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Ferndown Zoo

Sue Lawrence and Corrine Young remember a little-known feature of 1950s Ferndown

If you talk about Ferndown in the 1950s and mention Ferndown Zoo, the reaction is always the same (apart from born and bred locals). ‘A zoo! In Ferndown?’ Yes, there was a zoo in Ferndown – from 1947 to late 1954. It was on the north side of Ringwood Road, just to the east of the junction with Glenmoor Road. It evolved in the grounds of Sunnylands, a late 17th-century cottage. The house is still standing, although the name has changed.

It began as a small shop (which is now the garage) and then it became a stable. There was a shallow well in the grounds of the house which supplied water for the horses. During a drought one summer before World War 2, all the wells in the neighbourhood dried up and the water was rationed. The well at Sunnylands, however, remained full and kept not only the horses supplied but also the neighbours.

The story of the zoo began in 1947 when planning permission was granted for a ‘zoological garden and bird sanctuary’. This gradually grew into a zoo as the owner, Mrs Dorothy Sadler, filled it with animals, which made visits a great pleasure, especially for the children. In 1949, Mrs Sadler applied for permission to keep a lion and lioness in the zoo. The local town and parish councils objected and Wimborne and Cranborne RDC refused. Mrs Sadler appealed against the decision and in 1950 a public inquiry was held to see whether Ferndown’s inhabitants wanted the lions. It was a nearly unanimous decision – yes!

By 1952, the zoo was able to advertise lions, bears, leopards, monkeys, reptiles, dingoes, huskies and a gorilla. There were other attractions, too: swingboats, a miniature railway, a model village and ‘Pets’ Corner’. On Sundays, ‘Professor’ Woodley would also be there with his Punch and Judy stall

The bears were kept in a pit which had a tree trunk in the centre. The bears would climb the tree to look at the people, who in turn stared back at them. The monkeys were very popular. There was one who had a passion for boiled sweets – but not simply to eat them. He would suck the sweet for a while, then remove it from his mouth and stick it to his fur. Having spent some time admiring it, he would then place the sweet back in his mouth once more and begin the whole routine again. Pets’ Corner consisted of goats, tortoises, parrots, budgies, pigs, rabbits and, rather surprisingly, a family of toads.

If local people are asked which animals they remember, they will always say the lions and the bears. The lion’s name was Ajax and he was either blind in one eye or lame – the exact nature of his disability is in dispute. As a small child, Sue Lawrence, one of the authors of this article,was taken to the zoo on a couple of occasions when her mother’s ATS friend and her son came down from London to stay with them. She remembers having her photograph taken in the model village. A favourite lesson at the Primary School was to go on a nature walk across the common onto which the zoo backed. A couple of the teachers got to know Mr and Mrs Sadler and sometimes the children were allowed in by the back gate to see the animals for free.

However, life at the zoo was not the bed of roses it was made out to be. Local residents complained about the noise made by Ajax, especially after he was given de-worming tablets – his roars of pain could be heard in northern Victoria Road. When Sue Lawrence’s aunt visited the zoo, she saw a kangaroo in a small cage; it obviously did not have enough room to hop about and she was so upset by the sight of it that she did not repeat the visit. There were also complaints about shots in the night and horrible smells, and the locals lived with the constant fear that the animals, especially the lions, were not properly fenced in. There was plenty of evidence to justify this concern. Major Kenneth Ayres, the zoo manager, was attacked and badly bitten by a South African raccoon. Various animals escaped, too. Two silver foxes broke out – one was caught, the other shot. The python went missing and the local school had to be closed for two days while the nearby common was searched. The snake was eventually caught – much to the disappointment of the school pupils, who had enjoyed their extra holiday.

When planning permission expired in 1953, the Wimborne and Cranborne RDC decided to close the zoo. Mrs Sadler appealed and another public inquiry was held. At this, all the incidents and complaints came out into the open. Mark Brown, Chairman of Hampreston Parish Council, told the inquiry about the noise made by Ajax. However, it was also learnt how popular the zoo was and that 50,000 people had visited it over the past two years – it was a favourite half-day outing for many local groups. Also in the zoo’s favour was the RSPCA Inspector’s report, which said that conditions for the animals were satisfactory.

In the same year the Minister of Housing said that the zoo’s location was ‘not in the best interests of planning’ but that it could stay in Ferndown, as long as it had moved to another site by 1954. In July 1954 the zoo was reprieved by Dorset CC, but it had to be downsized to a Pets’ Corner only. Mrs Sadler decided it was easier to move, but her search was in vain. She appealed once more, this time to the Queen’s Bench Divisional Court. She was overruled. Eventually, in November 1954, the zoo was closed and the animals were sold, the majority of the ‘pets’ going to Butlins Holiday Camps.

Even after its closure, the zoo still managed to create problems. In the early 1950s, one of the bears had been taken ill and subsequently died. It was buried in the grounds. After the closure of the zoo, it was decided to build more houses on the site and the Water Board was called in to lay new water pipes. While the digger was excavating, a horrible stench arose and on closer examination the decaying corpse of the bear was found. All work was delayed for several days while the site was thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. Only a few years ago, people were still digging up small animal bones in their gardens.

The various artefacts from the zoo tea rooms were sold locally. One informant remembers how he and another lad went to load the kitchen stove onto a trailer and take it to its new home. Unfortunately it was so heavy that they were unable to move it even an inch. Enter a local man called Harold Foot, known as ‘Footie’, who ran a timber business opposite Longham Chapel. ‘What’s the trouble, lads?’ he asked – and promptly lifted the stove and carried it unaided to the trailer. There were other tales of his mighty strength. Did we have the World’s Strongest Man living in Ferndown at the time? Maybe, but that’s another story.

[Our grateful thanks to Audrey Greenhalgh and other Ferndownians for their contributions to this article.If any reader has more information about the zoo, the Ferndown Historical Society would be very pleased to hear from them: contact 01202 872735.]


1. An advertisement for the zoo from the Evening Echo in the 1950s

2. Ajax the lion was a major attraction, but the noise he made was also one of the factors in the zoo’s closure

3. The zoo’s owner, Dorothy Sadler, feeds the Himalayan black bears, Rupert and Mary

4. A visit to the zoo was a treat for children from Ferndown and further afield.Does anyone recognise the little boy?

5. This rather forlorn photograph of one of the Ferndown bears show how standards of housing for zoo animals have improved

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