TO MANY HMS EXCELLENT ON WHALE ISLAND near Portsmouth on Britain’s south coast will always be associated with training Royal Navy gunners and the home of the Portsmouth Field Gun Crew who competed at the Royal Tournament in London against teams from Devonport and the Fleet Air Arm until the Tournament ceased in 1999.
Although other units have also shared ‘Whaley’, few have been as usual as Royal Navy zoo based there between 1893 and 1940.
The zoo was started as a place where official gifts of animals presented to ships or adopted as mascots (as well as probably a number of exotic pets that outgrew their welcome in sailor’s homes) could be housed and live out their days. (1)
In May 1940 it was decided that with war progressing, and the likelihood of the adjacent naval base being bombed it should be closed.
Today the site of the zoo is a garden and there is a small cemetery that gives an indication of the variety of animals and birds housed there, including ‘Barbara’ a polar bear who was there at some point during the Second World War.
The bear was (according to the caption on the IWM online collection) rescued from an ice floe off Greenland by a ‘cruiser’ although it does not identify the ship or when the bear was rescued. (2)
Also there is ‘Jack’ a parrot that had arrived after a cyclone in Samoa in 1889 and lived for three decades in the zoo.
Besides the remains of ‘Barbara’, the cemetery contains those of another polar bear (‘Nicholas’), a pair of sun bears from tropical forests of East Asia (‘Henry’ and ‘Alice’) as well as lionesses ‘Topsy’ and ‘Lorna’.
Despite protests, these and other animals were all dispatched by armed sailors in May 1940 as there were fears that if the area were bombed the frightened animals may cause havoc in Portsmouth.
Leslie Bailey a Fleet Air Arm observer mentions briefly in an IWM oral history interview available online about his training at HMS Excellent in February 1940 that it was possible to hear the animals as one passed by the main gate and that there was a lion that roared at night.
He continues ‘I know because it used to frighten me to death when I went past the gate!’ (3)
What happened to another lioness called ‘Lola’ (who gave birth at the zoo to three cubs around July 1936) (4) is not known although it may be that ‘Topsy’ and ‘Lorna’ were two of her cubs.
‘Tirpitz’ the Pig’ was also at the zoo after being rescued by British sailors serving on HMS Glasgow after the ship sank the German cruiser SMS Dresden during the Battle of Más a Tierra in Chilean waters on 14 March 1915.
But ‘Tirpitz’ was trouble – at least for some of the residents at the zoo, where it caused havoc amongst the smaller animals by stealing their food and smashing its quarters up.
The pig was sent to John Luce (the former captain of HMS Glasgow who had been promoted to Commodore and was busy developing a naval aviation flying school at Cranwell in Lincolnshire) and although history does not recall what his thoughts were on being reacquainted with this former ship mate, ‘Tirpitz’ was put up for sale.
The pig was bought by William Cavendish-Bentinck, 6th Duke of Portland.
He paid 400 guineas (£420) for the animal in December 1917, the money going to the British Red Cross and the Agricultural Relief of Allies’ Fund of which the Duke was President.
Two months later he himself put ‘Tirpitz’ up for sale and the animal made 800 guineas for the two charities, with the Duke of Portland buying back the pig!
On Monday 5 August 1918 ‘Tirpitz’ was once more put up for sale by the Duke and this time raised another £550. (5)
‘A horrid name – even for a pig’
As an added incentive he said that he would change the name of the pig to ‘Beatty’ (after British Admiral of the Fleet Sir David Beatty), as ‘Tirpitz’ was ‘a horrid name – even for a pig’, if the animal raised more than £500. (6)
When in 1919 the inevitable occurred and the pig died, the Duke had the pig’s head preserved and mounted and then donated it to the Imperial War Museum where it was exhibited when the museum was housed at the Crystal Palace at Sydenham in South London.
After a period of restoration and conservation, it was displayed in the First World War Galleries at Imperial War Museum London when they opened in 2014. (7) (8)
(1) https://www.theguardian.com/science/animal-magic/2015/dec/07/barbara-polar-bear-cats-in-cannons-royal-navys-animal-mascots – retrieved 12 December 2017
(2) http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205020716 – retrieved 12 December 2017
(3) http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80025513 – retrieved 12 December 2017
Reel two, approximately 27 minutes and 25 seconds into the recording.
(4) https://www.europeana.eu/portal/en/record/2024904/photography_ProvidedCHO_TopFoto_co_uk_EU044495.html – retrieved 12 December 2017
(5) http://www.scotlandswar.co.uk/PDF_Cats.pdf – retrieved 12 December 2017
(6) ‘The Sheffield Telegraph’ newspaper, 7 August 1918
(7) http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205022108 – retrieved 12 December 2017
(8) http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30088283 – retrieved 12 December 2017