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Leading the way: Whitley’s animal champions

In 1923, Herbert Whitley opened his private collection of exotic animals and plants to the public, however Whitley’s expertise with animals didn’t end with Paignton’s new zoo.

In the midst of World War I, while many were called to serve their country, Herbert and William Whitley were unable to enlist on health grounds. Rather than sit on the side-lines, they found a unique way to contribute to the war effort. The brothers turned their attention to supporting local farmers by providing them with top-of-the-line livestock, including cattle, sheep and poultry, as well as skilled working dogs and horses. With the benefit of the expansive Primley Estate at their disposal, complete with modern kennels, stables, and sprawling fields ideal for grazing and training, the Whitley brothers cemented their reputation as outstanding animal breeders, producing stock of unparalleled quality.

Making the ordinary extraordinary

primley godiva pig
Black sow ‘Primley Godiva’ sold in 1920 for 65 guineas (roughly £3,902.80 today)
tratton dray king shire horse
Whitley purchased winning shire horse “Tatton Dray King” for breeding

When Herbert Whitley entered the fiercely competitive animal show circuit, he brought with him a secret weapon: a razor-sharp eye for detail and uncanny ability to breed champion stock. With each carefully documented pedigree, he showcased his many breeding successes, earning him a dazzling array of trophies and prizes. So numerous were his accolades that he was said to have built a special room at Primley House to showcase them all.

Herbert Whitley was a man with a taste for the exotic and the unusual, amassing a collection of rare and extraordinary species, but when it came to domestic animals he had a practical streak that contrasted his love of the peculiar. He had a particular fondness for sighthounds, and trained greyhounds and whippets to control the rabbit population on the Primley estate. Despite his love for the exotic, Whitley knew that sometimes it was the unassuming, hardworking breeds that truly shone. Of all the champions that Whitley’s name was attached to, one stood out from the pack – his fawn greyhound, Primley Sceptre.

A new breed of champion

Primley Sceptre
Primley Sceptre was the first dog to win Crufts

In 1928, Charles Cruft’s legendary dog show was already a highly prestigious event, drawing distinguished breeders from across Europe, including some with royal patronage. That year the show added a new, highly coveted title: “Best in Show”. Previously, Crufts winners were crowned “Best Champion”, a distinction only a small percentage of applicants could attain due to strict entry requirements. With “Best in Show”, those restrictions were lifted, allowing a staggering 9,467 dogs to compete for the title in the first year alone.

Despite the intense competition, Herbert’s greyhound stole the show, and Primley Sceptre won the coveted title of Best in Show. For this remarkable achievement, Whitley was awarded a sterling silver, gold gilt bowl adorned with flowers: a possession that took pride of place alongside his numerous other awards in the hallowed halls of Primley House.

Herbert Whitley’s legacy is one of remarkable achievements, both in his collection of rare and exotic species and in his expertise as a breeder of domestic animals. From his early efforts to support farmers during WWI to his triumph at the prestigious Crufts dog show, Whitley demonstrated an unwavering commitment to excellence in breeding. His meticulous attention to detail, combined with a practical sensibility, allowed him to produce animals of exceptional quality, both in terms of looks and temperament. Today, his contributions to the world of animal breeding continue to inspire: a testament to the enduring impact of his work.

2023 marks the 100th anniversary of Paignton Zoo opening to the public. If you would like to learn more about the history of Paignton Zoo and our plans for celebrating our centenary, please click here.