The disastrous Preston zoo, a Victorian folly?

Posted on - 13th June, 2021 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - History, Nostalgia, Preston News
Plan of Preston Pleasure Gardens
Plan of Preston Pleasure Gardens

Once there stood a pleasure palace, green and magnificent, it was billed as “The most charming resort in Lancashire” – and it was in Preston.


For a short time in the 1880s Preston boasted a zoo. This was part of the Pleasure Gardens site, off New Hall Lane. Remarkably, there were over 100 species of animals, including a visiting elephant. Many locals had never seen anything like it! Exotic creatures such as monkeys, toucans and vultures could be viewed. Even a camel gave rides between its humps.

Unfortunately, by 1884 the zoo had become run-down and mismanaged. As a result the mortality rate amongst the animals was horrendous, with seven animals a week succumbing to inexpert treatment.

Something had to be done, and the renowned author and naturalist Arthur Patterson was brought in to rescue the situation. He began by monitoring the diet and living conditions of the animals. Regular cleaning was introduced and the death rate was reduced to one per month.

Additionally he introduced some new species. There was a large glass building that housed trees, in this, he added white herons, cockatoos, peafowl and doves.


However, Patterson could not save the zoo, and left in 1885, when it closed for good. The poster below dates from the period when the zoo was open.

Preston Pleasure Gardens poster
Preston Pleasure Gardens poster, which dates from the period when the zoo was open

How it all began

By the late Victorian period, increased leisure time had resulted in a number of outdoor entertainment venues opening. Large cities such as London boasted these sites and the time seemed right for the rapidly growing Preston to join in. Such sites were known as pleasure gardens. They differed from parks in that they hosted events such as hot air balloon flights and fireworks displays.

Farringdon Park gates
Farringdon Park gates

In 1875, a large 90 acre site was acquired by the Preston Nursery and Pleasure Gardens Company. The company offered shares of £50 to raise capital of £20,000. Most of the site is now under the Farringdon Park housing estate. The landscape was improved and eight miles of pathways were built.

A waterfall was added to the wooded dingle, at the east of the site. Furthermore, a large number of greenhouses were built including one of the largest conservatories in the North. The gardens opened in 1877. Later, a large dancing platform was installed, where guests twirled to the strains of a military band.

Over the next 50 years, important national shows were held here, including the Royal Horticultural Society Show, in 1878.

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Horse trams to the park

Another factor in encouraging development, was the advent of the tramway network. Single deck horse drawn trams first reached the Pleasure Gardens in 1879. The conveniently situated terminus by the entrance was made good use of, in the Guild year of 1882. The fare from Preston station was 3d. Notice the use of local advertising on the tramcar in the image below.

Horse drawn tram
Horse drawn trams were used for local advertising

George Formby races at the speedway

Still of George Formby in No Limit
Still of George Formby in No Limit

In 1929, part of the site became a speedway. This was very popular with the especially large crowds of 14,000 fans. They may have been attracted by the many fatalities! The famous musician and film star George Formby won a race here on a two stroke machine. George made a film about the TT races in 1935 called No Limit. The film was shot in the Isle Of Man, where he did all his own stunts!

Depression and the end

In 1929 the Wall Street crash devastated the world economy. Consequently, the Speedway closed in 1932. The glories of the garden’s past faded into memory, as the council eyed the land for housing. Now little remains of the original site.

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