Stars of BBC1's Our Zoo were in Chester this week to pay their respects to the woman whose childhood inspired the popular series.
Actors Lee Ingleby, Liz White and Amelia Clarkson, all of whom had starring roles in last year’s TV show about the history of Chester Zoo, turned out to Blacon Crematorium on Monday (May 18) for the funeral of June Williams, daughter of the zoo’s founder George Mottershead, who passed away at the age of 88 earlier this month following illness.
June was an integral part of the show’s production, overseeing the filming and even making a brief cameo appearance as one of the protestors against the construction of the zoo in 1931.
She was just four and her sister Muriel a few years older when their father bought Oakfield Manor in Upton and turned it into the world’s first zoo without bars, enabling June to grow up with chimps, tapirs and lions as her best friends.
Later, she wrote about her childhood and the family’s struggle to overcome resistance to their plans, in her memoir Our Zoo, which she promoted and signed copies of at last year’s Chester Literature Festival.
It became the basis for the TV show of the same name, which proved to be such a hit with audiences that the Chronicle created a petition to lobby the BBC to create a second series that would continue the story. However, despite collecting thousands of signatures in support, including from June herself, the series was not renewed.
In a statement on Chester Zoo’s website posted shortly after her death, a spokesperson said: “June helped shape the very fabric of the zoo and indeed, in her younger years, she was the face of the zoo with George using her time and again for publicity shots. It is with great sadness we have to announce her death.”
Various obituaries written about June in national newspapers this month speak of the wildly unusual childhood she experienced, including being entrusted to hand-rear a lion cub called Christy whose mother had died giving birth to another cub. June formed a fierce bond with Christy, and was devastated when her father swapped her for a polar bear from a zoo in France.
At 16, June left school to work at the zoo full time, but her experience of losing Christy made her resolute that she would no longer get emotionally attached to animals, so she was put in charge of developing the zoo’s aquarium in a former air raid shelter.
In 1947 she met her husband, Fred Williams, who had joined the zoo’s staff after the war. They were married in 1949 and, apart from three years spent in Australia and New Zealand in the 1950s, the couple worked at the zoo and brought up their children there.
When George Mottershead died in 1978, June and Fred felt it was time to move on, and she once recalled: “A man from London Zoo came and ran things and it all became much more scientific. Health and safety was coming into it and it wasn’t as much fun.”
The couple retired to Anglesey but eventually moved back to a house down the road from Oakfield Manor where she remained after Fred died in 2012.
Click here for The Chronicle's exclusive interview with June and Liz White about Our Zoo, back in September last year.