June Williams clearly remembers the day in 1931 when her family moved into Oakfield Manor in Upton, Cheshire. The darkened mansion was forbidding and freezing cold – mould grew thickly on the kitchen tiles – but in a situation where most four-year-olds might reach for their teddy, June had a real live gibbon to cuddle. In the months and years to come, there would be lion cubs in the kitchen and baby chimps in the beds. Sometimes, Minnie, the friendly tapir on whose back June rode, got stuck on the stairs. “It seemed completely normal to me,” she recalls. “When I visited school friends, I used to wonder where all their animals were.”
Today Oakfield Manor is the centre of the world-famous Chester Zoo, an attraction with 11,000 animals of more than 400 species and an advanced conservation programme. However, as a new six-part BBC1 drama series makes clear, it all started with a dream, a gibbon and two goats. Our Zoo (think Call the Midwife meets Wild at Heart) charts the struggle of June’s visionary father, George Mottershead, to establish the first “zoo without bars” and the effect of that vision on his unorthodox family.
“My father was a very determined man,” says June, now 88. “He started a market garden. We had a few birds and animals there and people used to come to visit them. That’s how the zoo idea came about.”
The whole family was roped in. June’s grandmother (played by Bafta-winning actress Anne Reid) was less than enchanted by the enterprise, but sold the tickets. Her mother and her adored elder sister Muriel (“Mew”) took on the day-to-day care of the animals.
“We couldn’t really afford to buy animals in the beginning, so they were mainly rescued from circuses or private menageries. Dad would never say no, at any time, to any animal, even if we had nowhere to put it, so we were forever building pens out of whatever was to hand.
“After the Second World War, when materials were scarce because everything was needed to rebuild bombed-out houses, we constructed the lion enclosure out of old road blocks. And of course, during the war, some zoos were having to shoot their animals because of food shortages, so we took in a lot of ‘refugees’. Luckily horsemeat was never rationed, and some animals such as lions thrived on that, but for others it was very tough. The bears seemed to manage on a mixture of oats and stale bread, but we tried the penguins on strips of horsemeat soaked in cod liver oil – they weren’t fooled.”
While the zoo would become one of Cheshire’s best-loved attractions, neighbours’ early fears about escaped animals weren’t entirely unfounded. “Dad was absolutely insistent that the animals should not be kept behind bars – and of course there was no such thing as health and safety back then – but he did push it at times. It was his idea to put chimps behind a water moat, but really he had no idea if they could swim or not. In fact, it was later discovered that if the moat has a solid bottom, they can simply walk through it.
“When animals did escape, we usually managed to keep it quiet – except for Ferdinand the bison who, after he lost his wife, used to visit the cows on a neighbouring farm. Mr Cheers, the farmer, would storm up to the house saying, ‘That bison’s been at my cows again’ and my father would say, ‘Never!’ Then there was a calf that was definitely Ferdinand’s, so we couldn’t keep on denying it.”
Back in the early days of the zoo, it often fell to June, as the youngest and most dispensable “member of staff” to collect animals from the Liverpool docks. “I remember travelling home on the bus with a monkey. I had it in a cardboard box, which I put up in the luggage rack. But of course it weed and the bottom of the box started to disintegrate. The lady next to me kept saying, ‘There’s something leaking from your box.’ The smell was terrible and the monkey was bouncing off the sides, but I couldn’t bring myself to admit what was really in there, so I got off the bus long before my stop.
“Another time, Dad made me walk two elephants home right through the middle of Chester from the railway station. I was a teenager at the time and had never been so embarrassed in my life.”
For all the challenges presented by her eccentric family lifestyle, June was passionately attached to the animals in her care. “I know they say nowadays that you’re not supposed to treat animals like humans, but ours really were part of the family.” Looking back on more than 80 years among the animals – she’s still very much involved with Chester Zoo – June is hugely gratified by the changes in zoo keeping. “It’s much better for the animals now. In the old days they had some very strange ideas about animal behaviour – they even used to say that they couldn’t communicate with each other. We did our best, but we didn’t really know about diet or habitat. Vets had very limited knowledge of exotic animals – we used to call in the family doctor for the monkeys – and of course there were no antibiotics. All that’s changed now and I think it’s marvellous.”
Our Zoo, she admits, generously, is an opportunity for viewers to see just how much our understanding of animals has progressed.
On a personal level, the filming of the series has been “hugely rewarding. It’s all such a very long time ago and, at the time, I took it all for granted. I feel so fortunate to have the chance to relive my childhood, a chance to appreciate just what an adventure it was.”
Our Zoo begins on BBC1 tonight at 9.00pm (not Scotland)