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:
These are some of his advertisements from the Aquarist and Water Life magazines.
These are from Cage Birds, the weekly paper and the main market for all forms of wild animals in the 1950s and 60s.
Finally, this film from British Pathé in 1965 shows Robert Jackson uncrating newly-arrived Mississippi Alligators at the Welsh Mountain Zoo.
Thanks to R.J.’s son, Nick, a price list is shown below. Although it is undated my guess, based on the prices and the dates of publication of the books shown, is that it dates from shortly after the move to Holly Bank Nurseries in 1952:
Nick has also provided these photographs of his father:
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).
Last Updated 26 July 2018
*The first advertisement I have been able to find is from the second post-war issue of Water Life (July 1946). The address was: Hough Green, Ashley, Nr Altrincham, Cheshire. It included:
Examples of our workmanship in Tropical aquaria can be seen in many public aquariums, theatres and hotels in the North.