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World War Zoo: From Chessington to Devon’s Zoo & Circus

As we celebrate Paignton Zoo’s centenary year, we’ve been uncovering some incredible stories from our past. Did you know that Paignton Zoo shares a captivating connection with another British zoo?

Familiar Origins

Chessington Zoo began in a similar way to Paignton – as a private collection of animals owned by one man, Reginald Goddard. The wealthy businessman purchased the ‘Burnt Stub’ manor house and surrounding estate in 1931 with the intention of opening it as a zoo. What started as a modest venture quickly grew into a popular attraction, offering nearby Londoners a glimpse into the world of exotic animals.

chessington zoo ad from guide book

In 1939, following the start of the Second World War, the future of Chessington Zoo was in peril due to its close proximity to London and the looming threat of air strikes. Goddard faced a tough decision to ensure the safety of the animals, making the choice to temporarily relocate them outside of London.

Down in Devon, Herbert Whitley had recently closed his zoo due to tax disputes (for the second time) and was already in the process of selling off his animals before the war had started. This provided an opportunity for Goddard, who reached out to Whitley in a bid to secure a safe haven for his animals. Despite initial reservations, Whitley couldn’t resist the temptation to expand his collection of exotic species, and ultimately agreed to the merger of the two zoos for the duration of the war.

Transporting the animals from Chessington to Paignton was no small feat. Goddard enlisted a team of workers to transport the animals via trucks, carefully ensuring their safety and well-being throughout the journey. Visitors soon flocked in to see the new additions, and Paignton Zoo’s reputation as a top attraction in the area grew. It became an important place of escapism for the war-weary residents at the time.

Devon's Zoo and Circus

Devon’s Zoo & Circus

While Whitley remained involved in the operations of the zoo, it was Goddard who largely ran it, bringing his own entrepreneurial flair to the zoo’s operations. Primley Zoo underwent a complete transformation, expanding into a thrilling destination known as ‘Devon’s Zoo & Circus’. With Goddard at the helm, visitors could expect to be entertained and captivated at every turn.

Unlike Herbert Whitley, whose vision of a zoo did not focus on profit or entertainment, Goddard was determined to turn it into an exciting and profitable attraction. To achieve this, he brought with him Chessington‘s circus, which included memorable icons such as Comet the baby elephant, Vicki the mathematical dog and strongman Samson. In addition to this, the zoo also welcomed the arrival of a miniature railway, later known as the Jungle Express, which ran on a track around the zoo’s main lake.

Goddard also installed children’s playgrounds and even hired a Guard’s band to perform on Sundays. He successfully applied for an alcohol license and opened a bar in the restaurant, which caused quite a stir in the local community.

Lasting Legacy

As the war drew to a close, the agreement between Whitley and Goddard reached its end and the animals and staff from Chessington packed up and returned to London. Goddard’s failing health meant he was unable to return to Paignton and he passed away on Christmas Day in 1946 at the age of 56.

The impact of Reginald Goddard’s time at Paignton Zoo was substantial; without his intervention, Herbert may well have closed the zoo for good as war in Europe broke out. The circus continued until 1953 and the Jungle Express miniature railway remained in place until its final departure in 2022; 82 years after it first arrived. The collaboration between the two zoos ensured the survival of both, and enabled the growth and establishment of Paignton Zoo’s reputation as a world-renowned centre for animal conservation and education.

Why Zoos Work Together

The collaboration between Paignton and other zoos continues to this day, and is a defining feature of our conservation, education, and research work. Good zoos and aquariums play a critical role in conserving and protecting animal species, both in the wild and in captivity, and by collaborating with each other, these organisations can pool resources, knowledge and expertise. Professional bodies like BIAZA and EAZA are central to fostering these relationships with other organisations. The management of captive populations of threatened species depends upon such collaboration, and our partnerships with colleagues around the world ensures that our work has impact where it matters the most.