Reptile Species in Old Books on Reptile Keeping

I gradually realised in the 1950s that many of the species described by the authors of book on keeping reptiles that some of the species described never appeared on the market. Now, by comparing what dealers like Robert Jackson had in the late 1940s and early 1950s when many of the book were written, it is easy to see why. Books reflected what had been available before the books were written. Many species were never imported again.

Several books of the 1950s describe the keeping of South African tortoises like Chersina angulata, Homopus areolatus and even the now critically endangered Psammobates geometricus. They seemed to have been popular because they were much smaller than the Mediterranean species imported in vast numbers by the pet trade. However, it is now quite clear why we never saw them on a dealer’s list. As the Aquarist of March 1950 explained, their export from South Africa was banned:

It has recently been reported that the Cape Government of South Africa, perturbed at the numbers of tortoises leaving that country, and doubtful of the treatment that these are receiving in the hands of overseas buyers, has now decided prohibit further exports.

I have never seen a South African tortoise but I remember Professor Gideon Louw (1930-2004) of the University of Stellenbosch and then the University of Cape Town telling me lots about them when he spent a year working along the corridor from my lab.


Reptiles Imports in the late 1940s and early 50s

I knew that during the years of austerity after the Second World War, the U.K. had import controls to protect the £ Sterling. What I could not understand was how fish keeping and herpetology became so popular under these circumstances and how magazines from that time had advertisements for a fairly wide range of imported reptiles and amphibians. There were large reptile exhibits at amateur fish shows. For example, the Aquarist of November 1949 reported that at the show of the Nottingham and District Aquarist Society held from 15 to 24 September, a reptile room held over twenty species including a four-foot crocodile.

I discovered the answer in the November 1949 issue of the Aquarist:

The recent arrival of fishes from abroad in London shops had encouraged us to think that better things were on the way, and that all the delights of pre-war aquarium keeping were soon to be available to large numbers of new aquarists. But our hopes were shattered when recently we were notified by the Board of Trade’s Import Licensing Department that the licences necessary for the importation of fishes and reptiles are no longer being issued. In special circumstances these animals may be imported on licence for the use of zoological gardens and for scientific research purposes.

The British Herpetological Society were quick off the mark. The March 1950 issue of the Aquarist contained the following:

BHS Aquarist Mar 1950

I still have not found out when these restrictions were eased and finally removed but its imposition probably marks the first major downturn in amateur herpetology—it has always been cyclical since then—in the second half of the 20th Century.

Reptiles on BBC Television in 1950

The following, from Water Life, October 1950, is self-explanatory but interesting:

NAS Picture Page

Interesting because it is Mrs Leutscher who was involved and not her husband, Alfred. Were the BBC producers trying to put over the idea that women are not scared of snakes or was there some other reason?

Mrs Leutscher was Phyllis Muriel Carter when she married Afred Leutscher. She was born on 4 March 1908 and died in 1969.

I have mentioned D.C. Crisp before. He was the original owner of South Western Aquarists in Tooting. He was then the partner of George Boyce, who soon afterwards became the sole proprietor.

And yes I can remember ‘Picture Page’ – just. My grandfather bought a television in March 1951 and it was installed just in time to see the boat race and the Oxford boat to sink. Like most televisions of that time it failed that same evening and had to be taken away for repairs.

Oh…and the Brabazon? Like it was yesterday.


The British Herpetological Society in 1940s Water Life Magazines

The British Herpetological Society (BHS) was founded in 1947 and short accounts of its meetings appeared during the late 1940s and early 1950s in Water Life magazine as members were sought.

However, the problem that was to bedevil the Society in the then future appeared early on. In a letter in the October 1947 issue of Water Life, a Mr B.M. Smith from London SW6 complained that the Society’s purpose was only the scientific study of the British herpetofauna. Interest in foreign reptiles and amphibians and in vivarium keeping, was, he went on, to be excluded.

I do not know who B.M. Smith was but a Mr Smith was appearing frequently in reports of aquarist’s society shows in south-west London because he had a collection of reptiles including some large snakes that he exhibited.

The Secretary of the BHS, Alfred Leutscher, wrote in the next issue to explain that he hoped that vivarium keepers would join the new Society:

As an appeal to vivarium keepers, for which this periodical [Water Life] largely caters, might I suggest that her is an opportunity for making their hobby more interesting and of definite value.

The short account of planned and past meetings included the evening visits to the Reptile House at the London Zoo.

The Society also attended fish shows and here is the exhibit at the National Aquarists Society in June 1948:


1940s-60s Dealer in Reptiles: Wilsons of Glasgow

The Wilson animal empire in Glasgow has been largely ignored by zoo historians. The family operated as animal dealers and zoo owners. Fortunately, there is now more information online about first their Glasgow indoor, city-centre shop/zoo, where some large animals as well as small were kept, and their ill-fated attempt at setting up a zoo north of the city at Craigend Castle near Milngavie and which was open from 15th April 1949 until September 1954.

Kenneth McMahon’s website describes the Wilson’s activities and there are others here, here, here, here).

The October 1947 issue of Water Life contains this ad. for Wilsons:

Wilson1 copy

The large Aldabra Tortoise was the equivalent of at least £7,650 today.

But then the April 1948 issue of Water Life contains an advertisement. Messrs Andrew Wilson and Tom Goodwin were on a collecting expedition in East Africa and had a vast array of mammals, birds and reptiles for sale when they returned. It seems that some of the animals they returned with were destined for their own new zoo.

Wilson2 copy

You will see that the notice at the bottom of the advertisement to the effect that the animals would not be sold freely because of the licence conditions of the Board of Trade. Britain was broke at the end of the war and strong measures were in place to protect the £ sterling. Currency restrictions were in place to prevent the outflow of money and licences were issued for imports. Such notices appeared in adverts. of Robert Jackson and other dealers until the early 1950s. However, given the number of imported animals of all sorts in private hands, I get the impression that the rules were easily circumvented once the mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians and fish were actually in the country.


Extracts from articles in early post-war Water Life magazines

I bought another batch of Water Life magazines last year and the herpetological extracts can be found on the DOWNLOAD page. They have been amalgamated into a large pdf covering 1946-55, Volumes 1-10. I have only 7 issues missing from the whole run of Water Life.

There were few articles on herpetology in the postwar years but there are ones by Robert Jackson, Alfred Leutscher and others on axolotls and Xenopus.