The first year of ZSL Whipsnade Zoo

by ZSL on

Following on from her previous blog Beryl, ZSL Library Volunteer, gives a flavour of the times when Whipsnade opened in 1931. It was a very different time! Many of the practices she mentions would never take place in a modern zoo at the present. Using the 1931 ZSL Whipsnade Zoo Occurrences and other sources within ZSL Library & Archives she gives a fascinating insight into the past on the anniversary of the opening of ZSL Whipsnade Zoo.

To set the scene

It’s 1931 and Whipsnade Park, ZSL’s second zoo, has been open for three weeks.  There is enormous interest in the new Park, and by mid-June work is needed to repair holes in the car park surfaces. The installation of new turnstiles, toilets and additional catering facilities is underway ahead of the August holiday period. A pair of pygmy hippos who arrive on the 28th and 31st July are a favourite of visitors from the start, according to accounts.

Two Pygmy Hippos resting together on grass, at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, in June 1931
Two Pygmy Hippos resting together on grass, at Whipsnade, in June 1931

In spite of wet weather visitor numbers hold up well through the summer, with several thousand arriving most weekdays and 5000 or more on most Sundays. A milestone is reached on 26th August. The Arrival of note that day is ‘Miss C Nicholson, Moreton-in-the-Marsh, Gloucestershire’. As she came through the turnstile the number of visitors to Whipsnade Park reaches a quarter of a million. We don’t find out whether she was given a free ticket or a complimentary tea and sticky bun…. or maybe she goes home with a free copy of the Guidebook, 6d a copy and written by Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell himself. 62,814 copies are sold in 1931. In addition to a plan of the Park, the Guidebook includes a recommended route, a list of animals, birds and plants, an extensive introduction explaining the philosophy underpinning the Park.  The anticipated criticism that there aren’t enough ‘big ticket’ animals such as lions and tigers on site yet is addressed with commendable honesty:

‘The rate at which the Zoological Park will be transformed from a scheme into a reality will depend on the money that can be spent on it and visitors who come now must realise that they are seeing a Park in the process of making, not a finished undertaking. It is hoped that the natural beauty of the Park and the knowledge that present gate-money is contributing towards the future, will compensate them for the disappointment of not seeing a complete managerie.’  This lack of ‘big ticket’ animals was compensated for with activities that would certainly not be acceptable today!  In the 1930s elephant rides and an opportunity to feed some of the animals made for a memorable day out! 

An unexpected Occurrence!

On 31st July, we see the most intriguing note in the Occurrences for the year: ‘The wolves were heard howling for the first time at about 9.40pm on Thursday 30th July. There was a red moon at the time. The wolves had been visited earlier in the day by Mr Spen Stueart.’ Was this the effect of the moon or the visitor or both, and was Mr Stueart really allowed to wander in and out of the wolf pack’s Pine Wood enclosure on his own? Well, yes it seems he was. All is explained in a 1934 children’s book by Gladys Davison in which a very lucky John and Jane are shown round Whipsnade by a talking wallaby. One of the wolves tells them about the ‘wolf man’ who got to know them as cubs. He strokes them, plays with them and communicates with them using wolf sounds. This is Mr Spen Stueart, a ZSL Fellow, who had talked to the author about his experiences. We live in very different times!

Black and white photograph of a pack of wolves against a background of tree trunks
Wolf Wood at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo photographed by Frederick William Bond

A proposal to cut a ‘white lion’ shape on the Downs is agreed, a design approved and on 3rd November work starts on marking out this iconic feature.  By December the weather is poor and attendances down, with only one paying customer on the 22nd December. The Park is open on Christmas Day morning and there are 46 visitors.

Whipsnade’s first year

The first year of opening is reviewed in the ZSL Annual Report for 1931:

It is gratifying that although the season was unusually wet, the number of visitors was very large and the receipts greatly surpassed expectation.

There was a total of 340,311 visitors between May and December and income from admissions and parking was £19,325. The ongoing recession meant that visitors to Regent’s Park were lower, and the success of Whipsnade was very welcome. The progress made in expanding the numbers of animals at Whipsnade is noted - always allowing them ‘the greatest amount of space and liberty that can be given’- the health of the animals has also been ‘very gratifying’ and births are numerous.

Looking ahead, the Report announces the imminent arrival in January 1932 of an interesting group of animals. The well-known Bostock’s Menagerie closed in 1931 and a ‘favourable opportunity’ to buy the animals, including lions, tigers, elephants and bears has been agreed by the ZSL Council. The idea of adding trained animals to the Whipsnade stock doesn’t quite seem to fit the Park ethos but they settle in well, often with their keepers from Bostock’s, and become firm favourites with visitors. 

Lucy Pendar, whose father moved to the site as Resident Engineer in 1929 when she was a baby, grew up in the Park and knew all the Whipsnade characters from this era, animal and human. She tells their stories in her wonderful book Whipsnade: My Africa. There’s also an interview with her in the blog Whipsnade During the Second World War

Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell retired in 1935 and there is a memorial to him at Whipsnade. The establishment of a new kind of zoo is regarded as his greatest achievement. The breeding programmes were successful, and the public liked what they saw.  He would also no doubt be delighted with ZSL’s current work on British wildlife.  A feature in the latest issue of Wild About (Spring 2019) outlines how we are helping to conserve native species both at ZSL’s two zoos and across the UK through our projects and partnerships. 

Read about the preparations for the opening of Whipsnade in part 1


In ZSL’s Archives there is a wealth of unpublished information about animals and ZSL, the ‘Daily Occurrences’ are an important example. They are a fascinating continuous record for both ZSL London and Whipsnade Zoo - recording on a daily basis animal arrivals and departures, visitor attendances and works being carried out on both sites. ZSL is keen to make these more widely available, particularly as they are primary source material for historians. With this in mind Library Volunteer, Beryl Leigh, generously funded the scanning of a few keynote volumes of the Occurrences. This allows people around the world to view these few volumes without the need to actually visit ZSL Library & Archives in London.

Photo of volumes of Whipsnade Occurrences on a bookshelf

If you would like to view the scanned Daily Occurrences they can be accessed via our online catalogue simply type ‘Daily Occurrences’ into the search box. If you would like to use the original volumes please do make an appointment to visit ZSL Library & Archives and let us know which volume(s) you would like to consult. They are not on open access in the Library and so we need advance to notice of visits to make use of them.


ZSL Prince Philip Zoological Library and Archives is a wonderful and unique collection and information resource about animals and their conservation. Information is vitally important in conservation.

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Further reading

Zoological Society of London Act 1928.  Chapter xliii    London: HMSO

ZSL Annual Reports, 1930 and 1931

London Zoo and Whipsnade Committees (Minutes)
The first meeting of the Whipsnade Committee is on 10th June 1931.

Guide to Whipsnade Zoological Park / by Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell   1st edition, May 1931

Centenary history of the Zoological Society of London / by Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell
London: ZSL, 1929

London’s Zoo: an anthology to celebrate 150 years of the Zoological Society of London / compiled by Gwynne Vevers    London: Bodley Head, 1976

Whipsnade Wild Animal Park: my Africa / by Lucy Pendar    Dunstable: Book Castle 1991
There is also an interview with Lucy in Paul Wilson’s blog about Whipsnade   

At Whipsnade zoo: with a wallaby guide / by Gladys Davidson    London: Thomas Nelson, 1934
See the Acknowledgements on page vii for the note about Spens Steuart.

Love thy neighbour, Wild About, Spring 2019, pp 38-39

Beryl in ZSL Library & Archives carrying out desk research for her blog
Beryl carrying out research for her blog


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