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Paignton Zoo’s female trailblazers

This International Women’s Day (on Wednesday 8th March), we’re going back in time to pay tribute to a few of the many brilliant women who helped make Paignton Zoo what it is today.

Gladys Salter

Worked with Herbert Whitley for almost 40 years

Gladys Salter

Gladys Salter was born in Paignton in 1899. Having served in the land army, she began working on Whitley’s farms following the end of the First World War. It was while she worked as a farmer that she was attacked by a large boar, physically scarring her for life.

However, the attack did little to affect her mentally, and her resilience caught the attention of Herbert Whitley. Impressed, he began entrusting her with the care of his prize winning animals, such as his dogs and precious pigeon collection. As she rose through the ranks of animal keepers, she eventually ended up keeping house for Whitley and took care of most of his domestic needs.

Like Whitley, Gladys never married, leading to rumours about her close relationship with the zoo founder. Whatever their personal relationship might have been, she had proven herself as a passionate and skilled keeper on her own merit. She gained an impressive level of expertise within the birds department, eventually earning herself the title ‘Curator of Birds’. In this position, she was able to further develop the famous collection of birds that Paignton Zoo was known for, garnering much admiration and popularity from staff and the community alike.

Gladys worked closely with Whitley for nearly 40 years, even nursing him as his health worsened later in life. When he passed away in 1955 at aged 69, he bequeathed a large portion of his wealth to her and reserved her a considerable section of Primley House, where she could live out her final years. She passed away in 1978 at age 79.

Phyllis Fairweather

Worked with Herbert Whitley from 1917–1930

Phyllis Allen 100 edited

During the First World War, Phyllis, like many other young women, signed up to serve in the land army. This would lead her to a job working on Whitley’s farm in Goodrington, before being moved to the Primley Estate after the war ended. There, she worked as an assistant gardener before being given animal care duties for Whitley’s private collection.

Phyllis was one of only two women working for Whitley, the other being Gladys Salter. Unlike Gladys, Phyllis’ mother had forbidden her from wearing trousers, so she was forced to perform her duties in a full-length skirt.

When Paignton Zoo opened, Phyllis began working on the zoo grounds and was tasked with odd jobs such as “taking baby crocodiles for walks and feeding the snakes.” She developed a distinct skillset with these species, earning recognition from her peers. As a result, she was awarded seniority as head of reptiles and oversaw the running of the department for a number of years with great success. Phyllis was also heavily involved in caring for popular zoo resident, Mary the chimp.

In 1930, after 13 years of working with Whitley, Phyllis got married and gave up work, as was custom for the time. In 1949 her family moved up north to Yorkshire.

In 1999, Phyllis celebrated her 100th birthday. Her fond memories of her younger years prompted her daughter to get in touch with Paignton Zoo and share her mother’s memories. The zoo, in return, sent Phyllis a signed VHS set of the BBC series ‘The Zookeepers’, of which Phyllis was an avid fan.

Jan Hatley

Taught at Paignton Zoo for 20 years

Jan Hatley 1960

Facts about animals can be gleaned from books. The first aim of an educational visit to the zoo must be to stimulate interest rather than impart information.” 

In the early 1960s, Paignton Zoo developed an institute for education and research known as the Devon Zoology Centre. This institute incorporated the idea of using the zoo as a giant, open-air classroom where educators could host lecture-tours for students, teaching them about the animals within the zoo and allowing an opportunity for live study.

One of these educators was Jan Hatley. She taught at Paignton Zoo for 20 years and was a pioneer for zoo-based education, suggesting that a zoo could be a place not only for scientific study, but also a stimulus for the arts. She developed techniques for creative writing, using a portable tape recorder to record comments and sounds, as well as encouraging sketching and observational drawing. She even incorporated dance and drama workshops drawing inspiration from animal movement. In her own words, “Artwork is a natural outcome of a visit to a zoo”.

In addition to this, she was keenly aware of the benefit of zoo-based teaching for children with special educational needs in a time where considerations were not commonplace. She was also involved in setting up residential study courses for schools at Paignton Zoo, to accommodate students from all over the country with a diverse range of backgrounds.

Although many people won’t know her by name, they will likely be familiar with her book ‘Observer Book of Zoo Animals’ that came out in the early 1970s. She would go on to write a number of books about animals for school-age children throughout the 70s and 80s.

Her work was not exclusively for children, though; she was also involved in the founding of the International Zoo Educators Association (IZE) in 1972, and was appointed as President from 1980–1984. She was the first Editor for the IZE Newsletter, now the Journal of the International Association of Zoo Editors. In their first publication in 1977, they noted their objectives, one of which was “to promote the greater use of zoological gardens, aquaria and other collections of living animals for educational purposes.” This closely aligns with both Herbert Whitley’s original dream of an education-centred zoo, and with our mission today.

After leaving Paignton Zoo in 1988, Jan remained an active member of the International Zoo Educators Association. She had travelled all over the world to deliver talks on zoo education and was highly-respected in her field. When she passed away in 1998, her loss was deeply felt in the community, but her innovative ideas have kept her legacy alive to this day.

We know that these aren’t the only trailblazing women that are part of Paignton Zoo’s history. Recently, we were lucky enough to receive a letter from a former keeper called Frances. She worked at Paignton Zoo in the 1950s, and was one of only six female keepers in the UK at the time and one of two at Paignton Zoo. Her friend Trudy also worked at Paignton Zoo and was based in Pet’s Corner. Trudy had been previously rescued from Nazi Germany and was adopted by a local elderly couple before starting work at Paignton Zoo. Frances (or ‘Gassy’ as she was nicknamed by zoology legend Gerald Durrell) shared with us many joyful memories of her time here. We hope to be able to share more of her stories soon as part of an upcoming video documenting the zoo’s place in our community.

We would love to hear more stories like that of Phyllis, Gladys, Jan and Frances, so if you have any stories to share please get in touch with us via our Facebook group or by emailing [email protected].

Frances Earle w Joe
Frances Earle with Joe the chimp
Western Morning News Sat Oct 25 1980 crop
Jan Hatley (credit: Western Morning News, 1980)