My Family of Reptiles. Audrey Noël Hume

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 14.20.25Audrey Noël Hume’s My Family of Reptiles was published in 1955 by Frederick Muller. It is far less well known than the book she wrote with her husband, Ivor Noël Hume, Tortoises, Terrapins and Turtles, the classic tortoise book, which was published by Foyle’s in 1954 and which remained in print for decades. I am describing Audrey’s book first because she was the driving force in the reptile-keeping side of their partnership. Ivor and Audrey met as archaeologists and we know a fair amount about her from Ivor’s autobiography, A Passion for the Past, published in 2010 by the University of Virginia Press, and from an obituary in the Daily Press (Virginia). Audrey Baines was born in Wimbledon in 1927; she graduated from the University of Bristol with an honours degree in history. She met Ivor in January 1950, by that time at London’s Guildhall Museum, while working as his voluntary assistant; she later joined the staff of the museum. They were married on 30 September 1950. In their archaeological lives in London, they worked on many archaeological salvage projects as the city was rebuilt and re-developed after the war. It was during this time that she wrote or co-authored the two books on reptiles. She had been given a tortoise in the early 1930s by her father and later acquired another seven. The first was killed after being caught and dropped onto concrete from a height by an owl. After they were married they lived on the top floor of her mother’s house in Wimbledon (which had been rebuilt after being hit by a bomb in the war) and Ivor was persuaded that tortoises should be acquired. They were, and eventually the collection included truly tropical as well Mediterranean species, terrapins, caimans, lizards and newts in the garden and in the house. The Noël Humes generated considerable publicity, it would seem, with their tortoises. Press photographers followed the story of the hatching of young tortoises, and the story also appeared in cinema newsreels. Ivor in his autobiography says that their tortoises were the subject of a nature film that played in cinemas as the second feature to African Queen. Unfortunately, he does not give the title [but see footnote added on 4 June 2015]. Audrey, in her book, describes Noël giving talks about keeping tortoises on BBC (then the sole broadcaster in Britain) radio for Woman’s Hour and Children’s Hour.

'The author with some of her family'. An illustration from the book. Photograph by Ivor Noël Hume

‘The author with some of her family’. An illustration from the book. Photograph by Ivor Noël Hume

The publicity about them and their animals upset their boss, Norman Cook (1906-1994) at the Guildhall Museum. What happened next is described by Ivor: Late in the year [1954], Cook had “a word” with Audrey suggesting that her growing stature as a tortoise-keeping celebrity could be benefited by her giving up archaeology for herpetology. The writing was on the wall. She read it and quit… This is an article from the Daily Mirror of 7 August 1952: Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 18.52.34 She became co-curator of the John Evelyn Museum in Wimbledon and wrote ‘historical, archaeological and zoological articles for Country Life and other publications’. She appeared with her reptiles in television programmes including those presented by George Cansdale, and was a contestant on The $64,000 Question, which ran, with sixpences and later shillings instead of dollars, on ATV in Britain from 1956 to 1958. Life then changed. They were invited to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia as archaeological consultants but permanent jobs were offered and they moved there in 1957. There they dug, curated, designed museums and wrote extensively on their findings; and there they stayed. Good homes were found before they left Wimbledon for forty-two tortoises and terrapins, two caimans, one lizard, a hedgehog, two crows and a mynah bird. One large tortoise, a Red-footed (Chelonoidis carbonaria), accompanied them to the USA. There the herpetological story seems to end. Ivor Noël Hume makes no further mention of Audrey’s herpetological interests and I wonder, since they lived in accommodation provided by Colonial Williamsburg, whether their activities in this sphere and in which, with Tortoises, Terrapins and Turtles, they had left a lasting legacy, ceased. The ups and downs of archaeology—and of their working as archaeologists—in Colonial Williamsburg and elsewhere are well described in A Passion for the Past. My impression is that the Noël Humes did not wish to become fully assimilated into the American way of life. Her obituary notes that she tried to maintain an English garden in the heat of Virginia and that the Union Flag hung from their porch. Audrey Noël Hume died on 21 August 1993, aged 66*. I only became aware of this book a few months ago. Like so many books of the time, it was probably in print for only a short period. For those of us interested in the history of reptile keeping, there area few intriguing glimpses into what was happening in the early 1950s. Some of the questions I had were answered by Ivor’s autobiography. For example, he states that Gerald Durrell helped her to expand their collection. Others were not. For example, she wrote: Our route to lunch lay past one of the many exclusive pet shops that are to be found in the West End. They had reptiles for sale, including the C. carbonaria that travelled to Virginia with them. Finding any shop with reptiles was very unusual in the late 1950s, so what and where were these shops? Then she wrote: On one of our frequent visits to the pet shop owned by a personal friend we were introduced to another fascinating branch of the reptile family. Who was she referring to and where was the shop? Finally, I do wish that I had found and read this book by the early 1960s. Had I done so I would not have bought a Black-pointed Tegu (then Tupinambis nigropunctatus, now T. teguixin but not to be confused with the species which was then called T. teguixin but is now T. merianae). The ‘personal friend’ sold the Noël Humes one, and they regretted it. The tegu was an irascible, fighting monster—and so was mine. They returned their tegu to their friend. Mine, as soon as it was put into a large glass-fronted vivarium, hurled itself against the glass in its attempt to attack whoever was within sight. So violent was the thrashing of its tail that thicker glass was installed. Opening the front of the vivarium to feed it could only be done using a wooden shield. For months it attacked everybody until one very cold night in the depths of winter it smashed the glass of its cage and died of cold. After that I rarely saw this species imported. Word must have got around that it was completely unsuitable for herpetologists to keep. Forty-five years later I was walking along a track in Guyana and heard very loud rustlings under a bush. I bent down to look and found myself eye-to-eye with a back-pointed tegu. I backed off as the lizard hurled itself into the undergrowth and then mode off at high speed. In many ways, Audrey Noël Hume’s small book was the forerunner of Kathleen Pickard Smith’s Living with Reptiles, published eight years later, with both describing the enthusiasm and vicissitudes of keeping reptiles in the 1950s when hard information was hard to come by and knowledge was still at a primitive state. For the publishers of both books though I think the selling point was the selling of a story about the peculiarity of liking reptiles and of women of all things liking and keeping reptiles. It was, remember, the 1950s. The book can be downloaded here or the Downloads page above: My Family of Reptiles

Footnote (4 June 2015). The film was Strange Cargo produced and filmed by Ray Densham with a commentary written and narrated by Richard Dimbleby. See my post of 4 June 2015.

*Note Added 18 March 2017. Ivor Noël Hume died on 4 February 2017. He born on 30 September 1927. Obituary in The Times 17 March 2017.