Did You Know: Southampton Used to Have a Zoo?

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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!

'The intimate and friendly zoo of the South'
‘The intimate and friendly zoo of the South’

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.

In the children’s part of the zoo, there were tortoises and guinea pigs.’
In the children’s part of the zoo, there were tortoises and guinea pigs.’ Photography courtesy of Brian Robinson

 

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.

The general public enjoying the delights of the Zoo. Photograph courtesy of Hawthorne Wildlife Centre
The general public enjoying the delights of the Zoo. Photograph courtesy of Hawthorne Wildlife Centre

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.

Then and Now: Hawthorns Urban Wildlife Centre

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…

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Discussion21 Comments

  1. avatar

    I heard when the zoo closed up they decided to emigrate to Canada and took the animals with them, but whilst travelling their cargo ship crashed killing all but one kid and a tiger.

    Brian in Kent
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    The Chipperfields never emigrated to Canada. They went on to form The Lions of Longleat.

    Disco dave
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    And I spose they ended up living the life of pi-ley

  2. avatar

    My Mum went to Soton in the late 70s. After renting a house on the edge of the common and walking across it late at night in her first week, she heard a lion roaring. Needless to say, she thought she was cracking up.

  3. avatar

    I remember when it was feeding time for the adult male chimp named James, because he was addicted to cigarettes, his keeper used to give him one after each of his meals. The elephant that died did so after falling into the dry moat surrounding his run. I also have 2 items of memorabilia that my wife and I bought at the zoo on one of our visits. One is of a little brown bear on a plinth. This stands about 2 inches high. The second is a melamine dish with the head of a lion.

    teresa smytherman
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    I remember the story about that poor elephant.

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    teresa smytherman

    I remember the lovely little zoo and as you said it was so funny hearing the squarks from the birds and elephants from the middle of the common.It was our sunday afternoon treat after a paddle in the paddling pool.

    Elliemj
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    I remember the zoo it was nice to see the animals but the ground was co create and not very nice for them and to small a space for each of them to live in

  5. avatar

    My wife wouldn’t believe me that there was once a zoo on the common, so thank you for this reminder. It has certainly brought back some fantastic memories for me growing up as a child.

  6. avatar

    Spent many days here growing up in 70s I remember as a child the sad look on elephant in a concrete small pen and the tigers passing up and down not realizing it was so cruel I also remember the 2 otters looking back I did have good memories but when adult those memories are tarred as the zoo was so inadequate for the poor animals .

  7. avatar

    I worked at the zoo from from about 1965 – 1970. Mary Chipperfield did not live there then. James the Chimp was actually a very dangerous animal and escaped one day. Mr Chipperfield was about the only person who could handle James and was caught in the public toilets on the edge of the common after causing some damage. That was such a great time in my life but the work was very long hours, physical and very smelly!

    annette
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    Hello Barbara
    I was friends with the daughter for a while I think her name was Mary. We used to ride her horse through the common at night when she was giving me a ride home, I lived on Livingston Rd. Do you remember anything about me or my time at the zoo. I also used to work there I was a about 11 or 12. I with my family moved to Canada in 1966.

    eileen
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    hello annette i also worked at the zoo and i think the other daughter was called margret .i often rode the pony over the common for excersize.i loved working there but the condition the animals were kept in were not good.i worked with a girl called hazel but left in 1966.i loved the work even in the winter when the hours were shorter.mary chipperfield was not the sort of person i could work under,im sorry to say i do not remember you but you will know the rest of the family were lovely. eileen.

    David
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    I too worked at the zoo – I think Barbara will remember me – and her friend Pauline. I went to Africa on two occasions game catching for the Chipperfields. While, in retrospect, conditions could have been better for the ‘exhibits’ (there was no attempt at conservation or breeding) I feel that the staff cared a great deal and while most animals became ‘conditioned’ within captivity they were well fed, clean and comfortable. Richard Chipperfield was killed in an accident in Uganda, Jimmy and Rose Chipperfield and their daughter Mary have now passed away and John and Margaret are still about (judging by my internet search).

  8. avatar

    I worked at chipperfields winter quarters at Nether Wallop as a plumber and did lots of work in the zoo when it was built , Mr Stokes was gateman for Chipperfields at Wallop and i think he went on to work at the zoo , Jimmy Chipprfields mother had a real travelers caravan at wallop all polished wood and glass , the first few days of opening at the zoo was very hectic and crowded . i was apprenticed as a plumber to PEJ .Mouland at Nether Wallop

  9. avatar

    I was on my way to Australia as a emigrant in 1972 and the Taxi we had hired for the day stopped off at the Zoo, it has been a long remembered very happy memory and I was so pleased to find your write up I thought that time was playing tricks with my memory but you fixed it and Southampton Zoo will live on in Australia Thanks Southampton

  10. avatar

    Ialso worked at the zoo in the 1970s mainly in the cafe,was a girl Pauline who worked there think she lived in netley a bloke called david and another called clive who went on to work at another animal place,mr stokes and his wife ran it i think most of the time.

  11. avatar

    I went to school with mr stokes son Brian at wallop and Mr stokes was at the circus winter quarters at wallop i then worked at the zoo when it was built

  12. avatar

    I remember going to the Zoo around 1970/71 when I was at Southampton University.
    It seemed to me a magical and wonderful place made all the better by it’s relatively small size giving it a more intimate feel.
    We now understand that these places were not really good for the animals given their small and probably squalid conditions – although I think my lodgings in Alma Road gave them a good run for their money.
    I was disappointed in later years when I returned to Southampton to see the Zoo was no more but all things must pass and I guess with zoos that is for the best.

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