Herbert Whitley fulfilled earlier vision of a zoo when opening Paignton Zoological and Botanical Gardens

Herbert Whitley, founder of Paignton Zoo

Herbert Whitley, founder of Paignton Zoo - Credit: Paignton Zoo

Ian Handford, chairman of Torbay Civic Society, gives us the who and how each of Torbay’s Blue Plaques was chosen. This week, Herbert Whitley and Primley House:

This plaque originally put up in 1987, yet today is one of only three that Torbay Civic Society would later refurbish as this plaque badly deteriorated and being highly visible on the Totnes Road, members of the public were complaining.

The original plaque was sponsored by the Herbert Whitley Trust and confirmed  'Primley House - here resided the Belfield family and later Herbert Whitley 1886-1956 - biologist and founder of Paignton Zoological and Botanical Gardens'.

Unveiled on the gatepost at Primley in 1987, it was not until 2005 that we held a 'Heritage Open Day' event at now Primley Care Home - not generally open to the public - when Torbay mayor Councillor Killick and Mayoress launched our new publication 'Primley House'.

During that day, a distant nephew of the Whitley family joined us, while on a visit to Devon from Australia.

Herbert Whitley was the eccentric son of Edward Ewart Whitley who, with two others, had founded the Warrington Wilderspool Ale, a beer especially suited to Northern drinkers.

The Greenall-Whitley Brewery made the men very rich and when Edward died, his widow and five children came to Paignton to lease, and then buy, the large Belfield estate at Paignton.

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Herbert was always more interested in creatures than humans and having left university early, he came to breed and exhibit what would be superb finches, Dutch rabbits, wyndotte poultry and his special blue and black cropper pigeons.

Shy, reclusive and eccentric, Herbert was terrified of women and remained a dreamer and bachelor all his life.

He wanted nothing more than to fill his beloved trophy cabinets with more prizes and with his brother William, at Paignton, they created what became a unique breeding centre based on pedigree livestock.

The speed of growth was breath-taking, as the kennels offered quality gun dogs and then Great Danes, the greenhouses provided a propagation business which prospered and from the start of their era the brothers never cross bred anything, ensuring amazing success for these already Lancashire millionaires.

When William married in 1907 he went to reside at Barton Pines - bought from the Whitehead family and estate containing stables, carriages, coaches and horses, ensuring a much richer lifestyle to the one at Primley.

Meanwhile, Herbert fulfilled his earlier vision of a zoo when opening the Paignton Zoological and Botanical Gardens.

His stock won at the 1908 Royal Milking Show trials, which was repeated in 1909 proving purebreds brought success.

He started an export business and when a fire service was started it was Herbert's stud bred horses that pulled the engines.

Meanwhile, his Whitley pigeons were being kept in what the locals named 'their palatial home' on the zoo slopes, by a pigeon manager, who ultimately established 150 varieties of pigeon.

Then came pigs, kept on land bought at Compton. They won top prize at the Royal Cornwall Show,  Devon County Show and Bath and West shows of 1911.

Herbert became a member of the London Zoological Society who with other associations used his expertise until in 1927 he closed his Botanical gates over a tax dispute with the Inland Revenue - they loathed his free entry.

These were halcyon years for Herbert, who donated plants to the gardens at Roundham Head and even started investigating a cable railway from zoo to beach.

But by 1937 history repeated itself the tax-man returned over 'free-entry for education' and it was a High Court Judge that suggested Herbert should form a garden society, which he immediately discounted, and closed his gates to the public once again.

After the World War Two a Paignton Zoological and Botanical Gardens Trust was formed although now Herbert's death came on September 15, 1955.

Today, he lies still alongside William in the family grave at St Peter’s Church Buckland, land purchased by William.

Finally, during 2014 a plaque refurbishment of Primley House was finally undertaken by the society with added help of the trust.

A biography of Herbert and Primley House may be obtained by sending three second class stamps plus a stamped addressed envelopes to Torbay Civic Society, Office 1, 4 Palace Avenue, Paignton TQ3 3HA.