Water Life Magazine 1936-58. Part 15. The First Volume, 1936

A few days ago, a bound copy of volume 1 of Water Life arrived; I have been looking for this final addition to the pre-war volumes (1-7) for several years. I have now scanned the articles on herpetology and uploaded the extract (see the Downloads page above). Before discussing what gems are in there, I will describe what I uncovered about the early history of the magazine together with a few non-herpetological snippets that caught my eye.

Margery Elwin, the editor, began with a full-page editorial on 9 June 1936:

FELLOW AQUARISTS! Here at least is the paper for which so many of you have been asking—a weekly paper published particularly for you. In presenting this first number, with a selection of articles which are intended to please all branches of our hobby, we want to convey to you our sincere wish that you shall feel WATER LIFE to be your own paper…
The greater space available in WATER LIFE will enable us to give you a far bigger selection of articles than we could hope to do in Aquaria News*…

*Note.—This paper began five years ago as a supplement to Bird Fancy, the bird keepers’ weekly paper, known as Bird Fancy and Aquaria News. With this issue the two papers are divided to devote themselves exclusively to their own hobbies.

I have never seen a copy of Bird Fancy and Aquaria News, which first appeared in 1931, presumably to compete with Cage Birds. It was taken over and incorporated into Cage Birds by the Poultry World publishing empire, probably at the same time as Water Life, after the Second World War (for some time the full title was Cage Birds & Bird Fancy). There are several books on bird keeping which were published by Bird Fancy and Aquaria News in the 1930s, including a well-known one by Ian Harman on the grassfinch family.

I cannot find reference to any library keeping copies of Bird Fancy and Aquaria News or of any book seller having a bound volume on their shelves, so I have no idea if articles on herpetology appeared in it before the splitting off of Water Life as a separate publication, or whether Margery Elwin was editor of the Aquaria News section before it became Water Life.

What becomes evident is that Margery Elwin, before becoming editor, taught at a preparatory school (For readers not in the U.K. a preparatory school prepares pupils for the common entrance examination to ‘public’ schools; both types of school are ‘private’ in that the parents pay fees and neither receives public funding via taxation. In the 1930s, as in the 2010s, only the wealthy could afford to send their children to such schools.). She wrote in an editorial of 15 December 1936:

…Having myself had considerable experience of aquariums in preparatory school, I am fully convinced that these are invaluable adjuncts to the Nature Study class…Several boys at the school in which I was teaching became so enthusiastic that they saved up their pocket money and installed small aquariums in their own homes…

On the Television

The issue of 1 December 1936 contained this snippet of news:

 The Editor made history on Friday last by making the first television of fishes, when some of the exhibits for Water Life and Bird Fancy Exhibition, including cold-water and tropical fishes and some of the larger Foreign Birds, were included in a programme arranged by Cecil Lewis and broadcast from Alexandra Palace.

The BBC Television Service had been launched as the first regular television service in the world three weeks earlier. Details of the programmes have recently become available online. This is what the record says for Friday 27 November 1936:

Cats, Birds, and Fishes. Some champion exhibits from the National Cat Club Show and the Combined Bird and Aquaria Show, described by W. Cox-Ife, F. Hopkins, and L.C. Mandeville. Arranged by Cecil Lewis.

Only a subset of the very small number of people owning television sets could have seen the programme because at that time the BBC broadcast on alternate weeks the incompatible Baird and Marconi-EMI systems of television.

L.C. Mandeville was, of course, Margery Elwin’s husband and she did not get a mention in the BBC record. Did he do the talking and she the fish wrangling, or was there just a mix-up with who did what? Cecil Lewis was a co-founder of the BBC, First World War fighter ace and author; he wrote the classic, Sagittarius Rising, and died, aged 98 in 1997.

A photograph of the Water Life Exhibition stand:

Water Life Stand


Gulliver Aquarium Shop

The 14 July 1936 issue contains a photograph of Gulliver Aquarium, a shop “opposite Whiteley’s”. That would make it in Queensway, Bayswater, London. I can find no other details because the free publicity does not seem to have induced Gullivers to place an advertisement in the magazine. Google Streetview now shows the whole block redeveloped.


Obituary of A.E. Hodge

Water Life of 29 September 1936 carried an obituary of A.E. Hodge, founder and editor of the Aquarist:

It is with deep regret that we have to announce the death on September 19. of Mr. A.E. Hodge, F.Z.S. In 1927 [it was actually 1924], when the keeping of fishes was a new and rare hobby, Mr Hodge took courage and founded The Aquarist and Pondkeeper. No aquaria paper had ever been published before in this country and the enterprise which started it, and the unceasing hard work which was necessary for it to prosper, claim our greatest admiration…

Maxwell Knight and the Neon Tetra

An article by Maxwell Knight appears in the issue of 24 November 1936, A Fish to Dream About. Maxwell Knight was at this time a member of the Security Service or MI5 responsible for the successful of infiltration of fascist and communist organisations, the author of thrillers, an all-round naturalist and animal keeper. He was later to become a well-known broadcaster. I have described his book on keeping reptiles and amphibians previously.

He wrote:

Less than a month ago the first consignment of Neon Tetra was imported into England; there was only a score of specimens, and I count myself lucky in being one of the very first British aquarists to own this gem among fishes. I bought three pairs—or rather I should say six fishes—for they are very difficult to sex. Since the first arrival two further consignments have arrived and it is to be hoped that this fish will now become firmly established in the tanks of our really keen collectors.

Not being attracted to conspiracy theories when cock-up usually provides a more likely explanation, the thought did cross my mind though that given the editor’s political affiliations, as demonstrated earlier in this series, was the contact between the author of this article and the editor concerned solely with water life?

Leicester and an Attenborough Connection

I cannot help myself from including this family connection:

7 July 1936: Club Reports: Leicester Aquarists. Please Note! By kind permission of Mr F.L. Attenborough, M.A., Principal, the next meeting of the Leicester Aquarist Society will be held at University College on July 13 at 8 p.m. prompt.

F.L. Attenborough is Frederick Levi Attenborough, father of Richard and David, my third cousin three-times removed and great friend, colleague and cousin of my great-uncle (grand-uncle in genealogical usage).

In my next post I will cover the herpetological articles that appear in Volume 1.


One of the great joys of buying old books is finding a name on the flyleaf or some piece of paper left between the leaves. This volume has the name A.D. Joyce on the fly and a hand-written sheet amongst the pages of an invitation to form a local club for aquarists. I recall seeing the published notice either in Water Life or in the Aquarist. This is his draft:

Aquarists/Association with others interested in aquaria is of unestimable value. Many a wrough [sic] spot is made smooth through friendly comparison of knowledge. An endeavour is being made to local a local Aquarist Society to promote this interesting hobby. Mr Joyce 13 Ranelagh Rd would be pleased to meet others interested.

There are several Ranelagh Roads in England so I do not know where he was writing from.

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