Visitors connect with family history

Pagel House in Aberdeen was once home to the largest private zoo in South Africa, and current owner Lyn Dugmore was delighted last week to welcome as guests the granddaughter and great grandson of the zoo’s owner.

Yolanda Wilke brought her son Jayden (13) on a nostalgia trip to introduce him to his family heritage before the family emigrates to New Zealand later this year.

Francois ‘Frank’ Wilke bought the house, a Victorian ostrich palace then known as Claremont House, in the late 1940s, and established his zoo. Wilke was a great admirer of circus master Wilhelm Pagel, and after Pagel’s death, he bought the Pagel Circus and moved it to Aberdeen in 1951. He renamed the house Pagel House, and also bought the marble name plaques which stand either side of the gate from Pagel’s estate.

The lions of Pagel House were well known, and one local couple were even married in the lions’ enclosure, with seven lionesses sitting in as bridesmaids! A photograph of the wedding takes pride of place in the hallway of Pagel House, alongside many other photos and albums which Yolanda has given to Lyn.

Yolanda’s father Francois was born and grew up in Aberdeen, and was quite at home with the animals. “He was the youngest boy ever to go into a lion’s cage, when he was 12,” said Yolanda.

Frank Wilke, who was also a prominent businessman in the town and mayor for a term, died in the house when Francois was just 15.

Yolanda first came to Aberdeen with her father at the age of 10, and saw the outside of the house. “When we walked through the town to the cemetery, several older residents stopped us for a chat, as they recognised ‘Klein Frankie’,” she reminisced.

Francois later came back to Aberdeen in 1996 and 1999, and made a video of the house, including the interior. Yolanda brought a copy of that for Lyn, as well as a fascinating promotional video of Aberdeen from 1953, sponsored by Rembrandt van Rijn tobacco company.

Yolanda and Jayden visited the cemetery, saw the graves of her great grandparents and grandparents, as well as her father’s elder brother who died at the age of seven months.

“I have some great memories of my heritage to take with me to New Zealand,” said Jayden.

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