SEEING a lion when you pop to the shops sounds unlikely, not to mention terrifying, but for Southam residents it was once a reality.
In 1966 Leslie Clews bought his wife Pauline a chimpanzee which they kept at home on Grandborough Farm, just outside Southam on Daventry Road. A few months later they were given a bear and a raccoon from a circus. It naturally led them to open Southam Zoo.
But it was not your average zoo.
The family continued to expand their exotic animal collection with the likes of Bengal tigers, black panthers, antelopes and eagles – to name a few.
Sometimes they were kept in cages or sheds, but most of the time the animals could be found roaming around the farm along with donkeys, pygmy goats, pigs and meerkats.
There was a penguin who befriended a leopard, a bulldog who mothered orphaned animals, and chimps who dressed in children’s clothes and lived in the family farmhouse.
Alan Clews, whose grandparents owned the zoo, said: “The animals were loved dearly. All animals were tame, so much so my gran used to walk into enclosures with any of the animals. She’d play with and hand-feed the lions and chimps.
“Those who remember Southam Zoo would remember what a magical place it was. Some of the animals started as orphans needing a helping hand in life. They were hand-reared by my grandparents, we had a baby bear and a monkey, they were all so tame they lived within our house.”
But it was not always as straightforward as feeding and caring for the exotic pets.
The zoo was blighted by reports of escaped animals, including penguins who travelled down the River Stowe where they were attacked by young boys.
There was also a tapir who swam to a back garden in Stockton after his enclosure flooded.
And tragically some chimps were shot by police after escaping into nearby St Mary’s School.
After Mr Clew’s death the zoo was sold to Raymond Graham Jones, who changed the name to Southam Exotic Cats.
The big cats were often taken out on a lead and were seen wandering down Daventry Road and even into local shops.
But the zoo closed down in 1985 with many of the animals sold to Twycross Zoo, and the land was also sold.
It has now been turned into a hotel and luxury housing estate, and the farmhouse is still home to some of the Clew’s family.
A Southam resident, who first discovered the zoo when she heard lions roaring over nearby fields, has penned a booklet about its colourful history.
Helen Morris wrote ‘Southam Zoo – An Alphabet History’.
She told The Observer: “I had always wondered why there was a zoo in Southam. It was a small zoo – more like a farm.
“The animals more often than not were to be found wandering about or playing with the zoo staff, while several chimpanzees lived like humans and could often be found in the owner’s farmhouse.
“The book includes the family’s memories along with other people’s anecdotes and stories related to the zoo which have been remembered over the years and become local legends.”
The booklet, priced £4, is available from Vivian House on Market Hill with proceeds going to the Southam Heritage Collection.
Alternatively email email@example.com to order a copy.
Type Southam Zoo into YouTube to view film of the zoo in its heyday and visit Facebook page ‘Southam Zoo’ to see more pictures.
All pictures courtesy Southam Zoo Facebook page.