Sign of the times harks back to when Derbyshire town had its own zoo

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

Wednesday, 23rd June 2021, 2:24 pm
Marshall Zoo Sign is estimated to attract bids of up to £1,500 at auction on July 22.
Marshall Zoo Sign is estimated to attract bids of up to £1,500 at auction on July 22.

Here was a man with an adventurous spirit, a man who constantly pushed the boundaries to make his dreams come true.

Marshall’s Zoo was situated on the roof of shops in Oxford Street. A sign, which is coming up for auction, advertises ‘Large Outdoor Aviaries of English and Foreign Birds, Aquarium, Squirrel and Monkey House – Admission 1d – Teas Provided’.

John’s obituary claimed the zoo also had a performing bear, a talking alligator, a performing seal, parrots, fish and rarer creatures from all parts of the globe.

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

For a while at least, Ripley, a town not normally renowned for its tourist attractions, delivered animal magic.

Sadly, the zoo closed after only seven years in 1915. The First World War was under way and it was a struggle to get food for the animals.

Apparently, the zoo never made any money but profit was never John Marshall’s main concern in that particular venture. He wanted to share his love of the natural world and make people happy. He achieved both.

John’s 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.

Entrance to Ripley Zoo.

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 John’s 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.

As well as aiding studies for a generation of schoolchildren, Ripley had the perfect leisure venue for youngsters. Busy parents could leave them safely at Marshall’s Zoo while they got on with the shopping.

People flocked to see creatures they would normally see only 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.

Crowds queuing outside Ripley Hippodrome for a miners' strike concert.

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.

John Marshall was a businessman who lightened lives, delivered entertainment, came up with new ideas and displayed impressive marketing prowess.

A sign for Marshall & Sons Oxford Street Zoo Gardens will be auctioned by Hansons on July 22, 2021, and is estimated to raise between £1,000 and £1,500.

To find out more about the Marshalls, visit the Ripley and District Heritage Trust website at

Mrs Marshall's sweet shop in Ripley.

Free valuations are available at Hansons, Heage Lane, Etwall, from Monday-Saturday. To book an appointment, email: [email protected] or call 01283 733988.

Ripley of old.