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Your zoo: One of the earliest living memories of Paignton Zoo

Disclaimer: This blog mentions zoological practices that we do not support today, but that were part of the work of early zoos. As a forward-thinking conservation charity we are working to protect animals and their habitats in order to help halt species decline. You can read more about our conservation work here.

As we approach our official 100th birthday, we want to share with you some of the amazing stories we’ve heard from former staff, visitors and people who feel a close connection to Paignton Zoo.

A few weeks ago, we received an email from the granddaughter of Richard May, who worked at the zoo during his late teens and early twenties. At 93 years old, Richard is only 7 years younger than Paignton Zoo itself, but his memories of his time here, as well as stories passed down to him from family members, are still as fresh as ever.

Richard May 1950s
Richard May poses with a baby chimpanzee

Back to the twenties

Richard reminisces on the early days of the zoo, from its initial building to temporary closures:

“The forthcoming 100th centenary of Paignton Zoo, has prompted the following facts associated with the Zoo from its opening in 1923.”

“My family relations that could be considered as being involved with it’s progress include my uncles Albert and Bill, who were bricklayers involved with building the bases for the many enclosures for the animals before it was opened to the public. In the construction of the festival hall at the end of Torbay Road, uncle Bill was the stonemason responsible for the outside random natural stonework of the festival hall.”

“After its opening in 1923, the zoo was closed for paying customers in the mid-1930s. The government had put tax on people visiting the zoo, which Herbert Whitley chose not to include. All friends and relations working for Herbert’s family were invited in for a free visit to the zoo before it was closed to the public. As a family, we all took advantage of the chance for a day out. This was because my grandfather, Sam Luscombe, worked on the farm owned by a Whitley at Stoke Gabriel – he was a herdsman for the dairy cattle.”

“Another major development was the animals brought to Paignton Zoo to avoid war time bombing.”

barbary macaque on a bike
A selection of animals were brought to Paignton from Chessington to escape the Blitz

A job for the summer

“During the years 1950, ’51 and ’52, I worked for about 8 weeks at the zoo as a summer job while I was at college. Working arrangements for the staff were based on a 6-day week, and generally speaking I would stand in for the person on the day off. Payment was in accordance with the catering act (this was important as the hourly rate was lower than some other rates for holiday jobs) but included in the wages was the cost of a mid-morning and afternoon tea or coffee with cake, and a free lunch was provided as part of the wages.”

“Before the zoo was opened to the public at 10am, my work included taking to the various kiosks any items required. The ice cream was sent from London by train each day and taken to the various outlets at the zoo. Working on the till at the end of the cafeteria counter, one had to add the items on the tray, collect the money due, and give any change required, a complete contrast to today’s system at a checkout. Typical ‘regular places’ for the week included: a day in the ‘bear cage’ kiosk, the till at the end of the cafeteria counter, the soda fountain serving mainly ice creams and soft drinks, the main entrance gate, sometimes twice.” 

bear enclosures
Richard often spent time working in the kiosk near the bear cages

Richard’s granddaughter also added: “Grandad didn’t include this in the information, but he’s also told me about how he used to have the chimpanzee on a lead and he would sneakily let the chimpanzee sit with visitors while having their picnic and the chimpanzee would sometimes steal their sandwiches!”

After his time in Paignton, Richard later relocated to Norfolk and as a result, had to decline our invite to join us for our birthday weekend. However, we hope that by sharing his memories here he will still feel included in our celebrations.


We’re celebrating our centenary year. To discover more about Paignton Zoo’s 100 year history and our plans for the year, click here.

GloWild at Paignton Zoo

17th November 2023 – 2nd January 2024

We will be ending our centenary year in style with our biggest ever festive event!

Join us after dark for an immersive light experience featuring a variety of beautiful, interactive light installations, entertainers and a silent disco.