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Herbert Whitley: ‘A sort of genius’

Paignton Zoo came to be as a result of its founder’s determination to share his passion for nature with the people of Torbay. One hundred years after we first opened, we look back on the legacy of Herbert Whitley, and reflect on his impact on the world of zoos.

Colorised photo of Paignton Zoo founder Herbert Whitley as captain of Primley rugby club

A young Herbert Whitley poses for a rare photo as captain of Primley rugby club

An elusive eccentric

Herbert Whitley is usually referred to as an eccentric; a shy man around crowds, and famously awkward in the company of women. Rarely seen by zoo staff, even his family report that when they went to visit, he would escape the invasion of his privacy by climbing out his office window and hiding in one of his many greenhouses! For a man of means, he dressed quite shabbily. With an open necked shirt, patched jacket, plimsolls tied up with string and a tie that was used as a belt rather than knotted neatly around his collar, people often mistook him for one of the garden staff, not the wealthy owner of a successful country estate and Zoo.  

Colorised photo of Paignton Zoo founder Herbert Whitley

Whitley often kept a scruffy appearance, belying his wealthy status

A man ahead of his time

Because of his reclusive nature, it would be easy to focus on Herbert’s personality, rather than his immense expertise and encyclopaedic knowledge of the natural world. On hearing of his death in 1955, legendary aviculturist, Jean Delacour, of the Chateau du Cleres in Normandy, described Herbert as ‘a sort of genius’, and it is clear that in those early years of the zoo, Herbert was a man ahead of his time.

His detailed notes and pedigree records of his numerous breeding successes were an early version of the coordinated breeding programmes and studbooks which underpin much of a modern zoo’s conservation efforts. He succeeded where many others had failed with propagating a lengthy list of plants, and achieved a number of UK and world ‘firsts’ for successfully breeding a wide selection of birds and other animals.

Paignton Zoo founder Herbert Whitley's handwritten notecard with details of Whitley's conure for record keeping and studbook dated November 19th 1924
Paignton Zoo founder Herbert Whitley's handwritten notecard with details of Sphix's macaw for record keeping and studbook dated May 17th 1923
Paignton Zoo founder Herbert Whitley's handwritten notecard with details of Lar's macaw for record keeping and studbook dated October 30th 1924

A selection of Whitley’s notecards on which he kept detailed records of his animals

His purchase, in 1921, of Slapton Ley to protect it from development was an unprecedented move. Taking place a full 30 years before Dartmoor was designated a National Park, it underpins our continued belief that the conservation of wildlife also requires the conservation of wild places – although some of the reserves and field projects we now support are a bit further afield!

Redefining the purpose of zoos

Paignton Zoo was the first UK zoo to open with visitor education as its primary role and our belief in the importance of engagement and learning is as true now as it was then. Similarly, we know Herbert was a man who applied evidence and science to his endeavours. This approach, of rigorous research and constantly striving for improvement, also continues to this day.

Colorised photo of Paignton Zoo founder Herbert Whitley meeting aquarium curator Harry Sinclair in the subtropical house

Whitley meeting with Harry Sinclair, curator of Southsea Aquarium

Paignton is not the only UK zoo built as a result of its founder’s single minded commitment and dedication. Herbert was one of a handful of zoo innovators, all now sadly passed, who not only changed zoos substantially for the better, but who were influential in redefining what a good zoo should do. Perhaps the most well-known of these were:

  • Gerald Durrell – author, and founder of Jersey Zoo (Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust). Paignton was a regular receiver of animals from Durrell’s early collecting expeditions, joined on several occasions by Ken Smith, Paignton’s superintendent in the 1950’s

All of these were contemporaries of Herbert, and who would have visited Paignton in its first few decades. Herbert would, we’re sure, be very pleased to know that we continue to work alongside these zoos today, many years after he would have met and discussed plans with their founders. In addition, we think he would be very pleased to see that, although the zoo has changed in many ways, we still work to develop those core values that underpinned his original dream.

If you would like to discover more about Herbert Whitley and the early history of Paignton Zoo, check out our 4-part series documenting the story from the very beginning:

Part 1: From one man’s private collection to a world renowned zoo and botanical garden

Part 2: The early years – what are zoos for?

Part 3: The war years

Part 4: A charitable Trust is born

To find out more about our plans to celebrate our centenary year, click here.

GloWild at Paignton Zoo

17th November 2023 – 2nd January 2024

We will be ending our centenary year in style with our biggest ever festive event!

Join us after dark for an immersive light experience featuring a variety of beautiful, interactive light installations, entertainers and a silent disco.