Retro: Wellingborough Zoo’s last days

There was an extraordinary auction in December 1970 in Wellingborough, with lots that included penguins, two Chinese geese and a lioness.

On Friday, December 18, the animals that used to be part of Wellingborough Zoo, and all the associated equipment were auctioned off after the zoo was forced to close when its lease from the council wasn’t renewed.

Chukka the lion at the Red Lion pub in Isham, now the Monk & Minstrel

Chukka the lion at the Red Lion pub in Isham, now the Monk & Minstrel

The auction raised a mere £1,500 with the penguins the most popular animals for sale – two of them went for £85.

Cleo the lioness was sold to her previous owners, Mr and Mrs Clews, who had travelled up from Southam Zoo especially to bid for her.

They paid £45, and Mr Clews said: “Cleo has gone past her best. Most animals of that age end up being shot.

“She will go back to her mates. There are three other lions at Southam which lived with her for a long time.”

The zoo opened its gates for the first time in June 1943.

It was the brainchild of a Mr Stevens, and was set in the grounds of his home Croyland Abbey.

Initially it had a collection of rare birds and a limited number of other animals, including three lions – Rajah, Sheila and Judy.

There was also a herd of South American llama, a wallaby, a dozen monkeys and a peacock.

The plan was to increase the number of animals at the zoo after the war.

The zoo was opened by the chairman of the then urban council, Mr Campbell.

Speaking at the opening ceremony, he said he thought that the zoo, as well as being a business, was a good addition to the town’s attractions that would prove “innocent amusement” and for that reason he felt justified in giving it an official blessing.

The most popular animals with the visitors who attended the opening day were the lions, with people also delighted to find they were able to feed the llama by hand.

The zoo had a chequered history during its almost 30 years in existence.

Its heyday was the 1950s when celebrities including George Cansdale, a famous animal expert, visited.

Mr Cansdale opened an extension to the zoo in May 1954 and named a new polar bear Blondie.

In 1960 the zoo acquired three new chimps that regularly appeared on television with Armand and Michael Denis, who presented a safari programme.

In the same year a fallow deer from the zoo appeared in the film The Count of Monte Cristo and in 1966 a puma called Judy appeared on Blue Peter.

Roy Clarke took over the zoo, which was located on the site of the present council offices and Croyland Gardens, in the late 1960s and knocked down a lot of the old buildings, replacing them with new enclosures and avaries.

However, the zoo started to hit the headlines for the wrong reasons.

In January 1969 an intruder was mauled by a leopard when he got too close to its cage and had to have part of his arm amputated.

In the summer of that year, a top RSPCA inspector condemned conditions at the zoo and alleged it had dirty cages which were “breeding grounds for flies”.

The zoo started to get into financial difficulties and in June 1970 was threatened with closure.

It was saved thanks to the intervention of Welsh pop singer and animal lover Abe Franklin, who paid off its debts in full.

The end finally came with the auction in December that year and the auctioneer, Richard Swindall, of Swindall Pendered and Atkins, described the bidding as “very disappointing”.

Watching the sale, when everything including a plastic gnome with a leg missing was put under the hammer, Mr Clarke said: “I am very sad, this is my worst Christmas.”

Wellingborough Museum has produced a booklet about the zoo, which is available for £1.50.