EXPLORE THE ZOO

Explore all the great personal stories that make up our shared history of the zoo, from our opening 1930s until the present day.

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1930s
1930

Growing up with the animals

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1930
Growing up with the animals

As the daughter of Chester Zoo founder George Mottershead, it was the norm to grow up amongst the many species of animals! June, tells us a bit about what it was like growing up in a zoo...

"It was very exciting growing up surrounded by all these animals and it was an amazing feeling having them as friends. I never thought my childhood was unusual. I would always try to help out by working in the shop, locking up gates and then, on days when staff were off, I'd help out a bit more with the animals. I loved every minute of it." - June Williams

By Chester Zoo

Mottershead Family

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1930

The Mottershead family move to Oakfield Estate

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1930
The Mottershead family move to 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 the 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.

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.

By Chester Zoo

Mottershead Family

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1930

Buildings in the zoo

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1930
Buildings in the zoo

The conservatory was located next to Oakfield House and is where Albert Mottershead grew most of his flowers and plants. It was also home to a few reptiles before the reptile house was built. The conservatory was badly damaged by shrapnel during the Second World War and had to be demolished. To the right of the image you can see the early bird aviary which visitors could walk through.

By Chester Zoo

Special Zoo Moments

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1930

I am as old as the zoo

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1930
I am as old as the zoo

I am as old as the zoo. As a child during and after the war, my brother and I visited the zoo with my parents entering by the Caughall Road entrance, coming by car. We often met Mr Mottershead, especially when we were able to hold the lion cub.

I remember the elephant and the short rides made in front of Oakfield House. I enjoyed the aquarium, the bird exhibits the chimpanzees, etc. This was a special treat to visit the zoo during the school holidays.

This interest has continued with many friends and their children being taken on a visit to the zoo and since 1987, taking my grandchildren. The changes have been fantastic and the popularity of the zoo is evident by the crowds from all over the world who come not only to see the livestock but also the marvelous gardens.

I just wanted to say thank you for a lifetime of memories…I’ve supported the zoo all my life.

By Susan Thomas

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1930

The zoo officially opens

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1930
The zoo officially opens

Chester Zoo opened officially on 10th June. It was staffed almost entirely by the Mottershead family. George was Director-Secretary, his wife Elizabeth dealt with the catering and Muriel their daughter was the zoo's first Curator. June, their younger daughter, was still too young to do very much but as soon as she could, she joined in with the rest of the family in helping keep the zoo going. George's father, Albert, took charge of the greenhouses and gardens as he had a horticultural background, and Lucy, George's mother, staffed the zoo's first entrance and pay booth, which was little more than a wooden shed.

When the zoo first opened, there were so few visitors that they would have to ring a bell to summon Lucy from the lodge to take their money, one shilling for adults and sixpence for children. Those first years were very difficult financially, and as the animal collection grew, new habitats were built with whatever came to hand. As the zoo grew, so did the visitor numbers, but it would be another ten years before the zoo started to make a surplus. Little did the family know that the 9 acres of land that the zoo currently sat on, would eventually expand to over 128 acres!

"As a guide, philosopher and friend, Mr Mottershead is a host himself, and he always will be delighted to give visitors a description of the habits of the birds and animals he has brought together in surroundings that are ideal." - Chester Observer, June 1931

By Chester Zoo

Special Zoo Moments

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1930

I have been coming to the zoo for over 80 years!

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1930
I have been coming to the zoo for over 80 years!

'My zoo' as it is known to my family as I have been coming for over 80 years. My father brought me when I was very small as he loved your gardens as well as the animals… When my granddaughter was born I brought her in the pram to the zoo and have continued for the last 25 years. She comes now with her friends. When she was growing up we both adopted animals: she an orangutan and I an elephant.

Your zoo is a wonderful place and growing by the years. I knew all the elephants by name and used to come to all the elephant evenings. I had my shoelaces undone by an elephant one evening. I love them.

By Mrs Audrey Coathey

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1930

Adventures of Thomas the tapir

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1930
Adventures of Thomas the tapir

Thomas the tapir escaped from Chester Zoo - apparently not that satisfied with his home at the zoo! He took up residence in a nearby cottage and stubbornly resisted any efforts to try to remove him. His keeper looked all over for him before finding him in his new bed when visiting a workman's cottage nearby. Thomas was tucked up asleep in the spare bedroom. He resisted all attempts to get him back to the zoo, but after two hours the keepers eventually managed to get him back safely.

By Chester Zoo

Special Zoo Moments Mammals

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1930

Polar bears arrive

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1930
Polar bears arrive

Punch the polar bear arrives at the zoo along with a number of other animals, including chimpanzees and a Genet (an African cat whose markings are similar to a leopard's).

By Chester Zoo

Special Zoo Moments Mammals

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1930

Chester Zoo becomes a charity

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1930
Chester Zoo becomes a charity

Mr George Mottershead registered the business as a non-profit making company to be run as a charitable educational institution. On the 9th of May 1934 the North of England Zoological Society was created and a council of elected members formed to help advise and guide the zoo in the right direction for the future. The zoo extended its field as a scientific and educational society to the whole of the North of England. A membership scheme was also launched. In the first year there were 155 members whose subscriptions totaled two hundred and sixteen pounds!

By Chester Zoo

Special Zoo Moments

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1930

Chester Zoo fights to stay open in 1934

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1930
Chester Zoo fights to stay open in 1934

The zoo was struggling as a business. The family were working around the clock to keep the zoo open and no one had a day off! George Mottershead decided the best way forward would be for the zoo to become a non-profit organisation, which would run the zoo as a society. For this he would need financial backing, which he believed his friends and supporters would help him with. The zoo was in danger of being closed down. An appeal to save the zoo went out to the public.

By Chester Zoo

Mottershead Family

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1930

The opening of an aquarium

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1930
The opening of an aquarium

In 1934 the zoo made an impressive addition to its outstanding attractions when it started building an aquarium, which was built in the basement of Oakfield House. Installed beneath Oakfield House were six cold-water tanks. The new building was opened by Lady Daresbury and included a number of rare species in excellent collection. June Williams (George and Elizabeth Mottershead's daughter) was tasked with presenting Lady Daresbury with a basket of flowers to officially mark the opening. Lady Daresbury, at the time, commented: "The aquarium would add facilities to study the habits and to watch the development of fish." And in conclusion she made an appeal for increased membership.

By Chester Zoo

Special Zoo Moments Fish

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1930

First Mandrill to be born in England

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1930
First Mandrill to be born in England

Chester Zoo had many 'firsts'. Dawn made headlines when she was born in November 1937 as it was believed that she was the first mandrill to be born in captivity in England. George, the new father, however didn't put mother and baby first! He was selfish - grabbing every tasty treat in sight! The keepers therefore moved him into another area, from which he could still see his family. One newspaper article reported: "Within an hour of its birth the little mite was surveying its home from the arms of its mother, who is nursing it in almost human fashion."

By Chester Zoo

Special Zoo Moments Mammals

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1930

First Griffin vulture chick to be born in England

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1930
First Griffin vulture chick to be born in England

Attention was all on the Griffin vultures as they laid an egg at the zoo in May 1939. The image taken shows the new-parents-to-be anxiously waiting, and watching over the unhatched egg. There must have been a high chance that the chick wouldn't survive as the caption states: "If the young vulture survives it will be the first born in captivity in this country to do so." This was a world first.

By Chester Zoo

Special Zoo Moments Birds

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1930

Chester Zoo starts its first adoption scheme

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1930
Chester Zoo starts its first adoption scheme

In September 1939 war was declared on Germany and the zoo entered what was to be one of the most difficult periods in its history. With the war came an immediate shortage of both food and labour. Chester Zoo set up its very first animal adoption scheme, to provide funds for the influx of evacuated animals to the zoo during the war.

For 14/6 a week you could adopt a lion, or for 1s. 6d. a week you could become the 'guardian' of an otter! This was an exciting concept for supporters at the time who were able to visit their adopted animal at anytime - and could even play with it!

The scheme received interest from animal lovers all over the country. The animals that had been adopted had a label on the cage with the name and address of the person who had adopted it and for what period. At the age of 13, June Mottershead became the 'guardian' of one of the lion cubs and George Mottershead adopted a macaw. The scheme was the first of its kind and it meant that the zoo didn't have to close it's gates. Many zoos were forced to close, some shooting the animals they could no longer to feed, but George Mottershead was determined and didn't give up!

By Chester Zoo

Special Zoo Moments

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1940s
1940

Tough times at the zoo

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1940
Tough times at the zoo

When the war started a number of the men that worked at the zoo were called up, meaning a lack of zoo keepers to look after the animals. To help the zoo during this time a number of girls - some aged just 14 and 15 - gave their support in feeding the animals. Mr Mottershead said the girls have shown more pluck than new men recruits, and the animals have taken to them more quickly.

The war-time feeding of the animals revealed some new tastes for some of the species' - for example the leopards preferred poultry heads to their usual steak of horse meat. Many local firms were happy to donate their 'scraps' to the zoo in order to feed the animals during this difficult time. Only one animal was killed during an air raid, a coypu that was hit by shrapnel from ant-aircraft guns situated in surrounding fields, but many others including the penguins and chimps died from lack of food. Local people and businesses, now firmly on the side of the zoo were very generous with their donations and the January 1941 'our zoo news' records thanks to Littlewoods, Marks and Spencers, Mac Fisheries and Wilkinsons.

By Chester Zoo

Mottershead Family

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1940

The first elephants to arrive at the zoo

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1940
The first elephants to arrive at the zoo

During the war Chester Zoo played a vital role in taking care of evacuated animals from all over the country. One particular incident was brought to George Mottershead's attention when a number of people sent in a newspaper article stating two elephants were looking for a new home as their owner had been called up for the RAF.

The elephants had been part of Doorley's Tropical Revue, a travelling menagerie, but because of the war had found themselves stranded and out of work. Mr Ralph Marshall was desperate to find the two young elephants a place to stay, otherwise they would have to be destroyed! Supporters of Chester Zoo wrote to George Mottershead explaining how they would rather subscribe to a weekly sum of money for their keep rather than see them being destroyed.

The two elephants - Manniken and Molly - arrived on 28 August 1941, after two months of correspondence between George Mottershead and Ralph Marshall. Along with the elephants came Khanadas, their mahout - a young lad who had looked after the elephants for the majority of their life, and who continued to care for them when they came to Chester Zoo.

All three new arrivals settled in well. The elephants made themselves at home and enjoyed what was left of the British summer. On the evening of 3rd November tragedy struck. Out of the blue, Manniken, one of the baby elephants suddenly fell ill and before the vet could do anything she sadly passed away. George Mottershead and the zoo were extremely upset and Khanadas, the young boy, was heartbroken as he had grown attached to them both over the years. Molly became a great favourite with visitors as a provider of elephant rides until her death in 1955.

By Chester Zoo

Friends and family Mammals

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1940

The Zoo makes a profit for the first time

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1940
The Zoo makes a profit for the first time

Due to the success of the adoption scheme and the popularity of the zoo during the war due to Molly the elephant, and the unusual friendship of Peter and Mowgli the zoo made its first ever profit! Despite the trials for the country, things were looking up for Chester Zoo!

By Chester Zoo

Special Zoo Moments

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1940

The unlikeliest friends - lion and dog!

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1940
The unlikeliest friends - lion and dog!

They say a dog is a man's best friend, well in this case it proves a dog can be friends with any animal. In 1942, a 15 month old lion attracted so much attention after his friendly attitude towards the unlikely companion - Peter the dog. The lion, named Mowgli (after the character in the film 'Jungle Book') lost his two siblings, and he almost died from the grief. Peter kept him company and the pair became inseparable. So much so, when Mr G Mottershead separated them in order for Mowgli to begin spending more time with the other lions, he had to reconsider letting them live together again as they both were pining for one another!

They were a huge draw to the war weary public who flocked in large numbers to see them playing together. The pair ate together, played together and slept in the same enclosure together until Peter, sadly, passed away in 1948. At the time, this was the greatest friendship between animals which the zoo had ever known, and was the subject of a film and radio talk.

By Chester Zoo

Special Zoo Moments Mammals

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1940

Large polar bear habitat is built

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1940
Large polar bear habitat is built

The zoo began building two new habitats for bears in 1944 which were constructed from local, inexpensive materials. Building materials remained in extremely short supply following the war, however after the war, George Mottershead had the idea that if he could acquire some of the now obsolete anti-tank roadblocks which covered the surrounding areas, they could be put into good use at the zoo.

After a few enquiries, George was told that he could have the materials if he could arrange for them to be moved. So he organised for a local contractor to collect as many as he could within a 10 mile radius and within a very short space of time, there were over 2,000 road blocks as well as materials from pill boxes stacked up in the zoo! The zoo used the antitank road blocks to create the polar bear enclosure - of which some of its structure is still visible in the zoo today. Catherine Jane Tomkyns-Grafton, who had originally adopted Chester's first polar bear, Punch, who arrived at the zoo in 1934, provided funding for their new habitat and left the zoo £18,000, a very generous sum for that time.

By Chester Zoo

Special Zoo Moments Mammals

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1940

Elephant rides at the zoo

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1940
Elephant rides at the zoo

Molly provided elephant rides for visitors throughout the summer months, which proved very popular. Throughout winter, she was kept in her stable. In 1949 a 20 year old Asian elephant joined the zoo as a companion for Molly, who also soon joined her, giving rides around the zoo. Molly sadly passed away in 1955.

By Chester Zoo

Special Zoo Moments Mammals

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