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Tyrwhitt-Drake and the story of Maidstone's zoo - at Cobtree and Tovil Court

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the closure of one of Kent's most popular tourist attractions. We take a look at the story of Maidstone Zoo.

No-one still alive will remember visiting the first Maidstone Zoo, but judging by our postbag, there are still plenty of people around with fond memories of the second.

Both zoos were run by Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake.

He lived at Cobtree Manor House at Sandling, famous as the model for Dickens' Manor Farm of Dingley Dell in the novel Pickwick Papers.

Born in 1881, as a child Tyrwhitt-Drake kept an extensive range of leghorn chickens and he maintained an interest in poultry all his life, at one stage becoming president of the National Poultry Club.

At 18, he went to work on a cattle ranch in Argentina, from where he brought home his first wild animal – a puma. When he inherited the estate in 1908 from his father, he was able to greatly increase his collection of wild animals. The estate included three farms, Cobtree, Sandling and Tyland, and covered all the land that now makes up Cobtree Manor Park, Cobtree Golf Course and the Kent Life Museum.

Sir Garrard with his famous Royal Cream Ponies
Sir Garrard with his famous Royal Cream Ponies

From 1913, he also began breeding his own collection of Royal Cream Ponies. Sired from a stallion named Prince, which had once pulled Queen Victoria's carriage, Tyrwhitt-Drake's ponies became famed throughout the country as he would lend them out to pantomime productions to pull Cinderella's pumpkin carriage.

A programme for the Northampton New Theatre's production of Cinderella, with Sir Garrard's ponies on the cast list
A programme for the Northampton New Theatre's production of Cinderella, with Sir Garrard's ponies on the cast list

In 1914, he decided to open his animal collection to the public and took a lease on the Tovil Court Estate off Tovil Hill in Maidstone.

The magnificent mansion and its 16-acres of gardens had for many decades been home to a rich widow, Charlotte Mackinnon, but she had died in 1902 and her son and heir, Lt Col Lionel Mackinnon, preferred to live in London.

Tovil Court: home to the first zoo
Tovil Court: home to the first zoo

The zoo, which was known as Tovil Court Zoological and Pleasure Gardens was an instant success. In our multi-media world of today, it is difficult to imagine quite how exciting it must have been. In 1914, before television, and with even film still in its infancy, this was the first time people had had the chance to view many of the exotic animals.

Crowds flocked to see the 250 animals on display which included lions, leopards, bears, hyenas and ostriches as well as many smaller creatures. Access was easy, as Tovil then had its own railway station, with the zoo within walking distance from the platform.

Tom the Leopard at Tovil Court in 1914
Tom the Leopard at Tovil Court in 1914

The Wateringbury History Society has an account of a visit to the zoo by a party of 56 schoolgirls who must have been among the last visitors, as their made the outing on June 29, 1914, the day after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, which was to spark the First World War.

They wrote: "A great many of the animals we had never seen before, but only heard about in our geography lessons. The first was a zebu, or sacred ox, with horns and a hump, and he was very ugly; then we came to a dromedary (camel) and its baby, which made such an awful noise that it frightened us.

"We walked on a little farther to a paddock, where we saw some kangaroos, which made us all laugh the way they hopped about on their hind legs with their young ones hanging out their pouches.

"The parrots next took our attention and were great fun, for some of them could talk, and kept asking us how we were.

"Then we came to several lions, where there were two very fierce handsome ones, which paced up and down . One frightened us by springing at the bars of the cage and knocking out an iron hook. In the same row of cages were a leopard, hyaenas, and bears."

Audrey Austen has a guide to Maidstone, dated 1914, which features the zoo
Audrey Austen has a guide to Maidstone, dated 1914, which features the zoo

Audrey Austen from Coxheath still has a Maidstone guide book from 1914, costing 6d, that belonged to her husband's uncle, Harold Austen, and which mentions the Tovil zoo.

It says: "The Zoological collection comprises about 250 specimens, and includes one of the finest collections of lions and lionesses (seven in number) in England. Specimens of leopards, bears, wolves, hyaenas, jackals, monkeys, foreign cattle and sheep, deer, goats etc are also exhibited.

"In the bird section, eagles and other birds of prey, parrots, ostriches, storks, geese and various water fowl, gulls etc are to be found, and there are also to be seen cases of various reptiles.

"Refreshments can be obtained at popular prices and the Gardens' private orchestra plays daily during the afternoon and evening; there are also camel and donkey rides in addition to swings, shooting booths, galleries and other amusements.

"The gardens are open each day from 11am to 6.30pm and from 6.30pm to 10pm. Admission 3d (no half price)"

The guidebook entry
The guidebook entry

The zoo would no doubt have continued in Tovil for many years if the First World War had not intervened.

Tyrwhitt Drake was forced to close after only six months, because of the difficulty in getting staff - who had all gone off to fight - and because of the sombre mood that had settled on the country.

In August 1914, he wrote: "We have regrettably closed the Zoo. The venture was a success. With weekday takings covering costs and Sunday, which is by far the best day from an attendance point of view, ensuring dividends, then the war broke out and we are now in the general opinion that no one would ever, even if they could afford it, go to the entertainments.

"Hopefully the war will not be too long and we will open it again once hostilities have ceased and the appetite for amusement has returned."

In the meantime he sold around a fifth of his animal collection to the Bronx Zoo in New York - no easy task with the war on.

In September 1915, he wrote: "This summer my animals have succeeded in accomplishing that difficult feat of 'eating their heads off', or in other words costing a lot to keep and not bringing in a penny piece.

"This is one side effect of the general 'pinch' of the war. Another is that I have also lost all my keepers and am reduced to an old ex-carter, aged seventy-three (who unconcernedly left his team and took care of the lions) and a Belgian woman wild animal trainer.

"Having decided to reduce my stock, and with the continental markets closed, with all other people here in the same boat, I turned to America, and have offered a mixed collection to Dr Hornaday, director of the Bronx Zoo Park, New York.

"A deal was soon struck and 50 animals and birds were to be prepared to be shipped including, a lioness, guanaco, reed buck, eight giant rats, British wild cat, monkeys and four greater birds of paradise. I decided to take them myself.

"On June 15, I left Cobtree Manor, Maidstone, in a motor lorry for Tilbury to embark on the Atlantic Transport’s SS Minnehaha with all packed up in crates and their food.

"I planned to supply fresh horse meat for the carnivores, but the steamship's agent insisted that nothing but the best beef could go into the refrigerators. I could find no affordable best beef, so I bought two or three dead donkeys and had the carcases dressed out to look like beef, and in they went to the refrigerators to the satisfaction of all.

"Because of the loss of the Lusitania in May (torpedoed by the Germans) there were only eight first class passengers instead of the usual 250.

"We zigzagged down the Channel to avoid submarines, but once past the Scilly Isles we were safe, the submarines do not hunt so far.

"The only things that happened after that included: one giant rat killed and eaten by his friends, one loose reed buck, and one scratched hand belonging to a curious sailor experimenting with the lioness’s reach."

The SS Minniehaha which transported Sir Garrard and his animals to America
The SS Minniehaha which transported Sir Garrard and his animals to America

The zoo did open again, but not until 20 years later, and then Tyrwhitt- Drake established the zoo on his own estate at Cobtree.

After his first attempt at opening a zoo in Tovil was kiboshed by the outbreak of the First World War, Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake took his collection of animals on the road, touring the country as Garrard's Royal Circus and Travelling Menagerie.

It soon became apparent that Tyrwhitt-Drake had a natural gift for showmanship and he would often appear himself in the ring riding his ponies or even performing a Wild West act.

But travelling with animals was not always easy, as he recorded in his journal: "I’ve had a hellish time getting the menagerie back home to Maidstone from the World’s Fair at Islington.

"We pulled out at 4pm on Sunday and got no further than New Cross when it began to snow. We reached Faringdon at 8pm the snow was so thick the hills were becoming impassable for the lorries.

"We got bread from a local village to feed the bears and other animals and waited for morning, it was no better. It took us to 6pm to get to the top of the hill, and then another two hours to get the lion wagon out of a bank it had slid into, it had overpowered the lorry. We eventually arrived home at 2am – taking thirty-four hours to cover thirty-four miles."

The sign at the entry to the new zoo
The sign at the entry to the new zoo

Eventually, Tyrwhitt-Drake gave up touring and on March 29, 1934, he re-opened the zoo, this time at his home at Cobtree Manor near Sandling.

He invited his friend and fellow circus owner Bertram Mills to cut the tape as guest of honour.

Sir Garrard with Gert and Daisy
Sir Garrard with Gert and Daisy

The zoo again had an exotic collection of animals. Everyone remembers the famous elephants Gert and Daisy, who were named after two female comedy radio stars of the era - Gert and Daisy Waters, but in fact there was other elephants; Lizzie who transferred from Little Tom Fossett's Circus in 1940, but who unfortunately died from a heart attack a year later, and a Burmese elephant called Cert who gave rides to visitors six at a time on a castle on her back.

Cert the elephant giving rides
Cert the elephant giving rides

Tyrwhitt-Drake had already successfully bred two lion cubs in captivity from their parents Jock and Jeannette, and there was also a tiger, called Tiger Tim, who quite happily shared a cage with a lioness named Alice.

Other animals included an armadillo, zebra, llamas, chimpanzees, monkeys, a brown bear, polar bears, partridges, bison, Siberian wolves and from 1949 a leopard named Whiskers, which had been hand-reared as a household pet by British servicemen in India after it became orphaned as a cub.

The latter caused consternation several years later, when one of the former owners, Paddy Gillard, visited the zoo, and called to the animal, which recognised him and allowed him to stroke her.

There was also a petting corner for kids and a guinea pig castle, where scores of the tailless creatures lived - in a castle.

The zoo became a popular destination for school trips.

Children could also ride on a pony and have their photo taken by local photographer Ronald White, who negotiated a concession with the zoo. Alternatively, they could pose sitting on a stuffed lion.

Brothers Gordon and Alec Crouch pose on the lion in 1936
Brothers Gordon and Alec Crouch pose on the lion in 1936

Entrance to the park was a long walk from the nearest bus stop on the A229, so Tyrwhitt-Drake installed a narrow-gauge railway, half a mile in length, to ferry customers in. There were two locomotives, designed to look like steam engines, but in fact both were powered by Simplex petrol engines, which pulled D-class wagons each seating 18 people.

One of the visitors to the zoo was the actress and singer Jessie Mathews (known as The Dancing Divinity), who came in May 1939 with her (second) husband film director Sonnie Hale and their adopted daughter, Catherine Hale-Munroe.

There is a photo of them riding the train with Tyrwhitt-Drake behind and the little girl sitting atop the locomotive.

The zoo opened seasonally from March till October, and showman that he was, Tyrwhitt-Drake re-kindled interest every year by inviting the stars of the day to the opening - celebrities we would call them now.

Among those appearing were 17-year-old singer Petula Clark and comedy actor Stanley Holloway, as well as John Mills, Julie Andrews, broadcaster Richard Dimbleby and conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent.

Others, perhaps less well known today, but famous names in their time included John Robertson Hare, who featured in numerous stage farces and also appeared in 43 feature films between 1930 and 1972; then there was Alfred Drayton, another stage actor who went on to make 38 movies before his death in 1949; and Christopher Stone, a broadcaster who is reputed to have been the country's first ever disc jockey, after persuading the BBC to allow him to play recorded music, interspersed with chat on his own show in 1927.

Stone always worn a dinner jacket and bow tie for his broadcasts - even though it was radio!

Other celebrity guests included Claude Dampier - the comedy actor who was billed as "The Professional Idiot" and who was the star of Boys Will Be Boys and No Monkey Business, and his Australian actress wife Billie Carlyle.

There was actor Richard Ainley, whose film credits included Above Suspicion and Bullets for O'Hara, and the actor Gordon Harker, who visited in character as his then most famous persona of the policeman Inspector Hornleigh (though he actually made 68 movies and only three were as the inspector).

Even our Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, made a visit in 1946.

The singer Gracie Fields made a special visit in May 1938 to christen the zoo's newest arrival: a baby elephant that Gracie named Ma Chaw after tipping a glass of Champagne over its head.

Another regular was the Tovil-based actor Richard Hearne - a personal friend of Tyrwhitt-Drake. He hardly ever missed an opening in all the zoo's 25 years and usually visited in character as the bumbling Mr Pastry.

Five years after the zoo opened for the second time, Britain was again at war.

This time, the zoo stayed open throughout the hostilities, but not without difficulty.

A shortage of meat made it difficult to find enough food for the big cats, who consumed between 6lbs and 12lbs a day. Tyrwhitt-Drake was forced to slaughter some of his own ponies to feed them.

The zoo was also struck by a doodlebug which put the light railway out of action for a while, but fortunately caused no injuries.

Anti-aircraft guns were set up nearby, but it seems the animals soon grew accustomed to the noise.

A report in The Times of October 14, 1940, reads: "Some very interesting reports have come from the Maidstone Zoo. The animals show no reaction to the most violent air activity or AA fire, on the other hand, the two chimpanzees though they do not mind the guns, stamp and shriek at the sound of the air raid siren.

"Of the two Emu's, one is indifferent to the noise, but the other gets so excited at the sound of the AA guns and rushes about so violently that fears are entertained for its safety.

"A Cow Elephant about 20 years old is so sagacious that she hurries to her house if the AA barrage catches her in the open, but once inside does not mind.

"Finally, one Lion, normally a quiet animal, after a shell fragment hit him in his cage (doing little hurt as it ricocheted off the bars) has become conditioned to the AA guns, starting to rip his cage to bits every time they start firing."

The zoo survived a number of catastrophes. Barely weeks after opening, a young 16-year-old keeper was mauled by a bear, developed septicaemia and died. Far from discouraging visitors the tragedy created a surge in numbers as everyone wanted to see the boy's killer.

There were also escapes. During the war, a wallaby got out and made its way all the way to Borstal near Rochester before a householder was able to corner it in his Andersen air-raid shelter and send for Sir Garrard.

At other times, a wolf, a camel and several monkeys all made their bid for freedom, before being recaptured, but the most serious occasion was in 1951 when two lions got out.

One was successfully recovered, but the second had to be shot.

Despite the difficulties, it was not waning attendances that caused the zoo to close at the end of its 25th season, but rather Sir Garrard's waning health.

After several million admissions, the zoo shut its gates for the last time on October 4, 1959.

Sir Garrard died five years later, aged 83.

Sir Garrard is buried in Maidstone Cemetery with his wife, Lady Edna
Sir Garrard is buried in Maidstone Cemetery with his wife, Lady Edna

Many Kent Online readers have their own recollections of Maidstone Zoo.

Colin Whittle, from Marden, has sent us a photograph of his two brothers visiting the zoo, he thinks around 1935 - ie soon after it opened at Cobtree Manor. The boys are John Whittle, born in 1928 and still alive and living in Rochester, and his late brother, Bert Whittle, born in 1930, but who unfortunately died while doing his National Service training in 1951.

John and Bert Whittle at the lion enclosure in 1935
John and Bert Whittle at the lion enclosure in 1935

Betty Crouch (nee Fowler) from Allington, now aged 81, said: "I almost grew up in Maidstone Zoo, we went there as a family so many times.

"I can’t remember where my father parked the car, but we always did the final part of the journey on the little train, I think the cost was 6d. First inside the entrance gate was a peacock. The highlight would be to see if he had his whole tail displayed. Next were the Dingo Dogs and somewhere some Hyenas.

"I remember Gert and Daisy (the elephants) would be behind enormous bars in the Elephant House with their trunks swinging backwards and forwards and people feeding them buns on to the end of their trunks.

"We had photographs taken on the back of a white pony and my husband and his brother had one taken on the back of a life-like stuffed lion.

"I also remember there was a children's zoo with rabbits and guinea pigs.There was a penguin pool and ‘yellow’ polar bears in a pit.

"The monkey house was always exciting to walk through, and as for the lions cage, you could hear them roaring at feeding time some distance from the park.

"At the end, we always enjoyed a ice cream and teas."

Pictured is Betty Crouch with a photograph of her late husband Gordon Crouch and brother Alec at Maidstone Zoo in 1936
Pictured is Betty Crouch with a photograph of her late husband Gordon Crouch and brother Alec at Maidstone Zoo in 1936

David and Peter Sargeant, also from Allington, sent in a picture of themselves at the zoo in 1955, when they were small boys. They are pictured with their mum Mavis Sargeant, and the photo was taken by their dad William (Bill) Sargeant on a Box Brownie camera. David was five at the time, Peter four, and the family then were living at Medina Road in Ditton.

David and Peter Sargeant with their mother Mavis in 1955
David and Peter Sargeant with their mother Mavis in 1955

David said: "I remember we were pretty scared when Dad wanted us to pose in front of the lions' cage - we didn't want to turn our backs on them!

"What I recall most was the the vibe of the place. It was so unusual to have a zoo. The whole place was buzzing with excitement, because as you went along you never knew what you would come across next.

"We all had far fewer toys in those days - we had a Meccano set and cowboy outfits - so to go to the zoo was a real treat!"

Romantic day out: Colin Green and Lillian Hogden
Romantic day out: Colin Green and Lillian Hogden

Sue Black from Boughton Monchelsea doesn't remember visiting the zoo herself, but remembers her parents, Colin Green and Lillian Hogden, reminiscing over it. She said: "I have a photograph of them at the zoo just before they married. I imagine it was my Dad's idea of a romantic day out!"

One supposes that her father found the zoo - if not the company - rather tame. He had been a war hero in the Special Operations Executive and been dropped behind enemy lines to work with Italian partisans fighting against Mussolini.

Betty Page from Madginford in Bearsted, has a unique memory, not mentioned by anyone else. She recalls trips to the zoo with her sister Isabelle Burton and a family friend in the 1940s, when they were around 10 or 11.

She said: "We always took our autograph books because if you asked Sir Garrard, he would do a quick sketch of an animal or bird in them for you."

The owner of Maidstone Zoo, Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake, was by all accounts a renaissance man for the 20th century. His interests were many and varied.

Born in Maidstone on May 22, 1881, the only child of Hugh William Tyrwhitt-Drake, a brewery manager, and his wife Anne (née Hopper), Tyrwhitt-Drake was educated at Charterhouse School.

He married Edna Mary Vine in 1925, when he was already 44, and the couple remained childless - sad for them but fortunate for the town because when he died without heirs, Tyrwhitt-Drake left much of his considerable estate in a charitable trust to the borough of Maidstone.

This included Cobtree Park itself and the extensive collection of horse-drawn carriages that he had amassed - purported to be the largest collection in the country, and now housed in the Tyrwhitt-Drake Carriage Museum in Mill Street.

Apart from his zoo, he had business interests in several companies including the Medway Lower Navigation Company.

He was active in local politics and was first elected to Maidstone council in 1912, serving 38 years until 1950.

Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake riding through Maidstone High Street in 1933
Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake riding through Maidstone High Street in 1933

During that time he was 12 times elected Mayor of Maidstone, bringing a sense of panache to the role unequalled before or since. He would turn up to civic functions either in his own yellow Rolls Royce, or sometimes riding a white stallion to represent the Invicta White Horse of Kent.

He also donated to the town much of the borough's existing Mayoral regalia to give the roll more dignity.

In return he was made an Honorary Freeman of the Borough in 1930. He was knighted in 1936 in recognition of his public service and charitable work. In 1945 he was appointed a Deputy Lieutenant of Kent and in 1956, he was made High Sheriff of Kent.

He seems to have regarded himself mostly as a showman and circus owner.

He wrote three books on the subject: Reminiscences of Showlife: Beasts and Circuses (1936), My Life with Animals (1939) and The English Circus and Fairground (1946).

His portrait as Mayor of Maidstone is in the collection at Maidstone Museum and Art Gallery.

A painting of Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake on his famous white horse
A painting of Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake on his famous white horse

So what happened to the two zoos?

The original home of Maidstone Zoo - Tovil Court - no longer exists.

The last owner Lt Col Lionel Mackinnon was killed in action in 1915 and soon after the house and estate were snapped up by local paper-maker Albert Edwin Reed, who had founded the nearby Tovil Mills in 1894.

In what now looks like an act of architectural vandalism, he demolished the crenellated manor house to build instead a clubhouse for his mill workers. It opened in 1920 and was known initially as the Tovil Memorial Institute and now exists as Tovil Working Men's Club.

Tovil Working Men's Club, Tovil Hill, Tovil, is on the site of the first zoo
Tovil Working Men's Club, Tovil Hill, Tovil, is on the site of the first zoo

Tovil Station, which was actually on the Barming side of the river, and was the stop-off point for many visiting the zoo, was closed in 1943. Only a few old brick supports remain to show where the line once crossed over the river to go into the paper mill sidings.

Tovil Rail Station is long gone
Tovil Rail Station is long gone

Similarly there is little left of the second Maidstone Zoo, but Cobtree Manor Park does still have the old Elephant House, which has been converted into a Men's Shed, and a wood at Cobtree Manor is still called Wolf Wood, recalling its time as the zoo's wolf enclosure.

The Elephant House in Cobtree Manor Park today
The Elephant House in Cobtree Manor Park today

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