Thursday, 8 July 2021

Whipsnade Zoo in World War Two by Janie Hampton

Whipsnade Zoo Keeper ploughing paddocks with Dixie the elephant,  1940.  Source: Zoo and Animal Magazine, 1939/40. 

Lucy Pendar’s father, Albert, was the Resident Engineer of Whipsnade Zoo, a 500-acre park in the Chilterns, Bedfordshire. They lived in a little pointed red-brick house set against pine trees. ‘Like a picture in a pop-up nursery rhyme book,’ she remembered. But growing up surrounded by exotic animals, zoo-keepers and thousands of visitors, was a lonely life for a child.
However, the outbreak of the war in September 1939 changed everything for 11-year-old Lucy. London Zoo in Regent’s Park evacuated many of their animals to Whipsnade, including two Giant Pandas who joined ‘Ming’, the first Giant Panda ever seen in Europe; and five elephants who joined Dixie, the retired circus elephant. 
The London Zoo chimpanzees were evacuated onto an island surrounded by a moat and a barrier. One day Lucy was surprised. ‘Tiny Tim, the youngest chimp, was executing a beautiful crawl stroke, swam smartly across the moat, and with equal aplomb, climbed over the barrier and made off in the direction of the Giraffe House.’ Nobody realised that chimps could swim; and no-one had noticed that Tiny Tim had grown up, until a female chimp produced an unexpected baby.
When the Black bear from London Zoo escaped for the third time, Lucy’s father laid a trail of treacle into the ladies’ lavatories and waited in bushes nearby. ‘At long last the bear appeared and started licking the step,’ said Lucy. Her father followed the bear into the lavatories. ‘Father triumphantly slammed the door on it.'
 Best of all for Lucy, was the arrival of the families of London Zoo staff who moved into the wooden huts normally occupied by summer waitresses. The evacuee girls asked Mrs Beale, the wife of the Zoo Superintendent, to start the 1st Whipsnade Girl Guide company, and while Captain Beale tended to his stamp collection, they met in the Beale’s front room. Among the Guides were Mary Billet, daughter of the Keeper of the Bird Sanctuary; Beryl Rogers, the daughter of Bert the Giraffe Keeper; and Austrians Elizabeth, Esther, Lilly and Gertrtude, who had recently arrived in England with Kindertransport.
The 1st Whipsnade Guide Company , run by Mrs Beal. Credit Lucy Pendar.
‘Captain Beale had been chief veterinary officer of East Africa, so he taught us how to stalk and track both animals and humans.’ When Mrs Beale invited a handsome, young, Cambridge undergraduate to teach Morse Code, meetings were always well attended. The 1st Whipsnade Guides taught the local Home Guard Morse code, tracking and stalking. ‘We showed them how to wriggle through a wheat field on your tummy, so slowly that the wheat made no noise,’ recalled Lucy.  
After Guide meetings, Lucy walked home through the zoo in the dark, with her black-out torch shining a pin-hole onto the ground. ‘I could hear the elephants putting themselves to bed. There was also the roar of lions, the tigers slinking through their jungle, polar bears splashing in their pond and the barking of sea-lions. I wasn’t frightened, I knew them all well.’ She hand-fed the rare Chinese Pere David deer fawns with bottles; and even tried to resuscitate a frozen baby alligator with warm water.
Keeper Billett, father of Girl Guide Mary, of Whipsnade Zoo , November 1939. 
Lucy’s father started a rifle club in the café for the Air-Raid Wardens and Guides. ‘The walls were protected with sand bags, filled by us Guides. In the summer the rifle club moved to a chalk pit near the bison’s paddock. Father used to arrange competitions against the Home Guard, and us Guides always won. When the RAF camped nearby, he suggested a shooting competition. We beat them too.’
The first Christmas of the war was miserable, especially after the death of the Black rhinoceros, an evacuee from London. ‘Disposing of a dead rhinoceros is not an easy task, weighing nearly four tonnes.’ Lucy and the Guides helped collect firewood to make a huge funeral pyre. Then an African elephant died, and its body was added. ‘The new year was greeted with the acrid smell of burning flesh and the belching forth of black smoke, which lasted for almost a week, until a smouldering pile of ash was all that remained of the great beasts.’ That was the last time so much meat was cremated and not fed to other animals. When the German-Italian-Japanese alliance was named the ‘Axis’ in 1940, the dainty Axis deer from India were renamed ‘Spotted’ deer.

The ‘Whipsnade Lion’, carved on a chalky Chiltern hill, made a perfect landmark for enemy planes to navigate to the armament factories in nearby Luton, so the Guides helped to camouflaged it with brushwood and manure.

The war was tough on the animals. When snow engulfed the park, one of the Giant Pandas and a litter of tiger cubs had convulsions. Once petrol rationing began there were fewer visitors, so less money to pay for the food. ‘One February day in 1940 the takings amounted to six pence [2p], which meant the solitary visitor was a soldier as they got in half price. At first, visitors were encouraged to bring lettuce, cabbage and carrots, but soon no one had even those to spare.’ The zoo bred their own mealworms to feed to birds, and fish-eaters were given meat coated in cod-liver oil. ‘The zoologist Julian Huxley appealed to the public to bring buns for the bears, which of course was not what bears needed at all.’
A colony of bright green, noisy Quaker parakeets, originally from South America, lived in a huge communal nest overhanging the zoo’s main gate. ‘When they ventured down the hill and stripped Mrs Hain’s orchard, she was furious. The following year they were kept in a cage until the apples had been harvested. ‘By the next spring they had flown, their fate a mystery.’
Whipsnade Park had originally been a farm, and now even the parkland and cricket pitch were ploughed up. With no combine harvesters, and most of the keepers called- up, the Guides helped gather in the harvest. ‘With British Double Summer Time we could work even longer hours than normal,’ said Lucy. ‘June saw hay-making. The sheep were sheared, then dipped in July. Grass was scythed again in August. And then the wheat harvest. My back was aching, and my arms sore from scratches, as we gathered up the sheaves and stacked them in stooks.’ Filling sacks of grain for hours was rewarded with a ride on the truck to the barn. ‘The joy,’ she remembered, ‘standing like Boadicea, leaning on the cab as we sped down Bison Hill with the wind in my face. We brought back rough loaves of oaten bread, which had normally been fed to animals.’
The Girl Guides’ war work included mucking out and riding the Shetland and rare Iceland ponies. Lucy Pendar was one of the first people to experience their unusual tölt, a running walk, and the flugskeid - a flying pace.
The five o’clock Closing Time hooter, high on the side of the water tower, served as the air-raid siren. ‘The wind carried its sound for some distance and the howling of the wolves, which always accompanied it, added both to its effectiveness and its eeriness.’ During 1940, over forty bombs were dropped around the zoo. Most fell in the paddocks, making large holes which were later turned into ponds. The only reported casualties were a spur-winged goose - – the oldest inhabitant –- and a baby giraffe which panicked. 
One night Lucy was on duty with the Home Guard. ‘We stood in a field all night in thick fog. As the dawn began, we saw these figures approaching, very quietly, through the fog.’ They stood quaking, convinced they were German parachutists. ‘Suddenly the cloud thinned and they were revealed – as Farmer Bates’ cows!
The Giant Pandas returned to London in 1942. 
The Whipsnade Guides practiced first aid on themselves and were also practiced on by the WRVS, Air-Raid Wardens, and Home Guard. ‘I often had to pretend I had a broken arm, or an epileptic fit,’ said Lucy. In the blacksmith’s forge at the zoo, the Guides put out incendiary bombs with a stirrup pump.

WP Beale, the first superintendent at Whipsnade 1930-47, Captain of the Home Guard. Credit Lucy Pendar.

After Lucy’s 16th birthday, she didn’t want to confess the reason for not becoming a Ranger Guide: the uniform required a long-sleeved jersey and she was hopeless at knitting. So she helped to run the Whipsnade Cub Scouts instead. Later she became a Girl Guide District Commissioner in West Yorkshire, and then a Fellow of the Royal Zoological Society.
Lucy Pendar, Whipsnade - my Africa, Book Castle Dunstable, 1991.
Janie Hampton, How the Girl Guides won the war, Harper Press, 2010.
Interview with Lucy Pendar, 12 November, 2008

1 comment:

Penny Dolan said...

What a delightful, wonderful story, Janie.

This made me remember what a treat it was to visit Whipsnade Zoo and the nearby Dunstable Downs. Thank you.