The Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust - a history

The Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust - a history

Herbert Whitley was born in 1886 and raised in Liverpool. His father, Edward Whitley, was a businessman; the family fortune came from the brewing industry. Edward Whitley died in 1892. His widow, Eleanor, moved her five children to Paignton in 1904. They took over the Primley Estate when Herbert was only 18.

Herbert Whitley's zoo began when, as a child, his mother gave him a pair of canaries. He went on to breed and exhibit finches, rabbits, poultry and pigeons. Herbert and his brother William formed a partnership to manage Primley. Their master plan was to create a breeding centre for pedigree livestock, but exotic animals soon appeared. The first monkeys arrived in 1910 and a pair of sulphur crested cockatoos in 1911 - the foundation of Herbert's ornithological collection.

Conservation and education

From the beginning, Herbert Whitley understood that his Zoo had a valuable educational role to play. Later in his lifetime, the conservation of threatened species became an important issue. He was held in high esteem by zoologists and naturalists of his generation; a frequent visitor was the late Gerald Durrell, founder of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Jersey, with whom he formed a strong friendship.

In 1921, Herbert discovered that the expanse of Slapton Ley, 20 miles from Paignton, was in danger of commercial exploitation - he bought up the land. After his death an arrangement was reached with the Field Studies Council for them to manage the land as a nature reserve.

Going public

In 1923, Herbert Whitley opened his collection, then known as Torbay Zoological Gardens, to the public. On show were bears, monkeys, bison, zebra, hyena, baboons and many birds. The entry fee was one shilling (5p) for adults and sixpence (2.5p) for children. The Zoo closed briefly in 1924 due to a dispute over entertainment tax; Whitley felt very strongly that his collection was a place of learning and not entertainment. In 1930 the collection changed its name to Primley Zoological Gardens.

After Herbert

In 1955 Whitley's health started to fail; he died on 15th September, aged 69. He chose his close friend of 20 years, Philip Michelmore, to be his successor. His Will made provision for a scientific and educational Trust to be established. The Herbert Whitley Trust was formed; in 1991 this became the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust.


In 1996 the Zoo's name and logo was changed to Paignton Zoo Environmental Park and the habitat theme was introduced. In 2003 the Trust built and opened Living Coasts, Torquay's coastal zoo, and purchased Newquay Zoo in Cornwall.

The WWCT supports conservation in the United Kingdom and overseas using funds generated by the zoos, as well as the expertise and dedication of its staff. Conservation projects are coordinated by the Field Conservation and Research Department based at Paignton Zoo.