A look back at Southampton’s zoo – do you remember it?

A look back at Southampton's zoo - do you remember it?

When you look at the Hawthorns Urban Wildlife Centre today and the land immediately surrounding it, it is hard to imagine that this corner of the Common was home to a zoo.

Little boy touching elephants outstretched trunk
A popular young elephant.

The area was first used by the Brickmaker, a town official, who had the right to reside and work on the Common, and so from 1711 for just over one hundred years, there was a house and a kiln on the site.

When the clay was worked out, the Brickmaker moved on and the area should have reverted to the Common. However in 1814, on shaky ethical and legal grounds, the town clerk, Thomas Riddings, acquired a lease for the land and built himself an 11 roomed Georgian villa which he called Hawthorn Cottage.

Plan of zoo grounds
Plan of the Zoo as shown on an Ordnance Survey map.

The house passed via Councillor Ransome to the Newman family and then suffered bomb damage during the war.

The Council bought the lease, demolished the house and used the grounds as a tree and shrub nursery.

In 1961, Jimmy Chipperfield, the successful circus owner, offered to lease the one and a quarter acre from the council. He proposed a Zoological Pet’s Corner.

The reality turned out rather differently because although there was a tiny area designated ‘Pet’s Corner’, the zoo housed fully grown lions, tigers, bears, giraffes, zebras and more.

There were two pool areas – one for king penguins and the other, slightly larger, for sea lions.

Tropical birds and reptiles shared a building and according to the plan of the zoo, vultures and peacocks shared an area but presumably in different cages. The guidebook has a list of animals which must not be fed, including giraffes – yet featured on page 29, is a photograph of a little girl feeding a giraffe!

In its early years the zoo proved very popular with Sotonians, and the children in particular were awestruck by seeing such exotic animals

Probably the most popular animal was James, ‘the smoking chimp’. People would throw lighted cigarettes into his cage and he would pick them up and smoke them to the delight of the watching crowd.

Smoking money
James the Smokimg chimp

Jimmy’s daughter, Mary Chipperfield, used the zoo as a base for taming a variety of wild animals for roles in films and for the family circus.

She trained animals for various films including Dr Dolittle (1964) starring Rex Harrison and the Moon-Spinners (1964) featuring Hayley Mills.

On the morning of her wedding, in 1965, she insisted on going to visit Suki, her favourite tiger, and went into her cage already attired in her wedding dress. She later got married in Bassett.

The more cynical among us might conclude that her motivation was for an excellent photo opportunity rather than overwhelming love for her pet.

woman face to face with tiger through fence
Southampton Zoo

By the early 1980s the zoo was beginning to look a little shabby and down at heel. Public attitudes began to change, and animals being kept in cramped conditions was increasingly unacceptable.

Ironically, Mary, and her husband Roger Cawston, were indirectly responsible for the fate of Southampton Zoo because they were involved in the setting up of Longleat and other Safari Parks.

People quickly realised that there was a humane way to observe animals in a more natural habitat. The poor welfare of the animals at Southampton was highlighted by Born Free actress, Virginia McKenna. She and Joanna Lumley led a campaign that culminated in a protest march through Hoglands Park.

New zoo legislation was the final nail in the coffin and in 1985 the animals were taken away and the zoo shut its gates for the last time.

Mary Chipperfield’s caring public persona proved to be a mask hiding less savoury private practices; during her trial for abuse of animals in 1999, footage emerged of her kicking and beating Trudi, a baby chimp, and forcing her to sleep in a tiny box. She was found guilty on twelve counts of cruelty and fined £85,000.

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