zoo horizontal strip
Ongoing updates and improvements

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

This is part 1 in a four-part series of blogs documenting the early history of Paignton Zoo

As Paignton Zoo celebrates its centenary year, we have been looking back through 100 years of zoo history. The story begins with Herbert Whitley, the founder of Paignton Zoo, and the early years which evolve from his private collection of plants and animals into the zoo that we know and love today.

Paignton Zoo Herbert Whitley edited 3
Herbert Whitley
Herbert’s family history

Herbert Whitley was born in 1886 in Liverpool to politician and beer entrepreneur Edward Ewart Whitley and his wife Eleanor. Edward was a senior partner at the Greenall–Whitley brewery empire and, as a result, was enormously wealthy. Herbert was the fourth of Whitley’s five children and spent much of his early life at boarding school, as was the custom for children of well-to-do families at the time. When Edward Whitley died in 1892, his large estate passed to his family.

Relocating to Paignton

In 1904, shortly after Herbert finished school, the Whitley family relocated to Paignton. They purchased Primley House, the former residence of the notable Belfield family, along with the surrounding estate. Some of these grounds would later become the site for Paignton Zoo and the nature reserves of Clennon Gorge and Primley Woods. The house itself is now run as a care home and has been listed as grade II heritage building for its historical importance.

While the Whitley family settled into their new home, Herbert went off to Cambridge University to study agriculture. When he returned in 1907, he continued to pursue his interest in the natural world. He spent lots of his time cultivating plants in the sixteen greenhouses adjoining the family home as well as breeding livestock with his brother William.

1 primley house 1961
Primley House, 1961

Herbert’s eye for detail in breeding livestock led to many cabinets worth of trophies and prizes. He had a particular fascination for the colour blue, and invested considerable time and effort into creating varieties of plant and animal with a blue hue. Several of Herbert’s botanical creations survive to this day, along with detailed pedigree records of his numerous breeding successes. (This might have been a precursor to the coordinated breeding programmes and studbooks which underpin much of a modern zoo’s conservation efforts.)

Alongside livestock, Herbert’s other abiding obsession was pigeons. He employed a pigeon manager to oversee the care and breeding of over 150 varieties of domestic pigeon, which he kept in a large pigeon loft. In the early years of his zoo, Herbert displayed perhaps the largest array of pigeon varieties ever assembled in Europe. In the 40s, he contributed to the war effort by breeding homing pigeons to be used to carry important messages.

2 malva sylvestris primley blue 1 edited scaled
Malva sylvestris ‘Primley blue’, ‘created’ by Whitley
3 pigeon lofts 1931 edited scaled
Whitley’s pigeon lofts, 1931

Despite his wealth, Herbert was known for dressing scruffily: he almost never wore a tie and preferred an open-necked shirt, which would have raised eyebrows in his time especially among his high-society peers. People often mistook him for a farmer or gardener, not the owner of a successful country estate and later a zoo. Perhaps he preferred it this way, as Herbert was a shy man who was famously awkward in the company of women. He never married, and the closest female companion he ever kept was staff member and animal keeper Gladys Salter, who remained with him throughout his life.

Expanding Herbert’s empire

In 1920, Herbert built ‘the fish passage’: a corridor lined with aquariums and terrariums that housed a colourful assortment of aquatic animals and plants. This passage linked his office to the greenhouses, which were filled with botanical and zoological specimens from all around the world. A year later, in 1921, he purchased land surrounding Slapton Ley on the South Devon coast. The Ley, a freshwater lake separated from the sea by a gravel spit, had been under threat from development, and in a move that was almost unprecedented for the time, Herbert bought the land to protect it. This land, now a nature reserve, is still owned by our charity Wild Planet Trust who continue to protect and study the site.

6 slapton ley
Slapton Ley

As Herbert’s collection of plants and animals grew, he began building a bespoke site designated for housing all of these specimens. It was in 1923 that he decided to open this site up for public viewing, and Torbay Zoological Gardens (now known as Paignton Zoo) was founded. At a cost of 1 shilling for adults and 6pence for children, it was one of only a handful of zoos in the country at this time. Herbert had intended the zoo to be a place of learning and a means of educating its visitors about the natural world by experiencing it first-hand: a mission that remains as true today as it was in 1923.

Click here to read the next part of the ‘Our Story’ series: The early years – what are zoos for?