Sign of good times! Find sparks memories of quirky Derbyshire zoo a century ago

Posted on 08/06/2021 in Press Coverage

An amazing piece of Derbyshire history has just arrived in the saleroom – and reminded me that no matter how wild an idea may appear, you can make it happen, writes Charles Hanson.

More than a century ago in 1908, Ripley was suddenly blessed with its very own zoo, and it was all down to the imagination, passion and determination of one remarkable character, John Marshall.

Here was a man with an adventurous spirit, a man who constantly pushed the boundaries to make his dreams come true. In fact, after hearing his story, I’m almost tempted to bid on this latest find myself. I’d love a touch of the Marshall magic to rub off on me. He’s definitely a man after my own heart.

John Marshall, left, with son Jack at the zoo opening in 1908.

In Hansons’ July 22 Toy Auction, we are proud to be selling the Marshall & Sons Oxford Street Zoo Gardens sign. Once on proud display in the Derbyshire town, it advertises ‘Large Outdoor Aviaries of English and Foreign Birds, Aquarium, Squirrel and Monkey House – Admission 1d – Teas Provided’. The estimate is £1,000-£1,500.

As well as being a rich historical treasure it brings back uplifting memories of life more 100 years ago. John Marshall was a businessman who lightened lives, delivered entertainment, came up with new ideas and displayed impressive marketing prowess.

His interest in the natural world and entrepreneurial ways led him to open Marshall’s Zoo in 1908. It was situated on the roof of shops in Oxford Street. As well as the attractions advertised on the sign, John’s obituary claimed it had a performing bear, a talking alligator, a performing seal, parrots, fish and rarer creatures from all parts of the globe.

Mrs Marshall’s sweet shop. Credit Ripley and District Heritage Trust

Apparently, there were tea parties from heady heights on the roof and, for a while at least, Ripley, a place not renowned for tourist attractions, delivered some animal magic. Sadly, the zoo closed after only seven years in 1915. The First World War was under way, life was tough for everyone and it was a struggle to get food for the animals in wartime.

The zoo didn’t last forever but the memories live on. And that’s down to John Marshall, a visionary whose entrepreneurial ways entwined with philanthropy. Apparently, the zoo never made any money but profit was never his main concern in that particular business adventure. He wanted to share his love of the natural world and make people happy. He achieved both.

Business acumen emerged at age of 19

His business acumen emerged at an early age. He moved to Ripley in 1888 from Clay Cross. He was only 19 and had trained as a watch repairer. With admirable confidence, he opened his first shop in Oxford Street repairing clocks, watches and jewellery. He later became known as Ripley’s wedding ring king.

His success grew and two more shops followed, one selling hardware, the other confectionary. Always on the lookout for a new challenge, the zoo was the next big idea. He imported animals and birds and added other attractions such as a museum of natural history and hall of mirrors. Soon visitors were flocking to Ripley, sometimes up to 500 in one weekend. School parties came, too.

Ripley Hippodrome; The entrance to Marshall’s Zoo Gardens. Credit Ripley and District Heritage Trust

As well as aiding animal and bird studies for a generation of children bereft of the opportunities we have today, Ripley had the perfect leisure venue for youngsters. Busy parents could leave them safely at Marshall’s Zoo Gardens while they got on with the shopping. Nowadays we take a multitude of leisure activities for granted, not to mention smart phones and computers. More than 100 years ago, attractions like Marshall’s Zoo were few and far between.

People flocked to see the monkeys and see the birds, species from other parts of the world they would normally see only in sketches in books. Foreign travel was unheard of for most people in the early 1900s. The only chance to go abroad generally emerged if you were called up to fight for your country. And that was a trip many young men of that era never returned from.

John Marshall left lasting legacy

Consequently, the zoo came into its own for a few years and led John Marshall to enhance Ripley’s entertainment offerings even more. He built the Hippodrome, a 600-seat theatre, in 1913 in High Street. In 1921 he built a second theatre behind it offering a combined 1,000 seats. Films and cinemas were gaining popularity. John was quick to see the trend emerge and act on it.

His business acumen and ideas have left a lasting legacy in Ripley and the zoo sign is a wonderful reminder of what he achieved. My thanks must go to Ripley and District Heritage Trust for help with this article. Visit their website - to find out more about the Marshalls.

If you have an item to sell, we are inviting entries for all future general, Fine Art and specialist sales including militaria, toys, clocks, jewellery, silver, watches and ceramics.

Free valuations | Auction entries invited

Free valuations are available at Hansons, Heage Lane, Etwall, Derbyshire, Monday-Saturday and at all of our auction centres. To book an appointment, email [email protected] or call 01283 733988. Kate Bliss will be offering free jewellery valuations at Etwall Auction Centre on Wednesday, June 16, 10am-4pm – no appointment necessary.