Ford’s Zoological Supplies in the 1950s

In my post of 9 October 2015, I mentioned advertisements from the 1950s for Ford’s Zoological Supples Ltd of 186 Woolwich Church Street, Woolwich, London SE18. Ford’s had fish, reptiles, birds and mammals and during the 1950s were regular advertisers in the weekly, Cage Birds, and in Water Life magazine.

Ad Fords 1950

I knew absolutely nothing about Ford’s. They did not seem to be very active from the late 1950s onwards and did not get a mention in any of the books that appeared around that time. However, from the late 1940s for about ten years, they regularly advertised what was available, whether it was common foreign birds, ‘Hyacinthine Macaws’. ‘finger-tame hand reared grey parrots, red tailed, selected from our own aviaries in Africa’ or a ‘tame white-faced Chimpanzee, perfectly docile’.

Mellissa Crowley, John Charles Ford’s grand-daughter, read my article and sent me photographs and an article on her beloved grandfather.

Ford WLThe article is from an issue of Water Life from August 1950. It describes how John Ford travelled to British Guiana (Guyana since 1966) to collect freshwater fish and transport them to his premises in Woolwich. At the time, tropical fish-keeping was enjoying a surge of interest in Britain with more and more households setting up heated aquaria and more and more dealers being established to meet that demand. Air transport was being established but was expensive. Moreover, stringent currency exchange and import controls were in place. Post-war Britain was broke, there was real austerity with food and most goods still rationed. British Guiana must then have been an attractive proposition. There were lots of fish; it belonged to Britain and was included in the Sterling Area so there were no difficulties with imports or exchange controls.

The article describes John Ford’s travels in April and May 1950; only three weeks separated the two. In the first he brought back 57 fish (mainly Corydoras catfish). To get to British Guiana he took the ‘banana boat’ Ringdrude from London to Kingston, Jamaica on 9 March; he is shown as ‘naturalist’ in the passenger list. The second trip resulted in many hundreds of fish being successfully transported to London. The fish were transported in five-gallon cans (no polythene bags then); some heating was required and the water was aerated by rubber bladders inflated by a foot pump. Ford thanked the airline staff profusely for assistance at each change of aircraft. There were no long-hail flights then and the journey from Georgetown to London involved stops at Dakar in Senegal, Lisbon, Madrid, Nice and Amsterdam. The cost was very high. Transporting the water alone cost £300 (about £9,000 in today’s money) so it is not surprising that tropical fish in retail shops were far more expensive than they are now.

Ford WL4

Ford WL2

Ford WL3

Among the species collected in profusion was the Marbled Hatchet fish (Carnegiella strigata). The article describes where John Ford collected them and other fishes: ‘up the R[iver] Demerara to Warratilla Creek, a distance of some 150 miles’. Intrigued, since 150 miles up the Demerara would take much longer to reach than John Ford spent in the country, I realised that the place is Waratilla Creek 15 and not 150, miles from Georgetown and, moreover, that I have actually been there and through the waters John Ford collected his fish from.

Waratilla Creek (now the site of a bauxite mine) is a tributary of the Kamuni River (or Creek) which enters the Demerara River opposite the international airport on the other bank. The place looms large in Charles Waterton’s (1782-1865) classic account of the natural history of this region in Wanderings in South America.

Guyana Map for Blog

This image from Google Earth shows the location of Waratilla Creek

Fifty-six years after John Ford was working Waratilla Creek, the Kamuni and Demerara rivers, we were staying as a Naturetrek party at Timberhead, a ‘resort’ no longer in operation it appears, on the Kamuni River. Each morning, fish that had leapt from the water in attempts to foil predators were in the bottom of the boats moored there. The vast majority were Marbled Hatchetfish and I remarked to others in the party that anybody seeking the then highly-prized hatchetfish for aquaria in the 1950s would not have had to look much further than here. I had no idea that John Ford had done just that in 1950.

Grandad and snake

Grandad with McCaw

John Eva and Tortoises

John’s wife, Eva (1913-2000) and son, John with the tortoises mentioned in the ad in Water Life

Daily Graphic of John and friends

John Ford junior

IMG_0844-1

John Ford in later life with two grand-daughters (Mellissa and her sister)

It would seem that Ford’s Zoological Supplies was a pretty important London animal dealer – wholesale to the ‘pet’ trade as well as retail – in the late 1940s and early- to mid-1950s. My guess, from seeing the photographs below, is that John Ford was a direct importer and possibly an exporter as well. Like a number of individuals in post-war Britain, a burning interest in exotic animals found its outlet in dealing in them and travelling to collect them; some were successful entrepreneurs while others quickly failed. It was an activity that enjoyed public support, press coverage and interest into the 1980s.

John Charles Ford (1908-1985) must have been successful since Mellissa records that he drove a Bentley, later to appear in Downton Abbey. I do not recall, though, advertisements or news of the existence of the company in the early 1960s. I suspect that John Ford was operating at a much lower level in later years because the company was dissolved on 28 July 1965 (London Gazette).

Little is recorded, other than in the popular press or through old advertisements, of the trade itself or of its magnitude. Dealers were pretty secretive especially about their contacts overseas some of whom proved to be reliable exporters of healthy animals, others not. But they were the intermediaries supplying zoos, circuses, pet shops and, in turn, showing real live animals to the public. In those days, travelling and seeing animals in their natural habitat seemed like an impossible dream.

Finally, some more advertising for Ford’s from Cage Birds in the 1950s:

 

 

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Ivor Noël Hume

Ivor Noël Hume, author with his first wife Audrey (1927-1993) of Tortoises, Terrapins and Turtles published 1954 (see earlier posts), died on 4 February 2017. He was born on 30 September 1927. His obituary under the sub-title ‘Wilfully eccentric British archaeologist renowned for his work on excavating America’s early colonial history’ was in The Times on 17 March 2017. The latter called a tortoise a ‘turtle’. I don’t think he would have approved.

 

Even more herpetological extracts from Water Life magazine

From another batch of Water Life magazines I have scanned the articles of herpetological interest (see DOWNLOADS page above). For volumes 5-10 from 1950 to 1955, I am now missing only two issues while volume 11 (1956-57) is complete.

Articles included are by:

  • Alfred Leutchscher on tortoises, box tortoises, hibernation, salamanders, amphibians and reptiles of the British Isles
  • Audrey Noël Hume on keeping Brazilian Giant Tortoises
  • Monica Green – a latter on the proper way to keep small terrapins
  • Viscountess Bury – keeping Xenopus

Viscountess Bury, Mairi Bury was born Mairi Elizabeth Vane-Tempest-Stewart in 1921. Her father, Lord Londonderry was a noted appeaser during the 1930s of the nazis in power in Germany and she was taken to meet Hitler, ‘a nondescript person’ she reckoned, while Himmler she described as like ‘a shopwalker in Harrods’. In 1940 she married Viscount Bury; the marriage was dissolved in 1958. She lived at Mount Stewart her family’s stately home in Northern Ireland which she gave to the National Trust. The Xenopus must have been kept there along with a bald (feather-plucked) cockatoo which lived in the hall. She died in November 2009. Her obituary in the Daily Telegraph is here.

Another article is on the Lido Aquarium and Reptile House in Margate; there is a photograph of Ken Smith, the well-known animal keeper of Paignton, Jersey and Exmouth Zoos.

There is a letter on the metamorphosis of axolotls and even a hint on using wire from ‘Morrison’ indoor air-raid shelters to make an outdoor reptiliary.

 

George Boyce – a follow-up comment

We used to visit George’s shop regularly in the early 1970s and often went away with something in a plastic bag or even larger. We found him when we were looking for a place we could get a couple of axolotls as pets and there was George, a friendly, knowledgeable man who tolerated our ignorance and gradually taught us a little about reptiles and amphibians. A trip to the shop would always be a quiet delight as there would usually be something new to ask questions about and discuss. Our memory is of the walls being lined with tanks containing fascinating creatures and I remember clearly that there was always one containing a soft shelled terrapin which was extremely ill natured – it never seemed to find a new home. As we lived on a houseboat moored at Strawberry Vale at the time, George thought it to be an entirely appropriate home for amphibians.
After we moved away to the South Coast we lost touch with George but he has always been a cherished memory and I am so glad to see at last a reference to him on the internet.

Regards,
Nick and Min Flowers

The Vivarium Society – a club in the North-West of England in the 1950s

I had never heard of the Vivarium Society until I recently read this account by ‘Aquarius’ (clearly Eric Hardy) in Water Life (December 1955).

Vivarium Society

This small group appears to have been based around Robert Jackson who, as described in an earlier post, was a leading dealer in all animals at the time.

There were a few amateur aquarium clubs that included the keeping of reptiles and amphibians in their titles and activities in the 1950s but this mixed interest, seen also in the pages of Water Life and The Aquarist, seems to have died off rapidly as the fish fancy mentality and the competitive showing of artifically selected fish breeds came to the fore amongst the fish keepers.

Fish and Reptile Shows in the Early 1950s

This photograph from the August 1954 issue Water Life magazine is from a time when the British Herpetological Society put on displays of reptiles and amphibians at shows organised by the fish fancy. In those days celebrities, like Frankie Howerd, came much cheaper than they do now  to put in an appearance!

Monica Green (1925-2014) who is holding on to the python was Secretary of the BHS for 54 years.

BHS