Sheila the Belfast Blitz Elephant

Sheila the Belfast Blitz Elephant

Researched and written by Nigel Henderson

An elephant arrived at Bellevue Zoo in 1938 and was given the name Sheila by Sheila Williamson. Also in the newspaper image is Gordon McNutt who was helping Keeper Higgins in the elephant enclosure when he was injured by Sheila in 1940.

After the German air raid on the night of 15th/16th April 1941, Antrim Road residents raised concerns that dangerous animals might escape during air raids. The account in Scott Edgar’s WartimeNI records that authorisation was given on 19th April for the killing of zoo animals.

Around the same time, Denise Weston Austin, a keeper at the zoo, started to take Sheila to her home in the evenings, returning her to the zoo in the mornings. Some accounts say that she did so to protect the elephant from being shot (which does not make much sense) and others that she was protecting the elephant from being injured/killed in the German air (which also does not make much sense as her home was not far from the zoo and Whitewell Road was bombed!).

The Zoo authorities only became aware of Sheila’s nightly forays when a neighbour of the Austin family complained that the elephant had broken a boundary fence and trampled his garden whilst chasing his dog. It is not know how often Denise took the elephant home with her – it might have been only for a few nights, it might have been for a few weeks.

So far, so good, a nice heart-warming story.

However, recent articles in newspapers and on websites (including the Belfast Zoo website) record that Sheila lived for a further 25 years. Is this true? I do not think so and here is why.

In March 1961, the Belfast News-Letter ran a full page on recollections of the Belfast Blitz, including those of Alex McClean, curator of the zoo and veterinary officer for Belfast Corporation. He is on record as saying that he and Dick Foster, head zoo keeper, decided to carry of the cull of the animals on 4th May 1941. By the time he arrived at the zoo with a .303 rifle, dusk was setting and they decided to carry out the cull the following day.

Of course, this was the night of the second big air raid on Belfast. Having shot the other dangerous animals, Alex and Dick found Sheila dead in her enclosure. Of course, it is possible that Alex McClean’s memory was playing him false, so I dug a bit deeper.

In 1948, Belfast Zoo received a new elephant which was named … Sheila!

Belfast News-Letter, 5th October 1948

On 22nd October 1965 , the Belfast News-Letter carried a report that Sheila the Elephant, who had been at the zoo for 17 years (i.e. from 1948), was ill and would be put to sleep in the winter months. 

In essence, when articles were compiled this century, the researchers knew there was an elephant called Sheila at the zoo in 1938 and that an elephant called Sheila died at the zoo in 1965. Unfortunately, they made the assumption that the elephant that died in 1965 was the elephant who had arrived in 1938.

#NeverAssume #AlwaysCheck #GoTheExtraMile