Zoos are great fun. Ruined castles are even more fun. So when the Tory politician William Ward, Third Earl of Dudley, decided in the late 1930s to turn his ruined castle into the backdrop for a zoo, he merged the best of both worlds. Dudley Zoo is still operating today, open to the public, and has been owned by the Dudley Metropolitan Council since 1977. It is hard not to picture the looks of joy on the faces of the Ranters, Diggers, and Levellers had they heard that this would happen roughly three centuries after their struggles during the English Civil War.
Nota bene: while none of my previous blog posts have featured a soundtrack, I would highly recommend spinning Barnstormer 1649‘s “Restoration Tragedy” whilst viewing this post. Then go buy the album – it’s absolutely the best traditional-folk-punk retelling of the English Civil War you’ll ever hear.
The original Dudley Castle was constructed of wood a mere 4 years after the Norman conquest, in 1070. It is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. In the ensuing half-century, a second fortification – this one of stone -went up on the site, now in the possession of the Paganel family; it was able to withstand a siege by King Stephen’s forces in 1138. However, when Gervase Paganell joined the failed rebellion against King Henry II in 1173, the King ordered the castle razed, and Paganell (having regained the King’s favor through a substantial bribe) lived out his life in an unfortified manor house on the grounds. Paganell’s nephew Ralph de Somery I inherited the estate upon the former’s death, and in 1262 his son Roger de Somery II began to rebuild the castle – the ruined keep of which is still standing. It is believed that the stone fortifications of the third castle were completed upon the end of male Somery succession in 1321.
Future landowners who laid claim to the third castle would often adopt the surname “Dudley”, and in the early 15th century, it became the seat of the Barony of Dudley. Numerous additions, outbuildings, and improvements were made to the castle over the centuries. William Sharington, an architect noted for his adoption of Italian Renaissance conventions in his designs, and the “Sharington Range” nested within the outer fortifications is still regarded as a historically significant piece of architecture, despite its ruined state. A chapel, more accommodations, and other buildings were also constructed.
Over the years, the land and title changed hands numerous times, until it landed in the hands of Colonel Thomas Leveson, a relative of Royalist parliament member Sir Richard Leveson. Thomas, a staunch Royalist himself, began to amass troops after the English Civil War broke out in Worcestershire, just a stone’s throw away to the South, in 1642. By 1644, the Roundheads had besieged the castle, led by Sir William Brereton – but the stalwart Leveson held out for two years. Finally, he saw no alternative to surrender, and in 1646, the castle was sacked and surrendered to the Roundheads. For his trouble, Leveson was one of only 25 Royalists subjected to perpetual banishment and confiscation in 1651.
The castle a mere shell of its former self, it fell further and further into ruin. While largely left to crumble for 200 years, ignored by the landowners who saw no utility in maintaining it, in the 19th century the Romantic notion of ruins tourism sprung up, and three successive Earls of Dudley cleaned up and maintained what remained, until the idea struck William Ward, 3rd Earl of Dudley, to turn the grounds into a zoo.
The Dudley Zoo
When the idea struck Ward, an aristocrat who was involved in Conservative party politics, to open a zoo on the castle grounds, he quickly formed the Dudley Zoological Society with two of his friends: Ernest Marsh, the director of a meat-packing factory, and Captain Frank Cooper, owner of a marmalade factory. It just so happened that Captain Cooper owned something else – the failing Oxford Zoo. From the formation of the idea in 1935, it only took a year for the group to plan and build out the initial 13 buildings, designed by Berthold Lubetkin. Coincidentally – or perhaps not so coincidentally when you consider that we’re talking about a group of Tory aristocrats – Cooper folded Oxford Zoo in 1936 and Dudley Zoo filled its exhibits with Cooper’s stock.
The zoo opened to great fanfare on 7 May 1937. A quarter-million attendees saw the zoo on opening day; almost a million would see it in its first year. Exactly one month after the zoo opened, a Malayan brown bear escaped, and was beaten up by a policeman with a truncheon. The bear escaped again, and was shot dead. Despite the scandal, the zoo was a steady draw, and by its second year of operation had earned enough money to add a railway to circumnavigate it.
Some time in 1970, the zoo was purchased by a private interest, which only held it for a short time; in 1977 it became public property, owned by the Dudley Municipal Council. A charity was set up to maintain the zoo, and it runs to this day. Visitors get to experience the fun of a zoo, the excitement of medieval castle ruins, and the Modernist architecture of Lubetkin – 12 of his original buildings are currently listed. Sadly, the zoo has had to accommodate changing times; many of the larger animals, such as elephants and polar bears, are long gone. The Penguin Pool, one of the non-listed Lubetkin designs, has been abandoned for ages; as it turns out, the zoo’s decision to replace Lubetkin’s rubber with concrete was harming the penguins’ feet. Even the architect’s daughter has called for it to be demolished; the penguins have been moved to safety. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating place – with history, Modernism, and penguins!
The VistaScreen Stereoviews
Given that Dudley is only a two-and-a-half hour ride from London, regular readers of this blog can likely already guess who photographed the zoo in the 1950s: Stanley Long, of VistaScreen. We already know that Long was capable of taking lousy zoo photographs; perhaps having to dedicate 5 hours to the commute would make him expend a little more energy with Dudley Zoo? After all, zoos were popular subjects among children, who were some of the most prominent collectors of VistaScreen cards outside of tourists and men receiving unmarked brown packages containing Long’s nude studies. But let’s allow the stereoviews to speak for themselves, in the order in which they were presented:
Clearly, Stanley Long was capable of taking some really great zoo photos when he felt like it. He must not have felt like it at ZSL London Zoo, given the quality of those bizarrely common stereoviews. Perhaps he was inspired by the history of the place – the Castle, the English Civil War, the architecture, the choice animals. In any case, these photos were likely taken less than two decades after the zoo gates were open, and provide a rare stereoscopic glance into the early days of a zoo built around a historic ruined castle.