Sunday, December 11, 2011

Oakfield--Chester Zoo

Oakfield House was originally a large house built for Benjamin Chaffers Roberts. Although originally built c1885 by E A Ould, only a short wing remains from this building. Most of the building dates from the 1892 rebuild by H Beswick.In 1930, the estate was bought by George Mottershead to house his private animal collection. This was the foundation of Chester Zoo, which surrounds the house, and the North of England Zoological Society in 1934, which now runs Chester Zoo.

West range of former stables at Oakfield, now Chester Zoo. Dated 1886, probably designed by E.A.Ould for B.Chaffers Roberts. Subsequent alterations have included conversion for use as a lion house for George Mottershead, in the 1930s.

George Mottershead builds the lion enclosure at Chester Zoo, with the help of Mary the chimpanzee

The man pictured laying bricks with a chimpanzee is George Mottershead – the founder of Chester Zoo and one of Sale's famous sons. The story goes that George, on visiting the long-gone Belle Vue Zoo as a child, became so upset at seeing large animals in cages he told his father he would one day create a zoo without bars.

This comment is featured in most histories of the zoo, but a lesser known fact about George is that he is from Sale – a fact rediscovered by another George.

Historian and author George Cogswell has published a book about George’s life and his connection to Sale, which coincided with the zoo’s 80th anniversary celebrations.

George said: "I had an immediate empathy with George.

"His dislike for the Belle Vue zoo and the conditions in which animals were housed there had a familiar ring about it from my own personal experiences as a lad at the London Zoo."

George was born at 33 Lindow Terrace, now Lindow Street, in Sale Moor in 1894, to botanist Albert and Lucy and was baptised at St Ann’s Church.

The family, who later moved to Old Hall Street, visited Belle Vue Zoo to celebrate the end of the Boer War, where George was struck by the sight of an elephant standing in a foul-smelling building, its face pressed against thick iron bars.

It was an image that would stay with him for the rest of his life and in his teenage years he created aviaries, tanks and larger runs for his pet lizards and snakes in preparation for his ‘zoo without bars’ founded 30 years later.

George married Elizabeth Atkinson – records describe her as a ‘spinster’ aged just 27 – at St Mary Magdalen Church, Ashton-on-Mersey, and the couple, who went on to have two daughters, lived on Northenden Road.

In 1930, George moved to Oakfield House in Upton-upon-Chester with his wife and daughters June and Muriel, where despite huge opposition from neighbours, the zoo opened the first year with exhibits including two Canadian brown bears, some monkeys and birds.

The animals would be kept in spacious enclosures while early photographs of the Mottershead family show they were used to the company of chimpanzees, monkeys and lion cubs.

The zoo combatted Second World War fuel and food shortages by encouraging the public to adopt animals and thrived in the post-war period.

George would go on to receive an OBE in 1973.

He died, aged 83, in 1978 and his ashes were scattered, along with those of his wife Elizabeth almost a decade later, in the zoo’s Chinese gardens.

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