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Millionaires, Mysteries and Menageries: The Surprising History of Primley House

Imagine walking up to the grand entrance of a Georgian manor, surrounded by lush greenery with the sound of exotic animals reverberating in the distance…

This is the experience that visitors to Primley House, the former home of Paignton Zoo founder and millionaire Herbert Whitley, would have had in the early 20th century.

The Story Begins

Formerly owned by the wealthy Belfield family, Primley House was thought to have been built in 1780. The Whitley family purchased it from the Belfields in 1904, moving from their home Liverpool to Paignton. Primley was a perfect fit for the nature-loving Herbert Whitley thanks to its 16 adjoining greenhouses and acres of land.

The stunning architecture of Primley House is just one of its many notable features. From the grand façade to the intricate woodwork and ornate plasterwork inside, every detail speaks to the grandeur of the Georgian style. And the house’s location, nestled beside Primley Park and overlooking the town and ocean, only adds to its appeal.

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Purchased at the turn of the century, the house and its surrounding estate was to be a fresh start for the Whitley family.

But it’s the stories of Herbert Whitley and his wildlife collection that truly bring Primley House to life. As a child, Whitley’s interest in animals began with a pair of canaries, but he quickly moved on to breeding and showing finches, rabbits, poultry, livestock and his favourite blue cropper pigeons. His passions didn’t stop there – he also bred dogs, established and captained the Primley Rugby club, and went on to build homes for his exotic living collections on an area high up on the estate. These passions were what ultimately led him to opening Primley Zoological Gardens over the road from Primley House in 1923.

Inside one of the many greenhouses where Herbert developed his love for nature.

A Generous Recluse

Whitley was a known recluse, but this only added to the mystique of Primley House. He rarely left his home and went to great lengths to avoid social interactions, even asking his workers to build a tunnel under Totnes Road, from Primley House to the zoo grounds, so that he could avoid being seen in public. When the council got wind of the project it was abandoned, but rumours persist to this day that the tunnel was secretly completed and still exists beneath the road connecting the house and zoo.

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The entrance to the secrets tunnels are still visible under the house today.

Herbert Whitley was not one to flaunt his huge wealth – he often dressed in shabby clothing and rarely carried more than a shilling in his pocket – but, despite his solitary nature, he was always willing to support good causes in the community. When developments at a site in Clennon Valley came to a standstill due to a 14-acre strip of land owned by Whitley, he simply gave the land to the council. In 1921, in an unprecedented move for the time, he purchased the land surrounding Slapton Ley, a freshwater lake on the South Devon Coast, to save it from development. He also donated many of the beautiful exotic plants that adorn the Goodrington Cliff Gardens from his own botanical collection.

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Plaque commemorating Whitley’s donation at Goodrington Cliff Gardens, reads:

"The Cliff Gardens & Promenade
The majority of the trees, shrubs, and 
plants were raised in the Primley Zoological
and Botanical Gardens, Paigntin, by 
Herbert Whitley Esq. F.R.H.S. F.Z.S
And presented by him to the
Paignton Urban District Council"

What came next?

primley house outside

Primley House as it appears today, serving as a residential care home.

After Whitley’s death in 1955, Gladys Salter, his long-time companion and the zoo’s chief curator, inherited Primley House. She recognized the need for a retirement facility in the area and agreed to transform the house into a retirement home, with the only stipulation being that a flat was made for her in one of the wings on the first floor. After her death, the retirement home was given to the Primley Housing Association.

Today, the Primley Housing Association continues to run Primley House as a residential home. Many of the original features remain, and while the exotic animals may be long gone, the grandeur and mystique of Primley House lives on – a testament to the passions and eccentricities of Herbert Whitley.

Paignton Zoo would like to thank the Primley Housing Association for their support and involvement with our centenary celebrations. To learn more about the history of the house and the services it currently offer, please visit their website.

To discover more about Paignton Zoo's 100 year history and our upcoming plans to celebrate our centenary year, please click here.