WHITSON COURT / ZOO
Many Newport children in the 1960’s and 1970’s will recall that the city had its own zoo – Whitson Zoo – centred on the magnificent Whitson Court country house. The owner, Mrs O.J (Olive) Maybury, ran the zoo collection.
According to information published by her family online she was given two Himalayan mountain bear cubs which had been used as an advertising gimmick for the Newport department store Reynolds. At the time, groups of Newport children used the grounds for Sunday school picnics and fetes and Mrs. Maybury felt that the bears would be a novelty for them!
The collection continued to grow over the years and included a large range of different animals including a further 2 European sun bears, a lion and 3 lionesses. There was also a large range of exotic birds including flamingos, and a flight of wild macaws, monkeys and animals, an aquarium and reptile house. The zoo became a popular tourist attraction.
In the early 80s following a change in the licencing and a change in the public perception of zoos a decision was taken to close the zoo to ‘allow the animals to live out their natural lives in peace!’
Whitson Court is a Welsh example of a neo-classically inspired family house. It is claimed that the house was the work of the architect John Nash, but as the house was almost complete in 1795, having been built for Monmouthshire MP William Phillips, this is hard to believe. Monumental inscriptions at Whitson church indicate that the house was called Whitson House from at least 1789 and for most of the 19th century, but was known as Whitson Court by 1903. (William Phillips also built Redbrick House now known as Brick House Farm in nearby Redwick).
In the 1901 Kelly’s Directory of Monmouthshire the resident of the house is St. John Knox Richards Phillips J.P. Following his death from 1903 the house was a convent occupied by an order of nuns, the Sacramentines of Bernay of the Perpetual Adorers of the Blessed Sacrament fled here from religious persecution in France. The lived in the house at the invitation of its owner, Rev. Oliver Rodie Vassall-Phillips. By 1932 it is believed they had left the house for the United States of America.
In 1933, Whitson Court and its remaining 18 acres of gardens and parkland, were purchased from the then owner, Squire Oakley, by Mr Garroway Smith of “The Chalet” at Ridgeway in Newport who took up residence at the property with his wife Mary and his sister Louise. Mr William Maybury, his wife Olive Maybury and their daughters, Jane and Elizabeth also moved into the house. Their third daughter, Mary, was born at Whitson Court in May 1938.
During the Second World War the building housed more refugees fleeing persecution – this time the Jews escaping Nazi rule of much of Europe. The house was home to many refugees and later on also provided work for German prisoners of war. Incidentally, the building also became a landmark for German bombers on their way in to batter Newport Docks.
Following the death of Garroway Smith in the late 1950s, the house and grounds passed to his niece, Olive Maybury who made various alterations to the house including 3 Neo-Classical plaster relief panels to the fire surround in the Morning Room, an ornately carved fire surround to the former Kitchen and the replacement of the dilapidated spiral staircase to the top floor of the House, with a Gothic secondary staircase (removed from Plas Llecha at Tredunnock). The family collected exotic animals including Bornean Sun Bears, Hymalayan Bears, a Lion and Lionesses and a large collection of Monkeys, Reptiles and Exotic Birds. The family opened the grounds to the public during the 1960s and 1970s and the grounds were a popular attraction for local families and school children.
In 1980 Whitson Zoo was closed and many of the animals were re-homed. Olive Maybury continued to live at Whitson Court until her death on 20th September 1997 at the age of 98. One blog contributor states “As a child I would jump on the bus straight from school to rush through the entrance gates in haste to find Margaret loading a trolley with buckets of maize, seed, fruit and meat ready for the evening feed. On the weekends I’d pack a bag and shiver with excitement in anticipation of staying over. Mrs Maybury was a wonderful lady. She would tell stories of true adventure; recall moments of times past and was a true inspiration of knowledge to so many people. “
Now Whitson Court is a grade II* listed manor house purchased in 2007 by Collingbourne Properties for renovation and conversion to create a family home. Prior to Collingbourne Properties acquiring the property the house remained empty and abandoned for several years and was recorded on Newport City Councils “Buildings at Risk” register. The proposed work include extensive refurbishment and conservation/upgrade throughout, a new indoor swimming pool, creation of small office, 6 car garage, refurbishment of the existing stable block and conversion of the existing staff accommodation to create a granny annexe. The project commenced on site in 2007 and is due to be complete mid 2009.