Badham, Molly Winifred (19142007), zoo proprietor and conservationist, was born on 12 May 1914 at 3 Waterside, Evesham, Worcestershire, the daughter of Arthur James Badham (18891965), then a boot shop assistant and later a homeopath, and his wife, Edith Annie, née Sharp (18891980). She was educated at Town School, Sutton Coldfield, after which she pursued her childhood passion for animals by establishing a boarding kennel and by breeding dogs. In the early 1940s the profits from these ventures allowed her to buy a pet shop on Station Street, Sutton Coldfield, where she also lived in the flat above the premises. In 1949 she purchased a monkey from another pet shop in the town and this brought her into close contact with the shop's proprietor, Nathalie Evans, with whom she would subsequently collaborate in the founding of Twycross Zoo. The two women combined their businesses and took up residence in Badham's flat. Following the death of the first monkey they acquired two chimpanzees along with other unwanted animals who shared their cramped quarters.
In 1954 Badham and Evans moved to Hints, near Tamworth, where they opened their first zoothe Hints Zoological Societyon a three-quarter acre site. With their collection of animals continuing to grow they moved again in 1962 to a Victorian rectory at Twycross, ten miles to the east of Tamworth, which they purchased for £12,000. The dilapidated house came with grounds of twelve acres which became home to a range of rare animals, including elephants, leopards, giraffes, and sea-lions, as well as chimpanzees and monkeys. Twycross opened to the public on 26 May 1963 and proved an instant attraction, drawing large crowds.
Notwithstanding this success, the zoo's running costs required Badham to seek additional sources of income. The spectacle of chimps' tea parties had long been a popular zoo entertainment and in late 1956 the tea merchants Brooke Bond had begun a series of television advertisements using chimpanzees, originally loaned from Billy Smart's circus. Badham was first approached to supply animals to take part in a Brooke Bond tea party for an exhibition at Olympia; thereafter Twyford's chimpanzees made regular appearances in a series of adverts in which, dressed in adult clothing, they performed sketches as housewives, parents and children, handymen, and cyclists in the tour de France, each sketch ending with the drinking of Brooke Bond (and later PG Tips) tea. The commercials became Britain's longest-running television campaign and were aired until 2002. A year later the chimpanzees topped a poll of the nation's favourite advertising characters, having given rise to a string of catch phrases, among them: Coo-eee Mr Shifter, You hum it, I'll play it! (Mr Shifter's reply to his son's question do you know the piano's on my foot?), and Avez vous un cuppa … Can you ride tandem? (from a cyclist to a race spectator who proffers tea). Badham countered occasional criticism of the use of her animals in advertisements with the claim that Chimps love dressing up. They have such a sense of humour (The Independent, 26 Oct 2007).
In fact Badham's willingness for the Twycross chimpanzees to be used on television and in public performances ran hand in hand with her commitment to research and animal conservation at the zoo. She was a noted expert on the breeding of primates and in 1969 the first colobus monkey to be bred in captivity in Britain was born at Twycross, followed in 1994 by the successful rearing of bonobos. Badham took a central role in this work, often hand-rearing monkeys at her home (which she stopped only in 2002) and compiling a series of stud books on primates. Her other publications, which she co-wrote with Nathalie Evans, were Chimps with Everything (1979), a history of Twycross Zoo, and Molly's Zoo (2000), an account of life at Twycross that followed a documentary television series broadcast in 1999.
In 1972 Badham and Evans established Twycross as a charitable foundation, the East Midlands Zoological Society. A founding member of the National Federation of Zoological Gardens of Great Britain, Badham was appointed an inspector of licensed zoos, under legislation in 1981. In recognition of her conservation work she was awarded an honorary degree by Leicester University in 1982 and was appointed MBE in 2002. Only in 2003, on her appointment as director emeritus of the zoo, did she step back from the day-to-day running of Twycross, though she remained active in its work until her death on 19 October 2007 at her home, Tree Tops Bungalow, in Norton-juxta-Twycross. By the time of her death her zoo had become the world's largest centre for primate conservation and study, and a popular attraction with an estimated half a million visitors per year.
M. Badham, Chimps with everything: the story of Twycross Zoo (1979) · M. Badham, Molly's zoo: monkey mischief at Twycross Zoo (2000) · Daily Telegraph (22 Oct 2007) · The Independent (26 Oct 2007) · The Times (27 Oct 2007) · b. cert. · d. cert.
photographs, 20013, Rex Features, London · obituary photographs · photographs, repro. in Badham, Molly's zoo · photographs, Twycross Zoo
Wealth at death
under £257,000: probate, 6 Aug 2008, CGPLA Eng. & Wales