Molly Badham

Co-founder of Twycross Zoo

Friday 26 October 2007 00:00

Molly Winifred Badham, zoo founder: born Evesham, Worcestershire 18 May 1914; Director, Twycross Zoo 1963- 2003 (Emeritus); MBE 2002; died Twycross, Leicestershire 19 October 2007.

Like many young children, when asked "What are you going to do when you grow up?", Molly Badham would always reply, "Work with animals!" True to her word, in 1963 she became the co-founder of Twycross Zoo in Leicestershire.

Born in 1914, on leaving Town School in Sutton Coldfield, she began to breed dogs and to run boarding kennels. She also fitted in work at a local pet shop in Station Street, Sutton Coldfield, and not long after the start of the Second World War, bought the shop and moved into the flat above. During the war, she continued her work while helping with the war effort by driving senior army officers around the area. She also became friendly with Nathalie Evans, a fellow dog breeder, and the two set up together in Badham's shop.

Two chimpanzees, Sue and Mickey, were purchased and lived as pets in the flat with Badham and Evans. The two chimps would sit at the table and pour out tea, as well as learning to use and flush the lavatory. They would visit the hairdresser with Badham – she would walk and the chimps would ride a tricycle alongside her. But as Sue and Mickey grew older and bigger, two adults and two chimpanzees in a confined space became a little restricting. One day, whilst Badham and Evans were out, the chimps managed to open the window and threw out most of their personal belongings, including Badham's pink silk knickers, to a cheering crowd below. This was the final push they needed to make the move.

They bought a small plot of land in the village of Hints, just outside Sutton Coldfield, and began a small zoo collection in 1954. This space was soon outgrown. By 1962 they had moved to Twycross and on the Whitsun Bank Holiday the following year opened Twycross Zoo.

They perhaps did not realise what they had started. The zoo continued to grow in reputation, with something new added each year. In 1972 it became the East Midland Zoological Society and was made into a Charitable Trust. Today, the zoo has around 1,000 animals and receives about half a million visitors each year.

The chimps were a big attraction: they opened supermarkets; engaged in a race from the Post Office Tower to the Empire State Building; took walk-on parts in films; and appeared in many commercials for PG Tips tea. Some will remember the PG removal men, Mr Shifter and his son, stuck halfway up the stairs with a piano ("Dad, do you know the piano's on my foot?" "You hum it, son, I'll play it!"), and the chimp Tour de France cyclist who asks a woman fan if she can "ride tandem". Badham said that the chimps enjoyed making the advertisements: "Chimps love dressing up. They have such a sense of humour." Over the years, as the zoo developed the message of conservation, so the commercials, film roles and the zoo Chimps Tea Party show stopped, but still the visitors came, and each year saw an increase in numbers.

Molly Badham's influence remained strong at the zoo and she retired only in 2003, when she was appointed director emeritus. She was a campaigner for the survival of endangered species and of primates in particular. Her passion for chimpanzees was legendary. She hand-reared several chimps, orang-utans and even a gorilla, when the natural mother either could not or would not care for the baby.

Badham was appointed MBE in 2002 and in 1982 was awarded an honorary BSc degree by Leicester University for her services to animal welfare and her work within the zoo community. In 1999 she was the subject of a BBC television series, Molly's Zoo, based on Twycross, and she wrote two books in collaboration with Nathalie Evans and Maureen Lawless, Chimps with Everything (1979) and Molly's Zoo (2000).

The many visitors to Twycross who would find themselves chatting to "the Boss" will recall Molly Badham's ability to make everyone feel important. I spent many hours helping both her and the zoo, and will always remember the fun we had.

Ivan Ellis

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