This 112-page book in the Foyles Handbooks series was published in 1954 when Audrey and Ivor Noël Hume were both 27. Over the preceding few years the mass importation of tortoises for the pet trade had started up after the foreign currency restrictions that were introduced to protect the £ Sterling after the second world war were eased. There was concern even then that the trade was unsustainable from the point of view of conservation as well as a major problem in terms of animal welfare. Nevertheless, tortoises were extremely common as pets, the only reptile in fact that could be classified in that category. Keepers for whatever reason of other reptiles and amphibians were few and far between. Tortoises were usually the first and indeed the only reptile that members of the British public would get close to and be able to study and learn from. Letters to newspapers in the early 1950s from experienced tortoise keepers tried to instil the key elements of husbandry to those who had picked up a tortoise from a market stall for a few pence or who had been given one as a fairground or fete prize. Printed information was expensive (the average book cost about twenty times the price of a tortoise) and difficult to find. That’s why the Noël Humes’ book was so valuable and why it stayed in print for so long. It hit the market at the right time; it was authoritative (considering the state of knowledge at the time) but not overly prescriptive. It also included chapters on the tortoise in history, the natural history of the giant tortoises as well as turtles. It also included information on the care of the truly tropical tortoises that as far as I know was not available in any other publication in Britain until years later. The authors did not mince their words when it came to describing the iniquities of the tortoise trade from capture in North Africa to sale in the streets of London (or disposal of unsold stock in the autumn by abandonment on bomb sites). Owners often failed to provide suitable conditions for successful hibernation and most deaths (a huge percentage of the hundreds of thousands imported year) occurred in the first winter but for those who did get this right, a well-fed tortoise would live for years. My mother-in-law’s ‘Anzac’ appears in family photographs from the 1920s and 30s. My great-grandfather and his fourth wife had a tortoise, ‘Timothy’, and I was mightily impressed by it. They had kept it in their garden since before the war. It had a palatial pen. A considerable part of the garden was occupied by permanent cold frames, the bases of which were built from large blocks of what was probably sandstone. The glass lids were simply dropped on these stone bases. Timothy had one of these long cold frames to himself and he trundled around amongst the plants that remained. When his owners appeared with food he came quickly to the end to see what was being offered. Great-grandfather was a fierce choirmaster and organist and obsessive gardener (we still have some of his plant pots) who must by then have retired from being an engine driver for the Midland, and then the L.M.S., Railway. He was also very proud of Timothy. My grandfather had half of the old man’s garden for his own use and when I went there with him in the summer my job was to collect dandelions and sow thistles for the tortoise while avoiding being pinched on the cheek by great-grandfather, the common greeting inflicted on children by old men at that time. I have no recollection of knowing what happened to the tortoise after he died in 1950. I do not even know which species Timothy was. However, the impression from what I recall of his appearance is that he was a Hermann’s (Testudo hermanni) rather than Mediterranean Spur-thighed (Testudo graeca). Hermann’s were far less common in the pet shops and market stalls of the 1950s and were always reckoned to be hardier than the T. graeca which were imported from North Africa. The Noël Humes also described breeding and care of the young. A number of tortoise keepers have described having tortoises that produced eggs and then asking a zoo what they should do. From the 1920s until the early 1960s at least, zoos gave gave a standard spiel that the eggs were unlikely to be fertile and success was so unlikely that doing nothing was advised. That line was shown to be wrong and, as I noted in the previous post, the Noël Humes generated considerable publicity when they successfully incubated eggs and the young hatched. Thus, the Light Programme’s (now BBC Radio 2) Woman’s Hour on 24 March 1952 contained a talk, ‘The Tortoise that had a Baby in 1951’ described as follows: in this country the successful hatching of tortoise eggs is unusual. Ivor Noël-[sic]Hume tells the story of the tortoise he bought that on arrival home settled down to produce a family. On 9 June at 5.50 pm he gave a talk on the Home Service (now BBC Radio 4) entitled ‘Home for a Tortoise’. Tortoises, Terrapins and Turtles was reprinted a number of times, the final date I have been able to find is 1980 with revisions by J. Blossom. As with a number of the Foyles Handbooks, the cover design was changed several times over the 26 years or so the book was available. For some years after buying the book in the late 1950s I was never able to understand why Audrey and Ivor Noël Hume were not still active in reptile circles in Britain. Only later did I learn that they then lived and worked in the USA (I.N.H. still does*) and only much later of their distinction in what has come to be known as historical archaeology.
The book can be downloaded here or from the Downloads page above.
*Ivor Noël Hume died 4 February 2017.
Audrey Noël-Hume had articles in Water Life and Aquaria World. You can find copies on the Downloads page.
Hatching and rearing Spur-thighed tortoises (Testudo graeca). Water Life and Aquaria World 8 (No 1, February-March 1953)(New issue), 18-19.
Estimating the age of tortoises. Letter. Water Life and Aquaria World 8 (No 3, June-July 1953)(New issue), 156.
Brazilian Giant Tortoise (Testudo denticulata). Water Life and Aquaria World 9 (No 2, April-May 1954)(New issue), 78-79.
Care of Leopard tortoises (Testudo pardalis). Water Life and Aquaria World 10 (No 2, April-May 1955)(New issue), 76-77.
Carolina Box Tortoises. Water Life and Aquaria World 10 (No 6, December 1955-January 1956)(New issue), 284-285.
African hinged tortoises. Water Life and Aquaria World 11, (No 6, December 1956-January 1957)(New issue), 286-287.