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World War Zoo Gardens – sandbags, salad, shrapnel and sustainability

Volume 7 Number 1 - April 2010

Mark Norris

French: Les jardins zoologiques de la guerre mondiale - sacs de sable, salade, obus et durabilité

Spanish: Guerra de los mundos en jardines zoológicos – sacos de arena, ensaladas, metrallas y sustentabilidad

The Second World War was a cataclysmic event in the history of the 20th century and almost every aspect of it has been scrutinized by historians and other commentators in the succeeding decades. Yet until now relatively little has been known about how the UK’s zoos and botanic gardens coped with wartime privations and the austerity of the post-war years. But as Mark Norris reports, Newquay Zoo’s World War Zoo project is also providing some important lessons for the future.


‘World War Zoo’ is the public part of a wider research project begun at Newquay Zoo on how zoos, aquariums and botanic gardens survived World War II (1939–45).  Mark Norris explains how World War Zoo is about looking back and looking forward, learning from the past to prepare for our future.

For both zoos and botanic gardens, too much emphasis on education and environmental issues can be at odds with visitors’ enjoyment of a ‘good day out’.  So a novel approach to addressing sustainability and resource issues has led to recreating a wartime ‘Dig for Victory’ garden at Newquay Zoo. Such a project communicates messages about food miles, food waste and recycling, but is also accessible, attractive and makes the most of an area’s social history or archives. It reaches out to other curriculum areas such as history, creating an informal learning resource and community involvement across the generations. It’s a source of food for animals as well as humans: history and heritage you can eat!   

Green fatigue?

Newquay Zoo actually opened some time after the war, in 1969, but its sister zoo, Paignton Zoological Gardens opened in 1923 and was operational during all through the war. Both have been recognized with awards for sustainability, recycling and solar power. Newquay is signed up to the 10:10 carbon reduction campaign. Part of our mission statement involves ‘inspiring in its many visitors a lifelong respect for animals and the environment’. But how do we encourage visitors and staff to continue and connect these efforts in their home lives while avoiding the worthy, but sometimes unachievable and guilt-ridden tone of environmental messaging, at best off-putting, at worst counter-productive?

Wartime gardening

Shortages, energy saving, food miles and ‘grow your own’ are not new messages. We’ve been in this situation before in recent history. Then, government coercion and clever propaganda (now known as ‘social messaging’) got everyone composting and recycling, with the famous ‘Potato Pete’ and ‘Squander Bug’ cartoon characters and the iconic boot-on-spade poster Dig For Victory (Davies, 1993). Books for beginners and radio talks by Mr. Middleton encouraged gardening and resourceful cookery on the ‘Kitchen Front’ (Middleton, 2009). Foraging for wild food and herbs is not a modern fashion; it was common wartime practice for Women’s Institutes, children’s salvage clubs and enterprising zoo keepers (Gardiner, 2005).                

According to Kenneth Helphand in Defiant Gardens, the urge to garden in extreme conditions like war zones, ghettos, prisoner-of-war or internment camps is not just about food production (Helphand, 2009). Gardening fulfils an important psychological need, ever more so as we face an uncertain future in a technological, urban and climate challenged world (Palmer, 2006). 

Our World War Zoo garden project developed from a chance discovery in a wartime newspaper that zoos (and other public entertainments) in Britain were closed in the early weeks of World War II for fear they would be bombed, the fate of some zoos in Holland and Poland (Ackerman, 2007).

Though British zoos were reopened and nominally encouraged to boost morale, they struggled until long after the war. In the years of austerity food was short and zoo animals had no ration books. Staffing was low with many keepers called up.  Repairs were difficult and resources such as fuel for heating were rationed or scarce.  

The problems were common across Britain, Europe and the wider world. Many zoos maintain a botanic garden function, and vice versa – Birmingham Botanic Gardens was one of many that kept an animal collection. But young keepers and gardeners left to fight, and animal collections were affected – dangerous snakes which could not be rehomed were euthanased, bear enclosures had to be reinforced to prevent escapes after bomb damage (Ballard, 1983).

Art and museum treasures were spirited away into shelters. The best that could be hoped for zoo animals was evacuation to Whipsnade or Paignton. Glasshouses were turned over to medicinal plants or vegetables. Today, botanic gardens like the Eden Project focus on food security and linking plants to everyday products –in wartime too, food production was a necessity, but also an educational opportunity. One visitor to Newquay on Armistice Day recalled London Zoo in wartime, with chickens and pigs occupying the exotic animal enclosures, while the botanic garden glasshouses were full of tomatoes. The zoo featured an Off The Ration exhibition, where Land Army girls showed how to raise back garden livestock (IWM, 2010).

A wartime-themed visit is common for heritage sites but unusual for zoos or botanic gardens. The success of the educational focus of World War Zoo is partly this ‘under the radar’ approach to sustainability, recycling, food waste and ‘grow your own’ ... for schools these topics can be cross-curricular, initially introduced through history, but embracing citizenship, sustainability and science. It all adds value to our zoos and botanic gardens as a socio-cultural resource. The schools history curriculum links on wartime life are well established at primary and secondary level with the project building towards outreach or offering school visits to the zoo (see Dig for Victory, 2007).

In terms of learning outcomes, behavioural and emotional objectives, we hope staff, schools and families will feel inspired to do more at school or home (Transition Town).  It’s recession friendly and fashionable again to grow your own and make do and mend.

Director of Newquay Zoo Stewart Muir felt the project should build up to an ‘international’ phase. The European experience was often worse than in Britain, as in the notorious ‘hunger winter’ of 1944–5, when ersatz coffee was made from acorns and the Dutch were driven to eat their precious and slightly poisonous tulip bulbs. Many fine zoos and botanic gardens were damaged or destroyed in the fighting, sadly true also in recent conflicts affecting Kabul, Baghdad, Kosovo, Israel and the West Bank. Some zoos keep a memorial stone for staff lost in wartime.

The experience of war for zoo keepers and supporters has much in common across nations. It must have been very hard to set aside the pre-war spirit of international cooperation and friendly competition between staff of zoos and botanic gardens. World War Zoo does not focus on Allied victory, but on home front and non-military aspects, especially in resources and re-enactors chosen. 

From the forties to facebook

As World War Zoo links past, present and future, we make use of IT, social networking and new media for communication and messaging.   Up to date information with monthly entries is on our blog and a site. Twitter entries about the minor tragedy of frost hitting salad, a Facebook profile worldwarzoogardener with a following of zoo, garden and 1940s re-enactor enthusiasts, plus RHS blog/forum discussions about recycled planters made out of toilet rolls, have brought the project to a wide audience.

Visitor comments at the garden launch, at wartime weekends or history teachers’ conferences where we set out our attractive display suitcases of wartime objects (gardens being less movable) all highlight the informal and lifelong learning aspects of World War Zoo. It was wonderful to hear visitors telling their stories and interacting with staff and volunteers (though difficult to formally evaluate). Family history is a potent connection and learning point. Messy planting opportunities at events offering take-home recycled pots and seeds work pretty well too!

Your existing educational media can be used/adapted. Topical interpretive signage and family activity trails around plants in the wartime garden display plots, and around the zoo gardens, introduce both nutritional and morale boosting uses, including animal and human food, medicine, and sympathetic planting as pest control and colour in a drab wartime world (Norris, 2009). Existing displays of sweet peas, sunflowers and nasturtiums can be niftily co-opted into the project with suitable signage.

Sweat your archives?

A collection of original and reproduction wartime gardening and recipe books is in the Newquay Zoo archive. These and other war memorabilia were acquired through e-Bay, junk shops, donations etc. Background material has been scanned with the help of education volunteers to prepare a schools resource pack suitable for classroom use. Older volunteers were especially helpful in organizing and running display stands on wartime garden weekends.

The project also helps raise awareness of zoo and botanic gardens’ own history or archives, often a neglected area when funds or resources are limited. In business and wartime terms, this adding of new value is known as ‘sweating your assets’. There can be partnerships with local schools, home front re-enactors, history societies, museums, and other botanic gardens and zoos – exciting ways of building your audience.

No one on the staff is left out of the ‘war effort’! It brings together departments from management, gardens, maintenance, and education, to research and keepers (discussing what we can grow on-site for specific animals or for general animal welfare). It offers involvement for our junior club, junior keeper sessions and adult volunteers. 

At Newquay the project links into our main events programme, with a wartime garden weekend in May 2010 running alongside a ‘plant-hunter’ family activity trail around the zoo. Also, the use of heritage varieties of fruit and vegetables in the wartime garden ties in to Plant Conservation Day. Seeds can be frozen and animals saved from extinction. But it is just as important to preserve the memories and experiences of living through wartime, especially as regards our zoos and botanic gardens, to ensure valuable knowledge is not lost.

A lasting benefit 

Long term, it would be wonderful to see a ‘dig for victory’ project in every zoo or botanic garden, a living and edible memorial of our collective past and a reminder for our shared future. If President Obama can have a Victory garden, digging up the lawns at the White House, yes we can, too!

Top links

World War Zoo links into many UK government education vocational learning initiatives such as:

Growing Schools garden schemes,

Sustainable Schools,  

Learning in School Grounds and Gardens,

Healthy Eating (several sites)

Every Child Matters, 

Learning Outside the Classroom Manifesto,



  • Ackerman, D., 2007.  The Zoo Keeper’s Wife: A War Story.  Norton, New York, USA.
  • Ballard, P., 1983. An Oasis of Delight: The History of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Duckworth, London, UK.
  • Davies, J., 1993. The Wartime Kitchen and Garden, BBC Books, London, UK.
  • Dig for Victory Garden in St. James Park / Imperial War Museum, 2007. See  website:
  • Gardiner, J. 2005. The Children’s War. Imperial War Museum/Portrait Books, London, UK (see also her books The Animal’s War, 2006, Imperial War Museum/ Portrait Books, London, UK and Wartime: Britain 1939–1945, 2004, Headline, London, UK and the WRVS archives).
  • Helphand, K., 2009. Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime. Trinity University Press, San Antonio, USA.
  • Imperial War Museum, London (IWM, 2010) has photographs of this and other stranger European zoo uses in their image collection and a new Ministry of Food exhibition for 2010 /11 updating their victory garden collaboration with the Royal Parks in 2007.
  • Middleton, C.H., 2009. Dig On For Victory:  Mr. Middleton's All-year-round Gardening Guide from 1945. New edn. Aurum Press, London, UK.
  • Norris, M., 2009. ‘Get Lost?! Developing self-guided family activity trails for the zoo or aquarium public.’ IZE International Zoo Education Journal 45, 38–41. (available online at
  • Palmer, S., 2006. Toxic Childhood. Orion, London, UK (and others of her books).
  • Transition Town movement began in 2007, see



Lorsqu'on veut communiquer avec les visiteurs des zoos et des jardins botaniques, une emphase  éducative trop lourde sur les problèmes environnementaux peut ne pas faire le poids face aux envies de ceux-ci de se distraire et de passer une bonne journée. Une approche inhabituelle aux problèmes de durabilité et des ressources était de recréer un jardin du temps de guerre « creusons pour la victoire » (de l'anglais ‘dig for victory’) au zoo de Newquay. Tout en étant bien agencé et tout en faisant la promotion de l'histoire sociale et des archives de l'endroit, ce jardin communique des messages au sujet des miles alimentaires, des déchets et du recyclage alimentaires. Il introduit des nouveaux aspects au programme d’études tels que l'histoire, il crée une ressource instructive informelle et une implication communautaire allant au-delà des générations.  Il s'agit d'une source alimentaire pour les animaux et une immersion dans l'histoire, l'héritage ou les archives - le tout peut se mange !



Cuando se trata de comunicarse con los visitantes de los zoológicos y jardines botánicos, a veces se pone demasiado énfasis en los aspectos del medio ambiente, que estos pueden llevar al visitante a un a echar a perder el entretenimiento de ‘un buen día fuera’.  En el jardín del zoológico en Newquay  a  manera poco común de comunicar y hacer entender la sustentabilidad y los aspectos de los recursos, se presenta este entretenido tiempo de guerras “clavarse por la victoria”.  En este lugar se transmite el mensaje de millas de alimentos, desperdicio de los mismos y su reciclado, mientras allí mismo, se observa de una manera atractiva y se promueve la  historia social y sus archivos/filmoteca.  Se incluye en el currículo nuevas áreas como son la historia, creando informalmente un recurso de aprendizaje que conecta a la comunidad presente y su historia a través de generaciones. Este es un recurso de alimento para animales y es una exposición absolutamente absorbente que proporcionan historia, patrimonio y archivos  – ¡todos los que usted puede comer!

Mark Norris
Education Officer
Newquay Zoo
Trenance Gardens