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Thursday, 3 June 2010

Fighting the Historical Airbrush: This Time it's Personal!

One thing I got very used to during my research for my first book was the unreliability of witness testimony in the circus world. Much of what had been told and published was purposefully designed to enhance the career of the narrator. After all, that is the nature of showbusiness. It is not always excusable, but at least understandable. My job was to present as honest a picture as I could by using my lived knowledge of being a part of an old circus family and my evolving skills as an historical investigator. However, as I began to delve deeper into the old reports, show programmes and reports from independent eyewitnesses I began to uncover a reality that has gradually been erased from my country’s consciousness. Forgotten histories, in general, are an interest of mine, but as time goes on I have become more shocked than ever at how much my culture has been purposefully airbrushed out. There are many examples, much of which I put down to the UK’s collective cultural flaw of snobbery, are discussed in my book. However, recently the whole issue has come closer to home than I find comfortable.

Jimmy Chipperfield was my great uncle, famous in his time, and today a hugely underrated pioneer. He split from Chipperfield’s Circus when the business was at its peak, eventually moving into the business that would make him a millionaire: safari parks. He proposed and initiated the first safari park outside of Africa in 1966 in a partnership with Lord Bath at Longleat. After that he went on to found safari parks in Woburn and developed Knowsley, Plymouth and Southampton zoos. Tribute and acknowledgement for the pioneeringwork of my uncle was paid several times throughout his lifetime, including a episode of “This is Your Life”. His story is recorded in his autobiography “My Wild Life”, as well as several other books written about the Chipperfield family, Lord Bath's own obituary and countless articles. The most recent of these articles was published on 15 May in the Guardian newspaper. Read it here. I note that "The Independent" newspaper's online obituary neglects to mention Jimmy Chipperfield, but Major Geoffrey Gibbon, another co-founder in the safari park business has this information intact in his obituary in The Telegraph.

However, you won’t find any of this information in the Wikipedia entry for Longleat. I included it when they had a history section, but it has since been taken out, substituted forthe briefest of introductions that doesn’t make any reference to Jimmy Chipperfield whatsoever. Few people in the safari park world will acknowledge the tremendous input of my uncle today. A gleaming exception was Bob Lawrence who mentions him on the dustcover his autobiography. It says a lot for this man’s integrity whose park, West Midlands Safari Park, wasn’t started by my uncle, but he still felt it was correct to acknowledge his innovation with Longleat. Luckily zoo historians are often as meticulous and dedicated to honestly reporting events as their mainstream counterparts. Here is a linked quote from The Good Zoo Guide's section on Longleat: 

"...the man behind ‘The Lions’ was not Lord Bath himself, but an inveterate animal trainer, circus owner, and showman, Jimmy Chipperfield. It was Chipperfield who had noticed how cars in African game-parks would always congregate around the lions, and he felt convinced that with secure fencing, the same thing could happen in the English countryside. It was some time before he found a man with the land, and the enterprise to put the ideas into action, but not surprisingly, what was true for Kenya became equally true for Wiltshire, and today the visitors still flock to see the lions - perhaps not in the colossal numbers they did in the early years, but still numbering over half a million people every year."
The airbrushing out and abuse of history annoys me on most occasions. It warps people’s perceptions of how things happened and how the society we live in developed. As those who have had to deal with religious extremism in the classroom or through politics will no doubt testify, it fuels unreal ideas about the world we live in, inhibits the development of knowledge and can be very harmful as a result. Circus people endure a tremendous amount of persecution based on the fact that they are a very small and abstract society in the minds of most. Today the country that spawned it, Britain, has barely a handful of traditional circuses currently touring. Whether or not you agree with them is not my concern. There are plenty of things in our past we might not agree with, but accept that it existed and happened, and often somehow influenced our society today. To erase the history of the circus people is a perversion of truth.

Published primary sources for further reading: 

Even the book on "Dublin Zoo" makes reference to Jimmy Chipperfield's involvement with the creation of Longleat Safari Park


Anonymous said...

Well said Jamie. Seems the 'political correctness' brigade just cant cope with reality. Jimmy Chipperfield is a real hero of mine (I share Jimmy's love of animals and flying) and one of my greatest disappointments is never to have met him, although I was lucky enough to meet his widow, my cousin Rosie. In the end, history is written by the winners. With that in mind, best we keep fighting on the side of truth!

Nick Brady

Jamie Clubb said...

Thanks for the kind comments and getting in touch Nick. Glad to see this post is still helping to spread a small degree of awareness.