George Mottershead

Learn more about our founder, the man who dreamed of a 'zoo without bars'.

George Saul Mottershead was born in Sale, Manchester in 1894. George was the eldest of four children - he had two brothers Stanley & Charlie, and sister Norah. George also had a half brother too, called Albert.

George’s parents would often take the family to the Bellevue amusement park in the Manchester suburb of Gorton. Bellevue, which closed down in 1977, was a major attraction in its day with boats trips, speedway racing roller coasters, firework concerts and ballroom dancing all part of the entertainment. But it was the animals in the zoo there that George was most interested in. 

The enclosures were of a very traditional design, typical of their day and George felt very sorry for some of the animals. He decided that when he grew up he would have a zoo without bars.

George fights in the First World War

George Mottershead - founder of Chester Zoo
George Mottershead

George’s dreams of starting his own zoo were rudely interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War. George and his brothers enlisted with the South Lancashire Regiment and went off to fight in France. In 1916 he married his sweetheart Elizabeth while home on leave and then returned to the front. In the bloodbath that was the battle of the Somme, a bullet passed through his back, grazing his spine and left him completely paralysed. 

His doctors told him he would never walk again but George wasn’t a person who gave up easily and his high level of physical fitness and sheer determination resulted in him making a near miraculous recovery – to the astonishment of his doctors! Unfortunately, George's brothers Albert and Stanley weren't so lucky - both lost their lives fighting in the war.

George sets up his own business

Mottershead family business
The Mottershead family business

In 1917 The first of two daughters, Muriel had been born and, on the advice of doctors, the family moved out to the countryside and settled in Shavington near Crewe where they started a market garden and florists shop in the early 1920s.

The family business did well and the shop became even busier when George started selling pet birds. Realising that there was an opportunity to attract even more customers, he put his private collection of animals on display and, encouraged by a surge in public interest, started adding even more exotic animals. Chimps and monkeys were soon followed by bears, reptiles and more birds. 

Crosville Motors started a bus service to the new attraction, now called Oakfield Zoological Gardens and it was all a very great success. George’s premises couldn't cope with the crowds and he realised that he would have to find somewhere bigger. After a county-wide search George came across the Oakfield Estate in Upton-by Chester which he bought in 1930 for £3500.

The Mottershead move in to Oakfield house

Oakfield house in 1930s - Chester Zoo
Oakfield house

In 1930 the Mottershead family moved to the Oakfield estate. At the centre of the nine acre estate was the magnificent Oakfield house built by a wealthy tea merchant and former Lord mayor of Chester Benjamin Chafers Roberts. 

By this time the Mottershead family had grown, George and Elizabeth had a second daughter June, born in 1926. Once they moved into the house they began their exciting plans to build their new zoo.

Watch June Mottershead tells us about moving to Oakfield house.

The first enclosures were built in the stable yard. And a polar bear moved in! The locals were absolutely horrified, imagining the animals were going to escape and rampage through their peaceful neighbourhood.

Indeed there was so much opposition from the locals that an official enquiry was ordered. The Mottersheads had to hire a very expensive barrister and the case for and against the zoo was painfully played out in public. Eventually the Ministry of Health granted permission for the zoo to open in April 1931 but the family had narrowly missed the chance of opening for the busy Easter period and had to wait until June to welcome their first visitors.

Find out more on our interactive timeline