The Portsmouth naval base with its own zoo

I wonder if there are ex-gunnery sailors who can still remember when HMS Excellent, Whale Island, had a zoo?  In 1885 an island had been made from mud reclaimed for the building of the dockyard.

By Bob Hind
Friday, 22nd February 2019, 8:53 am
Updated Friday, 22nd February 2019, 9:59 am
The Pet Cemetery, HMS Excellent, Whale Island.

It was to be used for naval gunnery and became HMS Excellent after the ship of the same name.

From its inception there were animals on the island including horses, dogs, and rat-catching cats. In 1877, 25 pairs of rabbits were let loose on the island but in later years full-size animals joined and a zoo was inaugurated.

Polar bears, lions, sun bears and kangaroos became the norm.

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A pack of foxhound puppies from a local hunt were adopted and animals from sea voyages found their way to the zoo.

The zoo became very popular and public open days raised funds for feed and straw.  

An aviary of many tropical birds was also established over the years. 

In 1939, with war looming, it was thought the zoo was not in the best place and the animals were distributed all over the UK.

What happened to those animals that died when in captivity, you may ask?

They were not just abandoned, there was an animal graveyard within the zoo where all the deceased animals were given a proper burial service.

What happened to this cemetery I do not know.

n Last weekend I was reading a newspaper article on former England manager Glenn Hoddle who was recounting the time he ‘died’ for a minute. 

It took me back eight years to when I might have been in the same situation. They say that writing something down clears the mind so that’s what I’m doing. 

Three months before this event one of my best pals, David, died aged just 38 a few months after marrying his long-time girlfriend.

In 2008 I was suffering the most awful stomach pains and I was in such pain I called an ambulance which arrived and took me off to Queen Alexandra Hospital, Cosham.

Soon after arrival an operation was performed and my appendix removed.

On one of the nights I remained in the QA I awoke, or was it a dream, and David was at the far side of the ward and he called me over.

I walked across the ward and as we met we touched foreheads, an old custom we did as a skylark as we were both more than six feet tall.

‘David, what are you doing here?’ I asked.

‘Just making sure you are all right, Bobbyboy,’ he said.

He added something else which I cannot remember. 

David then said to me: ‘I have to go now’ and turned to walk down a long dark passage with a white light at the very far end.

‘You can come too if you want, it’ll be all right,’ he added.

I remember saying: ‘No. I’d better go back, I’d better go back’ and with that I woke up in my bed.

Had I died and come back? Had I dreamed it? Did it really occur?

What would have happened if I had walked down the dark passage with David, I wonder?

The strange thing was, when I awoke, I had a cold spot on my forehead where David's forehead had touched mine.

n I recently asked if anyone knew of bomb testing on Canoe Lake, Southsea.

Mike Prior, ex-First Lieutenant HMS Victory 1981 – 1986, tells me: ‘It wasn’t the bouncing bomb, it was the destruction of magnetic mines by the Wheezers and Dodgers who want salt water in still conditions.

‘This is very well explained in the book The Secret War by Gerald Pawle.

‘The group were nicknamed as above but were officially the Department of Miscellaneous Weapons and Miscellaneous Development. ‘The book has been re-published under the title of Wheezers and Dodgers by the same author.’

Thank you, Mike. 

n My photograph of Royal Marines stuffing mattresses with straw was seen by Dave Quinton who tells me the proper name for the mattresses was pallas.

Cushions were called  ‘squabs’ as they were stuffed with young pigeons, live birds. 

They were made for royalty and used in carriages with no suspension. Later down the line, feathers from young pigeons were used.

What, I wonder, happened when the birds died? They must have stunk, surely? Does anyone have any more knowledge on this awful practice?

n June Bevan contacted me looking for information about her family.

Relation John Anderson died of sepsis after rescuing someone from the water during the floods in Broad Street, Old Portsmouth, where he owned a chandlery.

If anyone can remember the Andersons, please let me know.