Apart from what she said in her book, I knew nothing about Kathleen Pickard Smith until I found her obituary in The Independent written by the gardening writer, Barbara Abbs. The book inspired many in the early 1960s, when the book was in print, to keep reptiles since it described the highs and lows of keeping these animals in and around the house and garden. Many of her observations were fascinating insights into the range of behaviours demonstrated by her animals. For example, her outdoor reptiliary was far from escape proof but the lizards often returned there after spending time in other parts of the garden. Her tortoises, like those of Audrey Noël Hume’s, often spent winter by the fire in what must have been a bitterly cold house.
Her house, ‘Harveys’ is in Glynde, East Sussex. It had been bought by her father, Tom Pickard (‘the Old ‘Un’ in the book), agent to the Glynde Estate, in 1922. He bought two cottages and knocked them into one, having turned the tenants out. It seems that Harveys dates from about 1500 and has a half-acre garden. Mrs Pickard Smith had room for her reptiles but not, I suspect, much spare cash to spend on them. According to Abbs, Tom Pickard, an autocrat, terrified the children of the village.
Kathleen Nora I Pickard was born at the home farm of the Glynde Estate on 25 March 1902. Her only sibling died in the influenza epidemic after the First World War. She was Principal of the Brighton School of Music, where she had studied, during the 1930s but then looked after her ageing father. She had a great interest in gardening, particularly alpine plants, and wild flowers. She had articles on the latter in magazines.
There are photographs in the book of her husband, Frank. He was of a North American appearance and it came as no surprise to learn that he was Canadian. Frank Smith, an officer in the Canadian Army, was billeted in the area. According to her obituary they married when she was 43 in 1945. Abbs wrote: At the age of 43 she married him, much to the annoyance of her father, who commented, “If I had known you wanted to get married I would have fixed you up before”. However, records show that they married in 1952 (when she was 50) in Chelsea, so something does not quite add up. She took the surname Pickard Smith on her marriage. Her father died in 1955.
One friend once discovered Pickard Smith in the ladies’ washroom at the Royal Horticultural Society Halls in Vincent Square on show day standing over a basin full of baby terrapins all swimming about happily. She took them out, dried them and put them back one by one inside her bra, and went back to the show to look at the plants. They had not long been hatched, she said, and she could not leave them behind all day.
Her book, Living with Reptiles, was published by Thomas Nelson & Sons, Edinburgh in 1961 (the book itself is undated). Some of the photographs illustrating it appear to have come from publications which had articles on her and her reptiles (Brighton Evening Argus and She); others are by Bob Bustard which also appear in his articles from that era in The Aquarist and Water Life.
She took part in a BBC Home Service radio programme on 13 November 1961, For Your Bookshelf, to talk about her book.
Here obituary states that her husband, Frank E Smith, over 25 years ago, i.e. before 1973, and that she ‘grew more eccentric and did not mellow with the years’. She died on 23 November 1998.
You can download the book from the Downloads page or from here.