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Newtown Zoo, Wellington (1906 - continuing)
Lisa J Truttman
An anonymous letter writer to the Evening Post apparently suggested that a zoological society be initiated in Wellington in the early 1890s. His suggestions unheeded, he repeated them again in May 1898. “Thirty-One Years’ Colonist” even suggested a suitable location for such a zoological garden: Newtown Park. The admission, he added, should be 6d. 1 Possibly the same writer tried again in 1903, this time as “Zoologist”, again proposing Newtown Park. The story of Newtown Zoo shares this factor with that of the start of Auckland Zoo in the 20th century: letters to the editor, expressing all manner of opinion and different points of view, helping to keep the notion of a municipal zoo in the spotlight. In April 1900, M. P. Cameron wrote to the Evening Post, suggesting that if the Government intended shutting down the Mount Cook Gaol and giving the grounds to the city of Wellington, “why not covert the building into a museum and aquarium and lay the grounds off as a park and zoological gardens?” 2
By 1904, the Premier Richard Seddon is said to have stated that he was “favourable to the establishment of a zoological collection in Wellington”. The Fitzgerald Bros. circus declared a promise of “all assistance in their power to further the scheme”, and a site in the Botanical Gardens, where the hapless monkeys, cassowary and tadpoles had been just 22 years before, was suggested. 3 Nothing happened, but the idea refused to go away.
In November 1905, a Dr. Chapple spoke in Newtown, and among other opinions stated that “No place in Wellington was so suitable for a zoological garden as Newtown Park, and the education and amusement of the young demanded what most other countries of the world deemed it their duty to supply.” 4
In April 1906, it all came together. That month, the Bostock & Wombwell Circus and Menagerie, one of Britain’s oldest and dating from early in the 19th century, arrived in Wellington and set up their tents on a section of ground in Lower Cuba Street. Among the human acts they advertised performing lions and tigers with “athletic baboons introduced by Captain Frank Taylor.” 5 By 6 April, a public meeting was planned for later that month where it would be proposed “to ask the City Council to devote a portion of the eastern part of Newtown Park to the purposes of a
Zoological Gardens … It is thought that there would not be much difficulty in getting a few animals for the Gardens … There is also a suggestion that a museum should be combined with the Zoological Gardens.” 6 Captain Frank Taylor of the circus almost immediately made the offer of a one-year-old lion to the city if the zoological gardens were established.7 The public meeting was held on 10 April, at which the zoo proposal was backed and Captain Taylor’s offer accepted.
On 20 April, Wellington City Council was waited upon by a deputation from the public meeting. They presented a petition, and pointed out that having a zoo at Newtown Park would secure increased tramways traffic; that a zoo had educational advantages; that the City would not necessarily face heavy expenses as initially animals could be displayed from New Zealand and Australia; and that Taylor’s offer of the lion could start it off. The Council agreed to accept Taylor’s offer, and asked their Finance Committee to consider drawing up estimates for the establishment of the zoo. Councillor Cohen had his doubts: he asked whether a man would have to be specially engaged to look after the lion (the reply then was no, the existing parks staff would be appointed to do the work), and made the comment that “It was better for the Council to devote its funds to looking after our streets and footpaths than to spending it upon lions and tigers.” There were several noes along with his -- but the ayes carried the day. 9
By June 1906, the lion was installed. A newspaper letter writer observed him playing with his feed-tin, and seemed to be “moping for want of a mate, after coming from a circus, where he had plenty of company.” The writer suggested using one of the municipal pound’s stray dogs as a companion for the big cat. “Even if the lion did kill and eat the dog, the latter would be no loss, as any way he would have been killed by the council, and it would be a much more noble death for the dog to be killed by the king of beasts than to be smothered by the council.” 10
The lion was still a lone exhibit as at November 1906, with the committee which attended the April Council meeting expressing concerns that an area had not been marked out within the park as a future zoo. 11 Things looked as if they’d end up like the earlier Botanical Gardens menagerie experiment: but by July 1907, the zoo (“Modest, but useful”, according to the Evening Post headline) had other occupants beside Leo, king of the beasts: guinea pigs including one named Gus, a emu (sadly soon deceased, no one knew how or why, but they suspected stoning), seven wekas, a white parrot, some doves, a morepork, and white pink-eyed French rabbits.
By January 1908, the year in which John James Boyd was to purchase the Aramoho Tea Gardens near Wanganui and start on his own road toward zoological fame -- the Newtown Zoo was still small, but popular. The predictions that it would have a positive effect on tramway receipts seemed to be justified. School children came from as far away as Masterton to see the zoo. Some, unfortunately, took pleasure only in tormenting the caged animals, as happened before in Wanganui. 12 Nevertheless, the Council, seeing the success also of the museum at Newtown Park, voted in April 1908 to extend the zoo. 13
Boyd would also have seen what was the main drawcard for such a collection of animals -- beasts of prey, and especially lions. By early 1908, the lion was dubbed “King Dick” (although Rev. D C Bates of the Citizens Zoological Gardens Committee said in a letter to the Evening Post at that time that the lion had been called “Dick Seddon” by Wombwell & Bostock, all earlier references indicate he was known simply as “Leo”) and had a couple of companions.
By the end of that
year, the zoo had enlarged to include kangaroos, dingos, a one-humped camel on “King Dick’s Hill”, monkeys, a tuatara, and a new aviary. The custodian, a Mr. Albert Ernest Louis Birtling, negotiated with other zoos for terms of trade or even sale for more specimens. However, vandalism still proved to be a major problem. 15
At a meeting held on 3 February 1909, the Citizens Zoological Gardens Committee voted to become the New Zealand Zoological Society.
Right from the start, however, the new Society
faced a number of crises. A dingo escaped from the zoo and had to be shot in the streets of suburban Wellington. Other animals had suddenly died, been lost or had not been paid for. 17 The new Zoological Society faded away, and the Wellington City Council’s management of the zoo came under question. The Council began an enquiry into the management of the zoo in June that year; 18 then, later that year, a libel case erupted between the former head keeper of the zoo Thomas William Arthur and Birtling the superintendent where Arthur said that Birtling had written to a Queensland poultry farmer that Arthur had been “discharged by the Wellington City Council for his gross incompetence, neglectful and careless ways, and mischief-making.” awarded £100 damages,
Birtling lost, Arthur was
and the magnifying glass was once more focussed on the management,
or rather mis-management in the opinion of some, of Newtown Zoo. Birtling’s comments in a letter he wrote to the Evening Post were viewed as out of order by the City Reserves Committee later that month. 21
Now, in early 1910, with Boyd’s privately operated Aramoho Zoo going from strength to strength, with animals imported via Wellington’s docks from almost all over the globe before the admiring eyes of the local press, those within the Wellington Council running the Newtown Zoo must have faced an embarrassing situation. A charge for admission was called for, even if only to see the “stars” of the zoo, such as King Dick. A “distinguished scientist devoted to zoology” advised the Evening Post that, in his view, “it would be preferable to pass the ‘Zoo’ over to a private entrepreneur, on the lines suggested, than to continue the present vague policy, which had not yet been clearly defined.”
Boyd certainly made known his willingness to take over the
Newtown Zoo, and add it to his seemingly growing chain of commercial zoological successes up and down the country.
Action was taken to stop the rot by mid 1910. The Wellington Council dismissed Birtling by August, and the old Zoological Society reformed into a new Society at a meeting that month, keen to campaign for the retention of the zoo in public ownership.
The Council decided in
November that a special committee would be set up to control the zoo, and that the new Society could provide members to sit on such a committee. To get informed advice on the zoo’s operation, they invited one of the sons of the late Melbourne Zoo director Albert Le Souef to report on the Newtown Zoo.24 The measures worked. Mr Langridge who succeeded Birtling as Superintendent, would go on to improve and stabilise the zoo, and even negotiated in 1915 with Boyd, now proprietor of the Royal Oak Zoo in Onehunga, for young lions to replenish stocks in Wellington. 25
Newtown Zoo continues to this day as New Zealand’s oldest zoo, and also the first publiclyowned zoo in the country. Its survival possibly helped serve as a model for Auckland’s own zoo in 1922.
Evening Post, 25 May 1898, p. 6 Evening Post, 5 April 1900, p. 6 3 Evening Post, 5 February 1904 4 Evening Post, 6 November 1905 5 Advertisement, Evening Post, 2 April 1906 6 Evening Post, 6 April 1906, p. 6 7 Evening Post, 9 April 1906, p. 6 8 Evening Post, 11 April 1906, p. 7 9 Evening Post, 21 April 1906, p. 9 10 Letter from “Leo”, Evening Post, 9 June 1906, p. 9
Evening Post, 9 November 1906, p. 5 Evening Post, 7 January 1908, p. 2 13 Evening Post, 10 April 1908, p. 5 14 Evening Post, 26 March 1908, p. 3 15 Evening Post, 11 December 1908, p. 3; 12 December 1908, p. 6 16 Evening Post, 4 February 1909, p. 3 17 Evening Post, 8 April 1909 18 Evening Post, 3 June 1909, p. 3 19 Evening Post, 1 December 1909, p. 9 20 Evening Post, 2 December 1909, p. 3 21 Evening Post, 17 December 1909, p. 3 22 Evening Post, 28 February 1910, p. 8 23 Evening Post, 26 August 1910, p. 3 24 Evening Post, 18 November 1910, p. 9 25 Evening Post, 9 January 1915, p. 8; 18 October 1915, p. 6