A 1950s/60s dealer in reptiles: W. de Rover of the Netherlands and his U.K. agent, G.A. Izzard

Apart from Robert Jackson, George Boyce and Palmers there was another dealer in reptiles and amphibians operating in Britain from the mid-1950s. This one was different, he was Dutch and using an agent in Britain to collect orders and transfer money to the Netherlands (not an easy task in the 1950s). He was W. de Rover and based at the time of the early advertisements in Wageningen.

The first British agent was Geoffrey Aldred Izzard (1917-2002). I know very little about him except he was known to attend meetings of the British Herpetological Society in the 1950s. I found a reference to him in the prewar pages of Water Life magazine; he bought some of the offspring from the albino frog found in Walthamstow—the Walthamstow Wonder. He does appear in Google searches as one of the founders of the National Fancy Rat Society in the mid-1970s. He had kept rats to feed to his snakes and was attracted by their different colours and intelligence.

Mr Izzard had advertised reptiles and amphibians for sale in the weekly Cage Birds in the early 1950s under his own name:

Cage Birds 3 December 1953

Cage Birds 3 December 1953

A similar advertisement appears in Water Life magazine (April-May 1954) with the interesting addition: ‘Various Mediterranean species expected shortly from special collecting trip of Erich Sochurek, Vienna’. Erich Sochurek (1923-1987) was a herpetologist and animal dealer. The viper Echis sochureki is named after him.

This is an advertisement from the Aquarist, September 1957 when Izzard was clearly the U.K. agent for De Rover.:

Izzard Aq September 1957

Alan Cooke of Andover, Hampshire then became de Rover’s (then for a while based in France) agent (Aquarist, September 1964):

Izzard Sept 64 Aqu

…and I think finally a Mr Ward of West Bridgford, Nottingham.

I have been able to find very little about W. de Rover; a Dutch amateur herpetologist recalls cycling to his premises, then in Ermelo (by about 1968 after being located in France). Dealing with him was quite an experience. He sent, directly from the Netherlands, a very long list each year suggesting which species he hoped to have available. Then every few weeks, possibly monthly, an actual stock list would arrive. The problem seemed to be that although an animal may have appeared on the list, his stock might consist only of one, and he attempted to substitute a similar species, or maybe just another lizard, or frog. After the order and postal order or cheque were sent to the agent, the postman would appear to deliver a package directly from de Rover. Yes, through the post, which I think was unlawful even then. The box was in the case of two deliveries I had from him either a cardboard cigar box or a small wooden cigar box. The first contained a lizard, Acanthodactylus erythrurus; it was so dehydrated and emaciated that it died within a day. I was less than pleased. A year or so later, I tried again; this time a young female Common Basilisk (Basiliscus basiliscus) arrived in the small wooden cigar box. It too was dehydrated and thin but soon perked up. The late Bob Davies told me he had similar experiences in buying from de Rover in the 1950s.

Modified 3 March 2017

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Sheila Dorrell (née Greenhalgh, later Fisher): Illustrator of Soderberg’s Books on Foreign Birds

My post of 15 January 2014 deals with the four volumes in a series, Foreign Birds for Cage and Aviary, written by Percy Measday Soderberg (1901-1969) and published in 1956. The colour plates were by Sheila Dorrell about whom I could find little information. I am pleased that thanks to her niece, Alison Greenhalgh, I am able to provide much more information.

Alison writes (with any additional information in square brackets):

Sheila Greenhalgh was born in Lancashire in 1918 and lived in Turton, she studied at the Manchester College of Art until this was interrupted by the war, she worked on a lathe in a factory (I think) and was proud to be able to set up the lathe herself.  She moved to London after the war. At some point [1949 in Hampstead] she married Anthony Dorrell, like her a communist and artist, the marriage failed, and I have no recollection of Anthony but it was at this time that she must have come into contact with people like Ken Sprague and Wilfred Willett (who bequeathed his library to her) all sharing common ground.  As a strange coincidence I went to school with Ken’s daughter, and it was not until many years later on a chance meeting with him that I learnt that he was a life-long friend of Sheila. 

She moved to Laxfield in Suffolk in 1968 possibly due to work she was collaborating on with Paxton Chadwick (she had met him at the Manchester College of Art [he also illustrated Soderberg’s first volume]). There is a rumour that because of her communist leanings and the company she was keeping of like minded people that her phone was being bugged etc, and she moved to find peace.  Here she bought her beloved 16th century cottage.

She continued to paint, exhibiting at the Rotunda Gallery in 1970. ( I am sure there were a couple of other London shows, but I have no knowledge of where of when these were.) In 1971 she exhibited at the Yoxford  gallery getting a mention in the East Anglian Times: ‘seldom have I seen such exquisite little paintings with so much detail….’ 
 
She married again in her 60’s [in Suffolk to George A Fisher in 1977] (at some point she reverted to using her maiden name) and when married became Sheila Greenhalgh Fisher, all her later pictures are signed SGF.
 
The highly detailed picture of birds and flowers etc continued to be her main source of inspiration, and if not drawn from life, there were always specimens in the freezer, frequently posted by friends who thought she would be interested.
 
In 1996 she collaborated in the publication of Life Histories (Puffin Book 116) by Paxton Chadwick.  The book was published posthumously and I am not sure if Sheila added drawings or finished drawings, the information is sketchy*.

Puffin Final
 She held exhibitions at her cottage, and latterly started to paint on board in a slightly more abstract way but still in detail of flowers etc.  She was a founding member of the Laxfield Museum and even designed the village sign.
 
She died in May 2014, aged 96 able to remain in her much loved cottage and is buried in the cemetery at Laxfield.
 
Of interest to you perhaps is that the drawings for Foreign Birds, were taken from life at London Zoo, she also did work (I believe) for either the Natural History Museum or the British Museum, not absolutely sure which.
 
As I say probably far too much information, but I am still putting bits together, trying to put some facts to vaguely membered childhood recollection. You don’t realise when you are young just what interesting lives some people are leading.

She provided both black-and-white drawings for Soderberg’s books as well as colour plates. The book jacket states:

A special feature of the other three books, dealing with specific birds, is the series of lovely colour plates, reproduced by six-colour lithography, drawn by Sheila Dorrell, of the birds described in the text.

Here is one of the drawings and one of the colour plates from the volume on waxbills, weavers and whydahs:

1

2

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*Life Histories was not completed by Paxton Chadwick before he died. Sheila by-then Fisher completed it for Chadwick’s widow. It was published by the Penguin Collectors Society in March 1996 as a limited edition of 100 copies along with a booklet explaining why it had not been published earlier; this limited edition was printed in 1995. Sheila Fisher’s signature is on the back cover which also shows stages in the development of a frog.

1950s Dealers in Reptiles and Amphibians 2. George Boyce

Some people have an influence far wider than their formal qualifications or occupation would suggest. In the world of herpetology in Britain of the 1950s and 60s, George Boyce, a pet-shop owner had a great influence on young people with an interest in reptiles and amphibians. Yes, he would sell you the animals but he was also a great enthusiast and advocate not only for reptiles but also for instilling a life’s interest in something worthwhile. For this reason, I am also putting a slightly modified version of this post on my Zoology Jottings blog

In mid-1950s Britain dealers in reptiles and amphibians were rare for the simple reason that the market was small. Some larger dealers had gone out of business. Palmers of Camden Town was the really big one but did not specialise in reptiles. There were wholesale dealers selling to small pet shops but the main ones catering for enthusiasts and zoos were Robert Jackson in Cheshire and George Boyce in London. For a few years they were the only regular source.

George Boyce owned South Western Aquarists, a tiny shop at 2 Glenburnie Road, Tooting. It was a place where people, amateurs and professionals went to talk about and occasionally buy reptiles and amphibians. It was somewhat unusual because the reptiles and amphibians were not usually kept on the premises. From his lists which could be had by post, you could either get them delivered by rail to all parts of the country or you could write or phone to ask to look at something on the list; he would then bring the animals with him from home on the appointed day. Impulse buying was impossible. In the times I visited the shop over the years (1959 until 1982) I only ever saw a few lizards in one tank once. There were a few tanks of tropical fish and the then usual supplies of pet food. Conversations were frequently interrupted by the arrival of a little old lady to buy a pound of budgerigar seed or some dog or cat food. This local trade received the benefit of a level of attentive service verging on the obsequious before the owner returned to the subject of the conversation.

There is virtually no information on George Boyce or South Western Aquarists on the internet. However, I was delighted that he does make an appearance in the autobiography of Ken Livingstone, You Can’t Say That published in 2011 (London: Faber and Faber). For those readers not in UK I should explain that Ken Livingstone is a politician of the left and was Mayor of London from 2000 until 2008. He was a Member of Parliament from 1987 until 2001. He is also well-known as a keeper of reptiles and amphibians with the press usually referring disparagingly to ‘his newts’.

In describing his early life, he wrote:

Saturday afternoons were often spent at a pet shop on Tooting, chatting to the owner George Boyce about his imported reptiles, his Rotary Club activities and his Tory beliefs…

He goes on: …Sadly, any chance of romance was dramatically reduced by my herpetological hobby. In all the Saturday afternoons I spent chatting to other reptile enthusiasts in George Boyce’s pet shop, only one young woman ever came in and she was dating another collector.

Ken Livingstone also reproduced a letter he had from George Boyce while backpacking to and from West Africa in 1966 which ends:

All the ‘lads’ and ‘lasses’ at the shop have asked me to convey to you their best wishes for your continued success in the termination of your journey. To these felicitations, Ken, I would add those of my own and of course Doris. Yours as ever, George.

I never went to Tooting on a Saturday on my rare visits to London. There was only ever George, me and his local customers. I remember him describing: visiting Jack Lester, Curator of Reptiles at London Zoo until he died in 1956, and Margaret Southwick, his assistant, on evenings when consignments of reptiles had arrived at the Zoo and were being unpacked; fishing at Frensham Ponds after the Second World War and catching large European Terrapins that had obviously been released there; the difficulties of dealing with exporters who would send what they had rather what was ordered; exporting imported animals to zoos in the U.S.A.

A frequent visitor to the shop and one who had just left when I got there was Dr Ian Wesley Whimster (1924-1979), Reader in Pathology at St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School. Part of his research was on the pigment cells in the skin of lizards; to that end he established a captive colony of Leopard Geckos.

He was a regular at meetings of the British Herpetological Society and wrote an article for the Journal on keeping crocodilians. He was there at the first meeting I attended (Summer 1961, I think) in the rooms of the Linnean Society in Burlington House. At that meeting everybody sat around a large mahogany table as live reptiles were passed around. I remember an impressive Leopard Tortoise and some superb Australian skinks owned by a woman sitting next to me. I asked how she had got so many and in such good condition. She explained that her husband was a pilot with B.O.A.C., the long-haul British airline that was merged with B.E.A. into British Airways, and he simply picked them off the taxiways and surrounding scrub at Sydney airport as he walked to his plane.

We also know from an article in Fishkeeping & Water Life that in 1958 he appeared on BBC Children’s Television describing Fish and How to Keep Them. In the BBC Genome project documenting BBC programmes the programme is there (20 January 1958) but he does not get a credit.

I have had some difficulty in finding more about George Boyce. However, thanks to his being in 1966 the executor of his father’s will (where he was described as aquarist and herpetologist) which was traced through a family history search website, I now have more information. George Frederick Boyce was born on 7 October 1920 in the Dorking Registration District of Surrey; in 1947 he married Doris L. Harrison in Croydon, Surrey. He died in 1995 in the Wandsworth Registration District of London.

I do not know when his shop closed; my guess is the mid- to late-1980s (my last visit to the shop was in November 1982). From advertisements in Water Life, it is clear that South Western Aquarists was operating in the late 1940s. Advertisements from 1950 mention a D.C. Crisp who must have been a partner, and Water Life (July-August 1950) in describing an aquarium show in London notes, D.C. Crisp of South London [sic] Aquarists made an intriguing picture, entering the hall with an alligator on a lead. Later in the 1950s, only the name of G.F. Boyce appeared on price-lists etc. and I have found no further clues on the role or identity of D.C. Crisp. However (note added on 8 April 2016) I have now found an advertisement in Water Life for December 1954 for an Aquarist shop in Bath, dealing in fish and reptiles, owned by D.C. Crisp at 3a Bartlett Street. This must be the same man and suggests that the partnership in South Western Aquarists ended in the early 1950s.

To confuse matters further, there appears to be have been two people by the name of Crisp involved in South Western Aquarists (note added on 3 March 2017). In a Guide to the Festival of Britain, Water Life in July 1951 described an exhibit on learning in octopuses housed in the Dome of Discovery illustrating the work of Professor John Zacchary Young FRS of University College London (the famous ‘JZ’ who wrote Life of Vertebrates). Responsible for setting up this exhibit of three tanks was ‘Mr A.H. Crisp’…’of South Western Aquarists’. The only clue I have as to the identity of either Crisp is that in the 1939 Register there is an Alfred H. Crisp born in 1889 who was employed as an aviary attendant. People involved with exotic livestock often stayed in the same or related jobs. Could this be the A.H. Crisp involved in the Festival of Britain exhibit?

Here is a selection of advertisements that appeared in Water Life and its successor title:

1 Boyce WL April-May 1950

April-May 1950

Water Life, June 1950 shows South Western Aquarists was trading by 1949

Water Life, June 1950, shows South Western Aquarists was trading by 1949

2 Boyce Aqu Oct 1950

October 1950

4 Aug 1954

August 1954

5 May 1958

May 1958

6 Dec 1958

December 1958

Finally, a photograph of my Mississippi Alligator, photographed on the lawn of my grandmother’s second cousin’s house in Hendon, the afternoon I collected him from Tooting and eventually the subject of a note in British Journal of Herpetology*.

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As always, more information from readers is very welcome.

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*Peaker, M (1969) Active acquisition of stomach stones in a specimen of Alligator mississippiensis Daudin. British Journal of Herpetology 4, 103‑104

1950s Dealers in Reptiles and Amphibians 1. Robert Jackson

Dealers in reptiles and amphibians are an important part of the history of herpetology in Britain. Some animal dealers were known for their less than honest dealings, selling half-dead animals from even more dishonest exporters to unsuspecting amateur purchasers by mail order. Others though added to knowledge of how to keep reptiles; after all it was in the dealer’s interest to know how to treat animals on arrival and care for them and even try to breed them until they were sold to amateurs, the many zoological collections and aquaria that were springing up in the post-war years and laboratories.

In the mid-1950s there were only a few dealers. Some had come and gone in the early 1950s; others had not appeared on the scene. Clin Keeling in his Unusual Pets of 1957 listed just three. One of these, Robert Jackson, I will consider in this post.

Robert Jackson is well known as the founder in 1963 of The Welsh Mountain Zoo in Colwyn Bay which is still run by members of his family. He died in 1969 hit by a falling tree while fishing. He belongs to that group of amateurs who turned their abiding interest in animals into a job by whatever means possible whether it was dealing, collecting or founding zoos. Some were successful and others were not but it is the group of individuals that include George Mottershead, Gerald Durrell, Ken Smith, Len Simmons and Clinton Keeling.

Until 1963 he was a well-known dealer, mainly in reptiles and amphibians but in other animals as well. A few years ago I found an article on a local history website from Altrincham in Cheshire that now seems to be defunct . This is what it had to say (the locations are in Cheshire):

Robert Jackson was born in Knutsford in 1915. Following a childhood as an enthusiast for anything to do with animals and early training in water garden management, he set up his first business breeding and selling tropical fish in Ashley. As the business expanded he moved first in 1946 to Park Avenue, Timperley and then in 1952 to Holly Bank on the corner of Grove Lane and Delahays Road, Hale. Holly Bank had been used to house Belgian refugees during the war and had been two cottages. By this time the business, Robert Jackson (Naturalists) Ltd, had developed to include not just the large scale breeding of tropical fish but also the importation of a wide variety of animals for the increasing number of zoos throughout the British Isles. The outbuildings and grounds of Holly Bank were adapted for their new purpose. Outdoor pools for coldwater fish and greenhouses for the breeding of tropical fish were built. Locals soon became accustomed to the chirping of frogs or even the occasional lizard that had escaped to their garden. A second business, Zoological Exhibitions, also had its base at Holly Bank. Whilst initially this concentrated on running small seasonal aquaria in various parts of Britain it did form the foundation for the fulfilment of Robert Jackson’s lifelong ambition, to own and run a zoo. In 1962 this dream came to fruition when in November of that year he moved with his wife and three sons to Colwyn Bay, North Wales…

Alongside his dealing business, his other company Zoological Exhibitions Ltd, of which George Cansdale was a director, ran small seaside aquaria (which often had a few terrestrial inhabitants) around the coast of England and Wales, for example, Southsea, Margate, Rhyl and Swanage. The two were also involved in the establishment of Marineland in Morecambe in 1964 billed as ‘Europe’s First Oceanarium’. It had a few dolphins, sealions as well as an indoor aquarium. At that time the local authorities and traders of seaside resorts were desperate to attract visitors to their towns; dolphins were seen as major assets to attract visitors. This one apparently soon got into financial difficulties, and the local council took it over and ran it until it was passed on to commercial operators. It closed in 1990.

This post, though, is really about Robert Jackson the importer of reptiles and amphibians in the 1950s and 60s. Robert Jackson (Naturalists) Ltd was incorporated in 1948. This is a letter to J.B.S. Haldane’s department at University College London explaining why an order for mealworms cannot be fulfilled, showing the letterhead:

Haldane letterHe wrote an article for Water Life in April 1950 on Australian lizards (he had just imported some)(the full version can be found on the Download page):

Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 10.38.58

These are some of his advertisements from the Aquarist and Water Life magazines.

Water Life April-May 1950

Water Life April-May 1950

Water Life August 1950

Water Life August 1950

Aquarist June 1952

Aquarist June 1952

Aquarist February 1953

Aquarist February 1953

5 Aquarist undated

Aquarist April 1953

Aquarist April 1953

Fishkeeping and Water Life June 1958

Fishkeeping and Water Life June 1958

These are from Cage Birds, the weekly paper and the main market for all forms of wild animals in the 1950s and 60s.

Cage Birds 20 November 1952

Cage Birds 20 November 1952

Cage Birds 26 March 1953

Cage Birds 26 March 1953

Cage Birds 7 May 1953

Cage Birds 7 May 1953

Cage Birds 1 October 1953

Cage Birds 1 October 1953

Finally, this film from British Pathé in 1965 shows Robert Jackson uncrating newly-arrived Mississippi Alligators at the Welsh Mountain Zoo.

And really finally, my Aesculapian Snake (Zamenis longissimus, previously Elaphe longissima) soon after it arrived from Robert Jackson, circa 1960. It thrived and lived for many years and, I hope, convinced many a schoolchild and adult that snakes are not nasty slimy things (although one school secretary fled in horror).

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