From financial woes to fatal fires: Remembering Thorney Wildlife Park

Thorney Wildlife Park was hugely popular in the 1970s but was forced shut in the late 80s

Thorney Wildlife Park was hugely popular in the 1970s but was forced shut in the late 80s following “several years of financial struggles”. - Credit: Archive

Over 30 years after it was forced shut following “several years of financial struggles”, Fenland residents are remembering Thorney Wildlife Park.  

The zoo, off the A47, was home to lions, tigers, a pair of polar bears, monkeys, kangaroos, giraffes, flamingos, elephants, pumas and much more.  

On the grounds of Thorney Abbey, less than five miles from Whittlesey, the park not only suffered money woes, but was hit by a major fire in the 70s.

Old archived pictures from Thorney Wildlife Park.

Old archived pictures from Thorney Wildlife Park. - Credit: Archive

  

In February 1971, a fire broke out that killed three of the park’s beloved monkeys inside a room where they were being kept during the winter.  

In what’s thought to be a completely separate incident, the elephant house also burnt down in a fire started by teenagers, no animals were injured.  

Thorney Wildlife Park A47 logo.

Thorney Wildlife Park A47 logo. - Credit: Archive


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“I used to go when I was a child and loved it there,” said a Wisbech resident. “You used to be able to see the remains of the elephant house as you drove past, before they built the bypass.” 

Thorney Abbey, located less than five miles from Whittlesey. 

Thorney Abbey, located less than five miles from Whittlesey. - Credit: Google Maps

Also remembering the zoo, another said: “I lived in Thorney and the children of the village could go in free, it was a lovely way to spend the day.”  

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"Thorney Wildlife Park closed in the early 1980s after several years of financial struggles," added another. 

Questions were later raised about the treatment of the park’s elephants, with some residents remembering them being “chained by their ankles”.  

Signage for Thorney Wildlife Park.

Signage for Thorney Wildlife Park. - Credit: Archive

They said: “I remember the elephants being chained by their ankles, they could only move a couple of steps in any direction.”  

The park was opened in around 1968 to 69 by Fred Chapman, along with Bobby and Tommy Roberts of Roberts Circus.  

Fred Chapman, co-owner of Thorney Wildlife Park, speaking to BBC News.

Fred Chapman, co-owner of Thorney Wildlife Park, speaking to BBC News. - Credit:  YouTube/Peterborough Images/BBC

Mr Chapman can be seen in an archived BBC News TV report from 1975, now uploaded to YouTube, taking a reporter on a “mini-tour”.  

“We do not open during the winter months,” he said. “The weather in this country is so changeable and it's not worth risking the animals.  

Polar bears at Thorney Wildlife Park.

Polar bears at Thorney Wildlife Park. - Credit:  YouTube/Peterborough Images/BBC

“They are so rare and hard to replace nowadays. The big cats seem to prefer the cooler weather, in the summer they seem to be a little bit overcome by the heat of time.  

“The tigers haven't bred yet, we’re hoping that they will, of course they’re very rare indeed and it’s impossible to get any nowadays. 

Thorney Wildlife Park tigers worth around £4,000 during the 70s. 

Thorney Wildlife Park tigers worth around £4,000 during the 70s. - Credit:  YouTube/Peterborough Images/BBC

“The pair of them are worth £3,500 to £4,000, which is quite a lot of money and you have to feed these animals and really look after them.” 

Signage at Thorney Wildlife Park.

Signage at Thorney Wildlife Park. - Credit:  YouTube/Peterborough Images/BBC

Do you remember Thorney Wildlife Park? Share your memories and any pictures via email: harry.rutter@archant.co.uk  

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