Artefact of the Month - May 2011. Whipsnade's 80th anniversary.
The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) opened London Zoo in 1826. By 1903 there was a growing need to keep and study large animals in more natural surroundings. Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell (Secretary of ZSL 1903 - 35) saw the park as a conservation centre and the first open zoo in Europe. The plan was for the new park to be no more than 70 miles from London, over 200 acres in size and easily accessible for the visiting public.
In 1926 an ideal site was found, derelict Hall Farm, near Whipsnade village. It was nearly 600 acres on the Chiltern Downs.
ZSL purchased the farm in December 1926. A Private Member's Bill had to be passed through Parliament to alter the public right of way so the area could be fenced. The site was then ready to be converted into a wild animal park.
There was so much work to do that labourers came from many parts of Britain to help erect fences, dig out ponds and animal enclosures, lay roads and turn the old farmhouse into a restaurant. A well was dug from which 5,000 gallons of water an hour could be pumped. Pipes were laid to various paddocks and a sewage filtration unit built. At first the perimeter fence faced inwards, but soon had to be changed to hang outwards - not to prevent animals from escaping, but to keep foxes from getting in.
The first animals arrived in 1928: two Amherst pheasants, a golden pheasant and five red jungle fowl. Others soon followed including muntjac, llama, wombats and skunks.
The Park opened to the public on 23 May 1931. During that first weekend thousands of people visited Whipsnade despite rain on the first day and some of the paddocks being empty.
The Park still needed a large number of animals and during 1931 Sir Peter heard of a circus that was closing down after 126 years on the road. Bostock and Wombwell's Circus and Menagerie was based in Scotland and had many animals that needed new homes. In January 1932 ZSL acquired a number of their animals, including 11 lions, 5 leopards, 2 brown bears, 2 elephants, 2 camels, 2 wolves, a polar bear, a spotted hyena, a sealion, a red kangaroo and a black necked crowned crane.
The animals travelled by train from Scotland to Dunstable. From there many made the journey to the Park in wagons and lorries, but others, such as the camels and elephants, walked across the Downs.
In 1932 work started on cutting the Whipsnade white lion into the chalk downland. It is 140m long and took 18 months to complete. It is now a well-known landmark, not only from the ground, but also from the air for travellers flying into Luton Airport. During the war the white lion had to be covered with camouflage netting so it would not be visible to enemy bombers.
When Whipsnade opened it was revolutionary and totally unlike the urban zoos that people were used to. Sir Peter and his colleagues envisaged Whipsnade to be constantly developing and evolving, ensuring it would be at the forefront of animal care and research.
(Text from the 1998 Whipsnade Guide.)
These are a selection of the Whipsnade Guides held at ZSL Library, which readers are welcome to come and see.