The Way of a Serpent. T.H. Gillespie. 1937

Screen Shot 2014-11-20 at 14.15.50In the 1930s in Britain there was little in the way of books published for the amateur herpetologist. There were however, the monthly magazine The Aquarist and Pondkeeper (incorporating The Reptilian Review) and the weekly Water Life (incorporating Aquaria News) about which I shall be writing much more later.

Until David Blatchford showed me the book, I had not realised that Thomas Gillespie, founder of Edinburgh Zoo, had written a book about snakes in the 1930s that incorporated advice on the keeping of these reptiles. The Way of a Serpent was published in London by Herbert Jenkins in 1937. Nearly all the photographs, including one of an Indian python in process of laying its eggs, and a frontispiece in colour of a Green Tree Boa, were taken by Mrs Gillespie, née Mary Elizabeth Gamble.

Thomas Haining Gillespie (1876-1967) a graduate of the University of Edinburgh and originally a solicitor, founded and ran Edinburgh Zoo from 1913 to 1950. He and a group of enthusiasts whipped up support to establish the Zoo with support from Edinburgh City Council (imagine trying to do that a hundred years later). The whole story is told in Geoffrey Schomberg’s British Zoos (Alan Wingate, London, 1957). Edinburgh became famous for breeding King Penguins. This success was achieved because the whaling firm, Christian Salvesen, regularly brought back batches from South Georgia.


The photograph Schomberg used in British Zoos

The photograph Schomberg used in British Zoos

Gillespie wrote a number of books and magazine articles about the zoo. He also gave talks on Children’s Hour on BBC radio. I have found four such broadcasts in the BBC’s Genome Project. The first was on Glasgow’s 5SC on 22 July 1929 and entitle, When summer comes to the zoo’; the second on a regional programme of 18 August 1932 was ‘Uncle Tom describes the Scottish snakes and lizards’; the third on the Home Service on 4 September 1942 was entitled, ‘The Scottish Zoological Gardens in wartime. The fourth, also on the Home Service, was on 13 September 1943 and entitled, ‘Round the Scottish Zoological Gardens, Edinburgh, with the Scottish Zoo Man. BBC’s ‘Zoo Man’ at the time would have been David Seth-Smith.

Gillespie clearly knew a lot about snakes and they were an important part of the Zoo’s collection. North Britain is not exactly rich in reptile life and the citizens of Edinburgh probably learnt a lot about reptiles from their introduction to them at the zoo. I suspect Gillespie would be shocked to learn that Edinburgh Zoo no longer has a reptile house.

You can download the book from the Downloads page or from here.


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