Sylvia trained the TV chimps

Sylvia with two of her chimpanzees
Sylvia with two of her chimpanzees

A CIRCUS performer who trained and cared for the chimpanzees who appeared in the famous PG Tips adverts has passed away.

Sylvia Marion Dash-Lee, who lived in Gardner Close, Eastbourne, for the last seven years of her life died peacefully at Eastbourne DGH at the age of 83.

Sylvia had a passion for animals from a young age and her first job, at the age of 17, was at Chessington Zoo.

She went on to work in the circus and met her husband Billy Lee at the Don Ross Stage Circus. The pair married in April 1947 and spent 15 years of their lives living with and caring for around 12 chimps at their home in Wokingham.

They trained the chimps to perform in the circus and appeared on television with celebrities such as Morecambe and Wise and Eamonn Andrews.

Sylvia was at the height of her career in the late 1950s and early 1960 and her chimps were the stars of the popular PG Tips television advert.

The adverts, starring the Tipps Family, started in 1956 and are still the longest-running advertising campaign for any brand. And having the chimps to tea was not just for the television.

Sylvia’s 88-year-old sister Dolly Meladio, who has lived in Gardner Close with her husband Len for around 20 years, told the Herald, “She turned up at the house with two of the chimps and our children brought a whole load of other kids back from Sunday school to see them. We sat around having tea and all the neighbours came to have a look.

“The chimps were just like humans and the more time they spent in a family environment the more they behaved like children. While we were having our tea they were kicking each other under the table.”

Sylvia put the chimps in nappies when they were babies and they would sit and play with Dolly and Len’s children.

Len said, “Our son wrote a story about his aunty and the chimps when he was at school, and all the pupils and his teacher thought he had a wonderful imagination and had made it all up. We told the teacher it was all true.”

But is wasn’t just chimps that Sylvia worked with, she also presented lions, bears and pythons in circus performances across the world. Len said, “The lion in the circus had mauled its lion tamer so Sylvia’s husband thought it would be good publicity for the circus if a young lady was to appear in the ring with the lions. Most would be frightened but she thought it was great fun and loved being in with the lions.”

Conversely, sister Dolly is nervous around animals. “I would run from a spider,” said Dolly. “When she first brought the chimps around I was quite nervous.” But Len added, “Those chimps were part of the family. She didn’t have any children but those chimps were our nieces and nephews.”

Dolly and Len, who lived in the same street as Sylvia in Eastbourne and saw her every day, have paid tribute to their animal-loving relative. The couple described her as a private person but have great admiration for her bravery and ability to work and communicate with all animals.

Len said, “People never really knew who she was but they certainly knew her chimps.”

Sylvia’s funeral is at Eastbourne Crematorium at 1pm on Monday (April 18) and there will be a gathering for friends and family at the Langham Hotel afterwards.