
‘The paddocks,’ he says in the old guidebook, ‘are designed to give the visitor an opportunity to get as close as is practicable, and most of the animals can be hand fed.’
These innovative methods were sometimes a subject of controversy. Some believed that the low, open enclosures were to blame when one of the elephants managed to escape from his pen one night and roam around The Common for a while before being apprehended. And in the late ’70s, after the mysteriously sudden death of an elephant, a post-mortem found a carrier bag in its stomach, allegedly fed to it over the railings by a member of the public.
But to the excitable young visitors, this interaction with the animals was crucial to the unique and memorable experience the zoo offered. Paul Robinson, who regularly visited the zoo as a child, remembers, ‘We used to reach across to feed the elephants, and our fingers would get sucked up their trunk!’
And Ian Knight says, ‘I’ve early memories of either a camel or giraffe reaching over and nibbling on my Mum’s handbag!’
It doesn’t take very much digging to find a wealth of nostalgia for the place. Any long-time Southampton resident, or parent who grew up here, is likely to have some recollection of childhood visits.
Helen Lafford has fond memories of visiting the zoo with her grandmother.
‘We used to take a picnic tea, and we could hear the civic centre bells as we sat eating it on the Common. In the children’s part of the zoo, there were tortoises and guinea pigs.’
She adds, ‘there were chimpanzee tea parties every afternoon, which were hilarious. The chimps drank tea and generally misbehaved!’
This throwback to Chipperfield’s circus past seems to have been a highlight for many children. One chimp in particular seems to have left a lasting impression.
‘James was the main attraction’, says Paul. ‘He liked imitating visitors. As young boys we loved pretending to pick our nose and watching him do it back!’
As history has it, James would also smoke the cigarettes of visitors, gesturing at them for a fag and then chucking their lighter back to them. He was also partial to jam sandwiches.
The chimps were trained by Jimmy’s daughter, Mary Chipperfield, who used Southampton Zoo as a base for taming a variety of wild animals for roles in films and the family circus show. She also hand-reared rescued and baby animals and allowed them to live with her in the bungalow at the centre of the site. A film that shows Mary training and playing with her animals at the zoo can be seen on the British Pathé database.
But, despite all the golden remembrances of performing monkeys and giraffes fed with popcorn, memories of the zoo are not unequivocally positive. Some remember it simply as ‘rather tatty and run down’. Others haven’t been able to look at it the same way since Mary Chipperfield was convicted of 12 accounts of animal cruelty in 1998. While these convictions were related to her work with the circus rather than the zoo, for some, memory of the zoo has been tarnished by association.
And the living conditions in the zoo itself appear to have been far from ideal. The big cats, in particular, were kept in overly confined spaces. Paul says that, ‘looking back, the cages were very small’.
A map of the site shows how many different species were fitted into a space of just a couple of acres.
In the ‘80s the living conditions and welfare of the animals, as well as the lack of facilities for the public, gradually became a cause for concern. Without the money to adhere to new changes in zoo legislation, Southampton Zoo finally closed in 1985, to the dismay of many Southampton residents.
Soon after its closure, the Council approved plans to develop the site into the ‘Hawthorns Urban Wildlife Centre’ that still remains today. The centre is enclosed within the boundaries of the old zoo, but little of the original grounds still remain.
Regardless of the Chipperfield controversy, and the decline of the zoo in its later years,
Southampton Zoo retains a special place in the memories of those awed children who visited all those years ago.
So, next time you visit The Common, just think, you may well be stepping the path that an escaped elephant once trod…