Polar Bear Pit and Lion and Tiger Ravines, Dudley Zoo


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:
Location Description:
Castle Hill, Dudley.
Statutory Address:
2 The Broadway, Dudley, West Midlands, DY1 4QB


Ordnance survey map of Polar Bear Pit and Lion and Tiger Ravines, Dudley Zoo
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Statutory Address:
2 The Broadway, Dudley, West Midlands, DY1 4QB

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Location Description:
Castle Hill, Dudley.
Dudley (Metropolitan Authority)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:


Former polar bear pit, and lion and tiger ravines, with associated features including viewing platforms on several levels, enclosure walls and ramps and platforms within the enclosures, designed by Lubetkin and Tecton, and built 1935-7.

Reasons for Designation

The Polar Bear Pit and Big Cat Ravines at Dudley Zoo, is designated at Grade II*, for the following principal reasons: * Architectural interest: the building is one of twelve surviving structures at the zoo designed by Lubetkin and Tecton, with engineering by Ove Arup, built in 1935-7; * Design interest: the structure is of more than special interest for it's unflinchingly geometric forms, and complex levels of viewing platforms and circulation elements which demonstrate a high degree of design and engineering interest; * Group value: the enclosures demonstrate a strong group identity through the sharing of form, scale, materials and finishing with the other purpose-built structures created by Tecton for the zoo; * Setting: the complex is designed to sit on the steeply-terraced slopes below the ruins of the medieval Dudley Castle, in whose grounds the zoo was created; it makes full use of a natural ravine to give depth to the enclosures, and provide a dramatic contrast between the geometric structures and the rugged natural backdrop.


The idea of a zoo at Dudley Castle was first mooted in 1935. The site belonged to the Earl Dudley and he, together with Ernest Marsh (director of Marsh and Baxter, a meat producer) and Captain Frank Cooper (owner of the marmalade factory) combined to form the initial board of directors of The Dudley Zoological Society. Captain Cooper owned Oxford Zoo and wanted to sell his own collection of animals. They appointed Dr Geoffrey Vevers, the Superintendent at London Zoo as their Advisor.

Vevers had previously worked with Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton at London Zoo, where their Gorilla House and Penguin Pool were completed in 1934 and 1935 respectively. It was through him that the practice received the commission. In addition, the contractors were J L Kier, for whom the engineer Ove Arup was working at the time, prior to establishing his own company. The resident site engineer was Michael Sheldrake and the job architect was Francis Skinner. The budget for the work was roughly £40,000 and there was pressure from the clients to open the new zoo for the summer season of 1937 and, in Lubetkin’s words, ‘to get as many goods as possible in the shop window’. In the event, the zoo opened on May 6, 1937 and a crowd of c.250,000 arrived, of whom only 50,000 could be admitted.

The thirteen buildings designed by Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton included a restaurant and two cafés. As the Architectural Review of November 1937 made clear, the problem for the designers was as much one of circulation and town planning as of building. A solution was found by free planning, which utilised the natural features of the castle site. At the centre was Dudley Castle, a Scheduled Monument in a state of semi-ruin, dating from the C11 to the C16 and built around a central courtyard.

The site for the zoo was the surrounding grounds of about thirty acres, which slope steeply down from the castle on all sides, forming terraces at different levels. The site had the advantage that the railway station and tram terminus were both within a few yards of the entrance, but several disadvantages had to be overcome; these included the steepness and shape of the site, which reduced the number of possible positions for buildings and enclosures and made construction work difficult. Transport problems to most parts of the castle grounds meant that the existing roads and paths, laid out as carriage drives and pathways in the C19, were used wherever possible, and construction work could not take place in wet weather. Moreover, extensive caverns associated with limestone workings from the C17 and C18 undermined large parts of the site and no accurate maps existed to guide the architects in choosing safe building locations. During construction of the foundations, an unexpected cave, at least fifty feet in depth, opened up beneath the bear pit.

Almost as difficult was the fact that the limestone, which formed the castle mound, was particularly hard, and although this created good foundations, blasting and clearing substantial areas of the site was considered unfeasible. Another consideration was that the castle was scheduled, and the Ancient Monuments department of the Office of Works had a degree of control over development of the castle grounds. Their position was that the educational value of the castle would be increased by the construction of the zoo buildings. Permission was allowed for buildings on the approach slopes to the castle, but those structures which were near to the castle, namely the restaurant, one café and the Elephant House and Sea Lion enclosure, had to be kept as low and inconspicuous as possible. It was also requested that the Sea Lion pools and the Restaurant should incorporate some areas of rubble stone walling to blend with the castle. Further considerations were drainage, and the fact that half of the site was in shadow for most of the day.

A planned route, grouping types of animals together, was not possible. Instead, the buildings had to signal the fact that they were related and the product of one overall scheme through congruities in their design; and functional buildings, such as cafés, lavatories and exits, had to indicate their purpose clearly. The sloping site allowed the architects to create designs which often incorporated two levels, and allowed the public access to viewing platforms above the animal enclosures.

Lubetkin described his role in the creation of the zoo buildings as ‘designing architectural settings for the animals in such a way as to present them dramatically to the public, in an atmosphere comparable to that of a circus’. This attitude was not universally popular at the time and has since been superseded by a desire to give animals more privacy and where possible, a naturalistic setting. Several of the buildings have changed their function since the zoo opened; these include the Reptile Enclosure, the Polar Bear enclosure, the Tropical Bird House, the Bear Ravine and the Elephant House, all of which now house different animals. Both of the cafés, which were originally open-air, have been adapted to be fully enclosed; and the kiosks which formerly sold cigarettes and chocolate are no longer used for this purpose as they do not meet modern environmental health standards for the sale of food. The nature of the construction of the buildings, in reinforced concrete, has caused problems with rusting and spalling of the concrete surfaces, and repairs have been necessary, including patch repairs and a covering of colour wash. Only one major building has been demolished: the Penguin Pool, which was smaller than that at London Zoo, was filled with salt water which reacted with the reinforcement rods embedded in the concrete body and caused rapid and extensive corrosion. The building was demolished in 1979.

Dudley Zoo continues in use as a visitor attraction, and participates in numerous captive breeding programmes to contribute to the conservation of species under threat.

The polar bear pit and the lion and tiger enclosures, like the brown bear ravine, took full advantage of an existing topography of the zoo grounds; the complex was built into an area of historic quarrying, in a deep ravine. The bottom of the ravine was further excavated in order to create a deep enough area in which to build the polar bear pit. The unflinchingly geometric forms used for the polar bear pit and the regular terraces contrast sharply with the rugged, natural background of the hillside. The central polar bear pit was provided with an elevated terrace, which bridges the ravine and allows a high-level view into all three enclosures. The steeply-sloping nature of the site meant that, like the other larger animal enclosures in the zoo, the design of the buildings was able to facilitate the movement of visitors from one level to another within the grounds without an obvious steep climb.

The terraces share common features with the other Tecton buildings within the zoo; the standard parapet and railing - a low wall with its coping raised on elliptical-section steel struts, giving adults a raised surface on which to lean, and allowing children to view the animals without being lifted up - was here in part used as a 10 foot wide terrace supported at intervals on centrally-placed columns with mushroom capitals; this feature was also used for the large elevated section of the brown bear terraces, and provides a further visual link between the buildings, despite their very different forms.

The enclosure is no longer suitable for the keeping of polar bears, and is therefore not used for its original purpose. Bears occupy one half of the ravine, and tigers the other. Additional steel posts have been added to all the parapets, in order to raise them; rows of wires are strung between them.


PLAN: The central element, the polar bear pit, is circular on plan, with stairs, ramps and viewing terraces to opposite sides. Flanking the central pit are enclosures for lions and tigers, which follow the curve of the hillside against which they are set; above them, to either side of the western edge of the polar bear pit, a viewing terrace runs along the western edge of the whole ensemble.

MATERIALS: Reinforced concrete.

EXTERIOR: The deep polar bear enclosure at the centre is circular, and surrounded by viewing terraces.The terraces have complex variations in their levels and circulation. The zoo's standard parapet and railing - a low wall with its coping raised on elliptical-section steel struts, giving adults a raised surface on which to lean, and allowing children to view the animals without being lifted up - is here used to either side of the terraces, and as a balustrade and handrail to the staircases, which allow access to the viewing areas. The interior of the enclosure has curving geometric platforms on several levels, including an upward-sweeping projection which was intended as a diving platform; in the base of half of the pit is a pool eight feet deep.

The polar bear pit is flanked by ravines for lions on one side, and tigers on the other. A continuous terrace, with the characteristic parapet with raised coping, runs along the western side of the entire ensemble. The ravine enclosures have curved ends echoing the central, circular enclosure. There are various platforms projecting from the hillside within the ravines, together with pools and ramps. The rear retaining wall is of reinforced concrete, to match the rest of the complex.

SUBSIDIARY FEATURES: Access to a lower terrace is by steps from the western terrace, running to either side of a narrow, curving block echoing the curve of the circular enclosure, under which lavatory blocks are built. The parapet with raised coping used for all the Tecton animal houses around the zoo is here employed as a balustrade and handrail to the flanking staircases, which allow access to the viewing area on the upper level.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
Allan, J, Berthold Lubetkin, (2002), 77
Hitchman, J, Towers and Tectons at DZG - a view from the hill, (2009)
'Architectural Review' in The Zoo at Dudley, , Vol. 82, (November 1937), 177-186
'Architects' Journal' in Zoo at Dudley, , Vol. 86, (4 November 1937), 717-722


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

Images of England

Images of England was a photographic record of every listed building in England, created as a snap shot of listed buildings at the turn of the millennium. These photographs of the exterior of listed buildings were taken by volunteers between 1999 and 2008. The project was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Date: 07 Nov 1999
Reference: IOE01/01584/14
Rights: Copyright IoE Mr Colin Cundy. Source Historic England Archive
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