HALF a century ago it wouldn’t have seemed strange to have had the serenity of your relaxing picnic on Southampton Common rudely shattered by the booming roar of a ferocious beast.

Southampton Zoological Pets Garden opened in March 1961 on one-and-a-quarter acres of Southampton Common.

The land was home to a brickmaker in 1697, the business staying in the family until 1814 when Southampton town clerk, Thomas Riddings, acquired the land for ten shillings and two capons.

After the Second World War the house became derelict, having been occupied by the military and later suffering bomb damage.

The gates to the new zoo were officially unlocked for the first time by the then mayor, councillor Walter Greenaway.

The mayor was handed the key by Ben, a four-and-a-half year old chimpanzee, who went on to become a family favourite at the park. Another chimp, James, later followed in his footsteps.

The chimps held a mischievous tea party every afternoon, and would often entertain the masses by mimicking them.

“Immediately an eager crowd of youngsters presented themselves and the zoo was soon well and truly open to the public,” reported the Daily Echo at the time.

“Ben, even if he did want to hold on to the key as long as possible, behaved with commendable decorum.

“Just how much interest has been created by this little zoo may be gauged from the fact that some of the boys waited outside the gates for hours.”

The cost of entrance was one shilling and a ticket granted access to see a variety of animals including tigers, snakes, brown bears, zebra, monkeys, penguins, camels, bats, a llama and a kangaroo.

Later came Happy the giraffe, who became the proud mother of baby Edna in 1962. Then arrived Albert the 400lb alligator who sailed to Southampton on board the Cunard liner Queen Elizabeth from Bronx Zoo in New York.

Next came Conrad the condor followed by Flipper, Dipper and Dixie, three young Californian sea lions who made their home in a round pond in the centre of the complex.

Keeper Bill Stokes would normally be seen feeding and caring for the animals, including Douglas the hippo, Roger the rhino and Janet the baby elephant.

Proprietor of the zoo was Jimmy Chipperfield, founder of Longleat Safari Park and part of the Chipperfield Circus family.

“The paddocks are designed to give the visitor an opportunity to get as close as is practicable, and most of the animals can be hand fed,” Jimmy said in a guidebook at the time.

The zoo continued until 1985, but towards the end was dogged by controversy as the growing animal rights movement and local pressure groups campaigned for the attraction’s closure.

Actresses Joanna Lumley and Virginia McKenna even protested in Southampton, both condemning the cramped conditions with the latter branding them as “so poor one’s heart sinks”.

Hawthorns Urban Wildlife Centre now stands on the same site, providing the public with information about the city’s abundant wildlife.