Plymouth park was once full of elephants, giraffes and penguins

It’s hard to believe that a plot of boggy land in Plymouth’s Central Park was once frequented by hundreds of people every week, keen to feast their eyes on wild animals without having to leave the city.

But for sixteen years Central Park was the home to the incredibly popular Plymouth Zoo and people travelled from miles around to get a glimpse of the animals – including chimps, elephants, giraffes, penguins and donkeys.

The zoo was officially opened by then-Deputy Lord Mayor Ivor Thompson on April 19, 1962 and cost the city around £30,000 to construct – about £228,000 in today’s money, according to the National Archive. Scroll down for pictures.

Plymouth Zoo was popular with people of all ages but made a particularly popular destination for school trips for primary school children in the city.

In its first three days of opening, Plymouth Zoo attracted 13,000 visitors – while at the height of its popularity it pulled in crowds of more than 50,000 visitors per year.

But as time went by, visitor numbers dropped off and the zoo closed its gates for the last time in 1978.

Forty years later, in 2018, PlymouthLive found heaps of previously unpublished photos from the zoo. At the time, we spoke to Peverell resident Vina Shaddick, who worked at Plymouth Zoo from 1965, about her experiences.

Ms Shaddicks said Plymouth Zoo was run by the famous Chipperfield Organisation who rented the land from Plymouth City Council and recalled that the zoo had a huge range of animals, including lions, tigers, leopards, pumas, elephants, zebra, rhinos, hippos, wallabies and penguins.

As well as the usual animal exhibits and enclosures, the zoo had a “quarantine area” for animals being imported into the country, meaning animals bound for other zoos could be brought in from ships at Millbay Docks and ‘quarantined’ at Plymouth Zoo before eventually being transported to their new home, Ms Shaddicks said.

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The zoo also had a snack bar and “amusement area” and pretty “ornamental ponds”.

“The zoo was very popular, and they did pony and cart rides around it,” Ms Shaddicks said. “People used to complain about the small enclosures. Because it was a quarantine centre it was supposed only to be a stop over place for the animals.

“But the animals did not mind their enclosures – they were more like pets. Except the lions – they were a bit wild!”

In 2018, we also spoke to David Marshall the son of a former head keeper at Plymouth Zoo. David’s father, Bill Marshall, began his career at the zoo after leaving the Royal Navy and worked his way up from the bottom of the ladder.

“He ended up working seven days a week, but he loved the job,” David recalled. “I was 13 or 14 years old at the time he began working there, and I remember it well.

“He loved his kids and the job so much, and his grandchildren know all about his time there. Some nights he would even sleep in the zoo grounds near to the animals if they were poorly.”

In 2019, Alasdair Smith, who now lives in Ayrshire in Scotland, found amazing colour footage from his trip to Plymouth Zoo in 1967.

The footage, which you can watch at the top of this article, shows him and his family exploring the zoo.

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He said: “I am the grumpy one-year-old baby. I am 52 now! It was a family outing with my mum and dad and sister.

“At the time it was filmed we were living in Ballantrae in Ayrshire, Scotland. My dad was the GP there and we were on a family holiday to Devon staying at the Hotel Bristol in Newquay. That’s the building at the start of the film.

“What’s interesting is the lack of health and safety at the zoo – I am surprised the visitors left with all their fingers intact! I love the safety rope at the elephant enclosure – maybe people were trusted not to get too close.

“The other woman in the film was a family friend from Ballantrae who was looking after me and my sister part of the time to give my mum and dad a rest I think!

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At PlymouthLive, we’ve taken another look through the archives belonging to our sister newspaper The Herald and have rediscovered some incredible photos from Plymouth Zoo in the 1960s and 1970s..

Scroll down to see 100 incredible photographs of Plymouth Zoo – and why not share your own zoo photos and memories in the comments section below?

Plymouth Live