Haig’s Aquatic Farm at Beam Brook, Newdigate, Surrey. Aquatic and Reptile Dealers in the 20th Century

Beam Brook Aquatic Farm at Newdigate in Surrey, U.K. was renowned during the early decades of the 20th Century as suppliers of reptiles and amphibians as well as of fish, aquatic plants and invertebrates. They are equally famous—or infamous depending on your views on the introduction of non-native animals—for the number of reptiles and amphibians which escaped and formed breeding colonies or hybridised with native forms, some of which apparently still survive.

A clear misinterpretation of the history of the company has occurred in recent literature, a later owner being reported as being the founder. I will return to this point later.

Water Life on 27 April 1937 contained the following account:

The photograph in Water Life

The photograph in Water Life

The Haig Fish Farm is situated in delightful surroundings about two miles from the village of Newdigate, which is about seven miles south of Dorking, Surrey. The farm consists of over 100 pounds, as well as large enclosures, covering about 18 acres, and the water is obtained from the Dean Oak Brook, a fast-flowing stream, which marks one boundary of the farm.
     The history of the farm is quite interesting. In 1903 Mr L. Haig attempted to set up a market garden on the site, but owing to the unsuitable clay soil and transport difficulties, the project was abandoned. The suggestion was made to utilize the place for growing and selling aquatic creatures and plants, in spite of the almost insignificant demand. He had already dug one pond, and discovered it held water without any more trouble than “puddling” the solid clay bottom. This, and two or three additional ponds, were the nucleus of what is today one of the largest fish farms in England. During the [1914-18] War the farm was more or less deserted, but since 1919 business has steadily improved, and now a large staff is employed all the year round, and now a large staff is employed all the year round, and a London branch has been opened…
     Some foreign species have become thoroughly settled down, and particularly the Edible Frog breeds in large numbers. The big enclosures for the reptiles and amphibians are especially interesting, and full of activity on a sunny day.
     The “local” names on the farm are the cause of some amusement. The British fish live in the “graves” which are ponds of proportions one can easily picture. The lizards and snakes inhabit the “mountains” which are the large mounds of earth resulting from the excavation of the ponds. These have been enclosed with “unscalable” fences of cement sheeting, which is buried to a considerable depth in the ground; but, even so, rats burrow under, making holes through which many lizards and snakes have escaped…
     Visitors are welcome…and a delightful afternoon can be spent wandering around the farm watching the lizards sunning themselves, the snakes gliding through the grass, the frogs practising diving from the edge of the pond, and the fish basking in the water, seeing the beautiful cultivated water plants, and many species of unusual wild flowers, and listening to the birds singing in the surrounding woods. In fact, the Haig fish farm is a veritable animal sanctuary.

The name of the company was L. Haig & Co Ltd and the farm was usually known as Beam Brook Aquatic Nurseries or Haig’s Aquatic Farm. So who was Mr Haig?

Thomas Livingstone Haig was born in 1866 in Harborne, Warwickshire. He was the son of Major-General Felix Thackeray Haig (1827-1901) of the Royal Engineers, author as well as very-well-travelled soldier; he wrote: Notes on the River Navigations of North America (1863); Report of a Journey to the Red Sea Ports, Somali-Land, and Southern and Eastern Arabia (1887); Tentative Grammar of the Beidawi Language Spoken by the Tribes of the North-Eastern Soudan (1895); Daybreak in North Africa: An Account of Work for Christ begun in Morocco, Algeria, Tunis and Tripoli (1890), and an autobiography, Memories of the Life of General F.T. Haig, published posthumously in 1902 with his wife as co-author. General Haig (as a Lieutenant-Colonel) was also the first holder of the world water speed record. In 1873, he took a new 87-foot steamboat designed for the canals in Bengal, Sir Arthur Cotton, out on to the River Thames. On two runs, with and against the tide, it made an average speed of 24.61 mph. The Times called her the “fastest steamer in the world”†

At the 1871 Census, Thomas Livingstone Haig was living with his mother (his father was away) in Cheltenham with his siblings (his older brothers had been born in India and Ireland) with a household establishment befitting the model of a modern Major-General. By 1901 he was married with sons, two of whom had been born in Canada, and working as a mechanical engineer. The 1911 Census shows his change in occupation and address: pisciculturist and Beam Brook, Newdigate. His first wife, Katherine Maria née Grey died in 1917 and in 1921 he married Edith Jessie Bailey.

Articles and advertisements in newspapers give some idea of the activities of L. Haig & Co in the early to mid-20th Century. He was advertising in the Manchester Courier in June 1905:

Interesting Aquaria.—2s. 6d. and 5s. Collections include Fish, Tortoise*, Newts, Beetles, Larvae, Snails, Mussel, Plants, &c.; Aquarium to order; ponds stocked — Haig, Newdigate, Surrey.

An Aeronautical Diversion

Flying was of great public interest and aspiration in the 1930s, and the Surrey Mirror and County Post of Friday 3 April 1931 reported:

The tremendous advance which daily takes place in air travel is well exemplified, even in sleepy country districts like Newdigate, by the advent of an aeroplane landing and taking off without any more noise or bother than an ordinary motor-car. This occurred last Saturday, when Mr. Kenneth G. Greenacre, a resident owner pilot of the Surrey Aero Club, flew over from Gatwick Aerodrome to buy some goldfish from Mr L. Haig, the well-known naturalist and pisciculturist, of Beam Brook, Cudworth, Newdigate, for stocking the Lily Pond at the Surrey Aero Club’s headquarters. Mr Greenacre, a former pupil at Gatwick, has recently purchased a Sports Avian machine from the Home Counties Air Services, Ltd., and is at present putting in a great deal of time on cross-country flying under Mr. R.B. Waters, the chief instructor at Gatwick. The landing by Mr. Greenacre at Newdigate reflects the greatest credit upon his instructor, who was actually in the passenger’s cockpit at the time. After inspecting the unique layout of Mr. Haig’s fishery, a number of golden orfe and goldfish were purchased and now are happily settled in their quarters, none the worse for their journey from Newdigate, back to Gatwick…

It is worth pointing out that the distance from Gatwick to Newdigate is about 5 miles!

Gatwick Aerodrome is now, of course, Gatwick Airport. At the time Ronald Waters, manager of Home Counties Air Services, owned Gatwick Aerodrome. The aircraft was Avro 616 Avian IVM with the registration G-ABIW. Kenneth Greenacre bought the plane in February; the Certificate of Airworthiness was issued on 3 March, so when it arrived at Newdigate in late March, it had only been flying for three weeks or so. Greenacre was a South African and he attempted to fly from Gatwick to Durban via Constantinople (Istanbul) and Cairo with Ronald Waters but the flight was abandoned. He sold the plane on in 1935.

After the Second World War

Mr Haig (why the L. rather than T.L. in the name of the company?) continued in business after the 1939-1945 war. In 1947, the Surrey Mirror reported his talk, ‘Inhabitants of wayside hedges’ , at a meeting of South Park Women’s Institute. The farm was advertising to buy stock in 1948 (import restrictions to protect Sterling were in place) also in the Surrey Mirror:

Goldfish, Orfe and other pond fish wtd. to purchase; all arrangements undertaken for netting ponds and collection of fish—Owners please send details to Haig’s Aquatic Farm, Newdigate.

Thomas Livingstone Haig died on 11 April 1950 at Worthing in Sussex. It is possible that he had retired to Worthing and had already sold the business. Whatever the timing, it is clear that at some stage in the late 1940s or early 1950s, the business passed to Thomas Brushfield U. Rothwell. In a sale of military medals, those of Captain T.B.U. Rothwell of the Rifle Brigade from the World War II were sold in 2010 for £90. The medals were sold in a box addressed to him at ‘Beam Brook, Newdigate, Nr. Dorking, Surrey’. I have not been able to find when World War II medals were finally distributed. My recollection is that it was done in the early 1950s. He was also awarded the Efficiency Medal for service in the Territorial Army (London Gazette 6 February 1947).

The foundation of Haig’s Aquatic Farm was attributed to Rothwell by E.G. Brede, R.S. Thorpe, J.W. Arntzen and T.E.S. Langton in their paper aimed at assessing the effect of hybridisation with the escaped Italian Crested Newt on the local Great Crested Newts, A morphometric study of a hybrid newt population (Triturus cristatus/T. carnifex): Beam Brook Nurseries, Surrey, U.K., published in Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 70, 685-695 in 2000. They wrote:

The Italian crested newt (Triturus carnifex, Laurenti) has only been documented as breeding at one site, the Beam Brook nurseries site in Surrey (Lever, 1980). The site has been associated with the importation/breeding of alien species since being established in 1903 by T. B. Rothwell.

The authors did not provide a reference for this statement which has been repeated on websites. Richard Fitter discussed the introduced Wall Lizards at the site and its then owner in the 1950s, Mr Rothwell in his book‡ on introduced animals in Britain. Mr Rothwell, the son of a stockbroker, would have been very able indeed to have founded Haig’s Aquatic Farm in 1903 since he was not born until 3 December 1907.

Haig’s continued to advertise during the 1950s; this one is from the Aquarist of March 1952:

Haig Ad 1954

I do not know what proportion of Haig’s trade was wholesale; in a list of dealers who had paid to be listed in Water Life in 1938, Haig’s appears only as a retailer of reptiles and amphibians and of aquatic life and goods. My impression is that Haig’s concentrated to an increasingly great extent on the biological supplies trade. They company appears in the Materials and Methods sections of many scientific papers as the supplier of frogs, newts, axolotls, snails, water beetles, etc. Here is a letter from J.B.S. Haldane’s department at University College, London, ordering newts for Helen Spurway in 1953:

Haig Spurway

Eventually, in the 1970s I read, the company merged with T. Gerrard, a major supplier of dissected preparations, skeletons and microscope slides to schools, to form Gerrard & Haig Ltd; the address changed but there is some indication that the Beam Brook site was still used. Fisons Scientific then took over Gerrard & Haig until it too was sold off in various deals.

The Beam Brook site continues to fascinate. It is now partly occupied by a plant hire company but on Google Earth the ponds can still be seen. In 2006 it was reported that Alpine Newts, Italian Crested Newts, Pool Frogs, Edible Frogs and snakes (possible hybrids between Natrix species) were still present together with Red-eared Terrapins in the adjacent brook. Fire Salamanders, European Tree Frogs, Marbled Newts, Wall Lizards and European Terrapins appeared to have died out. Victorian varieties of water lily were still flowering in the ponds.

—————

*The singular tortoise was often used in the plural sense as in ‘There are twenty tortoise’. That and the pronunciation ‘tortoyze’ used to drive one of my primary teachers to distraction. After his squirms of discomfiture arising this assault on the English language, he would say : ‘Just remember this: he taught us to say tortoise’.

†Calley, Roy. 2014. The World Water Speed Record: The Fast and the Forgotten. Amberley.

‡Fitter, R.S.R. 1959. The Ark in Our Midst. London: Collins.

L. Cura and Sons. Aquatic and Reptile Dealers in the 20th Century

The business of L. Cura and Sons loomed large in the history of keeping reptiles and amphibians in Britain, particularly in the years before the 1939-45 War. The trade in ornamental fish was very closely linked to the much smaller trade in reptiles and amphibians, and Curas was, I think, better known as a wholesaler than retailer.

I discovered, to my amazement, that the company is still in existence at its out of London location, Water End, near Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire. It is listed now as a fish hatchery.

The business was started by Luigi Cura who came to London with his parents from Italy. His father was listed in the 1861 Census as an ‘Image Maker’ i.e. making plaster figures. Luigi, who was born ca 1851, is shown, at the age of 10, as an ‘Image Seller’, presumably working on a market or going from door to door. In 1881, Luigi is a ‘General Dealer’; in 1991 an ‘Ice Cream Vendor’ but in the 1901 Census is a ‘Gold and Silver Fish Importer’. In the 1911 Census he is listed as ‘Naturalist’, a term often used then to describe dealers in animals.

During the 1914-18 War, The company was advertising to buy stock. This is from the Kent & Sussex Courier of 10 August 1917: Goldfish, Carp, Tench wanted; alive; good prices; ponds and ornamental waters netted by experienced workmen. Particulars to L. Cura and Sons, Bath Court, Warner Street, London, E.C.1.

The Falkirk Herald of 28 April 1923 contained this interesting and presumably syndicated snippet:

TRADING IN GOLDFISH.—It is said that the goldfish trade in this country began by a lucky chance. The firm which claims to have introduced the business is that of L.Cura and Sons and the principal has a romantic story of the origin and growth of goldfish importing. “sixty years ago”, Mr Cura said, “a relative in Paris sent a can of little fish to my uncle, who had no idea what to do with them. But my father, as an experiment, took the can round to various dealers, and soon disposed of the goldfish. He realised the possibilities of the situation, and set up business as an importer. He began in quite a small way, with his offices and shop in a basement. That is how goldfish first came to this country in a commercial way. Today we import 500,000 every year from Italy, and the trend is still growing.”

The Era (a weekly paper) (30 March 1927) contained this advertisement: Snakes, 1ft. to 15ft., Goldfish, Rare Fish, Tropical Fish, Catalogue of Aquaria and Vivaria 3d. Cura’s Bath Court, London E.C.1.

Luigi died on 29 April 1927 leaving £140; his address was 28 and 29 Great Bath Street, Clerkenwell and the executors of his will were his sons, Lazzero and Felice both described as naturalists.

Lazzero and Felice were two of nine children (seven of whom were shown as being alive at the 1911 Census). Lazzero was born in 1884 and Felice in 1892. Both are shown in the 1911 Census as ‘Assisting in Business’ of their father; the family was living at 6 Vine Street E.C. Felice died on 6 February 1939.

In addition to trading premises in London (Charles Booth in his surveys of poverty in the late 19th Century noted that the Great Bath Street area housed many Italian families), the family firm acquired the premises at Water End, I read, in 1928 on one website or in 1919 in Water Life (see below).

In the 1930s, the London shop was at Baynes Court, Rosebery Avenue in Clerkenwell (see below). L. Cura and Sons was listed as wholesalers and retailers for pretty well everything to do with aquaria together with reptiles and amphibians.

The weekly magazine Water Life reported on a visit to Water End in 1937:

Seventy-eight years ago the founder of the firm started by hawking common Goldfish round the streets; now there is practically nothing in the fish, reptile, and amphibian line which the firm does not touch; in fact, they are famous for their reptiles all over the world.
     In 1919 business increased to such an extent that it became necessary to acquire larger premises, and accordingly the farm at Hemel Hempstead was established…The grounds cover 70 acres of beautiful country, with a mill stream at one side, and they include many ponds of various sizes…
     The greatest attraction, however, is the heated fish house. Along the centre of this are a number of large enclosures containing various strange reptiles, and strangers unused to the place are frequently much alarmed by the queer hissings and bangings which come from these quarters. They are usually peopled by lively young Alligators, various species of Dragons, and sometimes a few large snakes. But Mr. Cura assures us that they are perfectly all right, and certainly he does not seem afraid to handle them. At the moment he has some very beautiful large Painted Terrapins; these are truly marvellous creatures with bright carmine markings on shell and neck.
…On the other side of the pathway which runs alongside the aquariums is a series of large cages containing all sorts of lizards and frogs, and on a sunny day literally hundreds of lizards are to be seen crowding together in the hottest place thoroughly enjoying the warmth.

Cura1

It was at this time that the Cura premises and Lazzero featured on British Pathé News under the title, Dragons in England! You can see it here.

The 17 October issue of Water Life contained the following:

The premises at Baynes-court, E.C.1, which have been the London office of Messrs. L. Cura & Sons since 1859, have been purchased by the London County Council. Mr. Cura tells us that he is carrying on at his country address…Deliveries are being made two or three times a week to London, so that customers will suffer no inconvenience by this new arrangement. This firm, which is one of the oldest established in the trade, carries large stocks of tropical and coldwater fish, reptiles and amphibians at the Water End premises, which have recently been greatly enlarged and improved.

Was the withdrawal from London connected to the death of Lazzero’s brother and partner, Felice earlier in 1939?

The final piece of information I have is from the Aquarist of March 1954:

Cura 2Lazzero Cura left £45,199 6 shillings and sevenpence, the equivalent in earning power of M£3.5 today. His executors were the two nephews mentioned in the cutting from the Aquarist.

1960s-70s Dealers in Reptiles in U.K.

The 1960s saw a marked increase in the number of reptile dealers in Britain, but that was nothing like the explosion in the later decades of the 20th century as interest in keeping and breeding increased enormously while moving down market at the same time.

In the 1960s, new dealers arose. Some were trying to turn a deep interest into a full-time occupation. Others, like some established dealers in birds, simply expanded as the saw an emerging markets. Many survived for a very short time; some for longer.

It is difficult to assess the extent of the trade at that time because local pet shops, a few of which might buy in a few reptiles from a wholesaler from time to time, tended not to advertise nationally. The weekly Cage Birds would see an expansion in advertisements for reptiles while the monthly Aquarist tended to have generic ones, just indicating that a dealer was around. There was no real point in advertising stock in the Aquarist; the lead time to publication was too long and a list was completely out of date by the time an issue appeared in the shops.

There is though no doubt that the importation of reptiles and amphibians increased massively in the 1960s. Small birds for the foreign bird fancier were already arriving in huge numbers and gradually the numbers of reptiles also increased. However, interest was still fairly limited and dealers found it very easy to overload the market. That restriction by limited demand did not apply to reptiles that could be sold as cute pets: there was mass importation of terrapins from the U.S.A.; baby Spectacled Caymans from South America, via the U.S.A. and the trade in tortoises continued unabated. Tyseley Pet Stores (see below) hit the headlines in 1967 following the arrival of 15,000 tortoises at London docks from Morocco.

Amongst the bird and mammal and reptile dealers Cage Birds would contain advertisements from the likes of Tyseley Pet Stores in Birmingham (selling everything from elephants downwards in size), Ravensden in Bedforshire, Fitzgibbon of Romford, Essex and David Taylor of Clay Cross, Derbyshire. Bleak Hall Bird Farm moved to Luton in 1964 and began to stock reptiles as well as birds. Palmers of Camden Town rarely advertised but the business was in full flow at the time. Wilsons of Glasgow, once a huge ‘pet’ business advertised occasionally.

September 1964

September 1964

Image0014

I once visited David Taylor’s Newmarket Aviaries at Clay Cross (he had no reptiles then). He imported huge numbers of common and not so common birds and mammals. I walked along a row of aviaries, each about the size of a room and each containing a large dead bush. As I approached, the bush exploded with life as hundreds of Indian Silverbills took both fright and flight. Another ‘aviary’ was bursting to the seams with one of the species of Palm Squirrel from India. As you will see from his advertisements, he even offered ‘easy’ payment terms to spread the cost of buying from him. I see that he died in 2011, having retired from his business in 2008.

Image0008 Image0010

The following are some of the advertisers in the Aquarist in the 1960s, in addition to the very occasional appearance of South Western Aquarists (George Boyce); he did not need to advertise.

David Barker of Chatteris, Cambridgeshire
O’Neill Blackburn with stock from ’S Africa, Europe, Far East etc’

September 1964:
Conrad A Dowding, Pet Shop, Lewes, Sussex

June 1967
Brixham Biological Supplies

Image0004

February 1968
J&D Naturalists, Liverpool

J&D Aqu Sept 64

May 1968
David G Brownlees, Newcastle upon Tyne ‘Specialist in the supply of specimens from Ceylon, Mexico and the American South West’

September 1969
Zoological Supplies, Bradford
Anglian Aquatics, Barton, Cambridge

Image0006

The trend continued in the early 1970s

January 1972
B&B Reptile Supplies

February 72
Robert Baltrock at Saffron Walden

March 1972
Southern Zoological Centre, Ilfracombe

November 1972
Robert Baltrock at Herpetological Centre, Pontypool

January 1974
King Cobra Reptiles, Manchester

John Greatwood (JG Reptiles) at Streatham was operating from the early 1970s

June 1975
Derek G Porter Herpetologist West Derby Liverpool
Pet Farm, Attlebridge, Norwich

1976
Xenopus Ltd

Bio-Pet – Leeds and then Sunbury, Middx

Early 1950s Dealers in Reptiles in U.K.

I started the series on reptile dealers in the U.K. in the mid-1950s, a low-point if that is the right word in the number of companies and individuals involved in the trade, other than the tortoise trade where many importers and wholesalers fed the retail pet shops in cities and towns.

Tortoises and terrapins in bulk appear in this advertisement from Cage Birds:

1954_05_27b

At this time the well-known traders like Cura and Haig were mainly or exclusively in the wholesale business supplying fish and importing mainly European reptiles and amphibians to pet shops. Joe Grassby advertised his strictly wholesale only business for many years:

1954_07_30d

A feature of the trade was, and apparently still is, the appearance of dealers who only stayed in business for a short time. There were also those who imported animals directly for themselves and then sold on any surplus, and those who imported batches of reptiles only occasionally.

Early in the 1950s, as post-war restrictions designed to protect Sterling during a period of real austerity, were slowly lifted and imports began to re-appear, there were dealers in addition to Robert Jackson, George Boyce and Palmers who were selling reptiles at least part of the time.

The monthly magazines, The Aquarist and Pondkeeper and Water Life, were not the only or main place for advertising. Everybody with anything to do with wild animals read the advertisements in the weekly, Cage Birds.

Ford’s Zoological Supplies of Woolwich, London loomed large in the early 1950s but then seemed to disappear:

Ad Fords 1950

I have no information on Mr Griffin other than this advertisement from Water Life in 1952:

Ad WL 1952

St Martin’s Aquaria in the centre of London advertised in Water Life in 1953 but I was told later only had the normal ‘pet shop’ European reptiles in Spring:

Ad WL Feb 1953

Child’s was a major pre-war aquarium dealer in London but I do not know when the shop closed. This advertisement is from 1952:

Ad WL Aug 1952

This one from Cage Birds in August 1953 shows that a number of aquarium shops were stocking reptiles and amphibians:

1953_08_20

The Alan Robertson Organisation of Edinburgh had occasional blitzes on advertising that started, I think, in 1953. Where he kept the animals I do not know since his address in South Learmonth Gardens was in a typical Edinburgh New Town terrace. He could of course have been acting for a zoo or other dealer selling surplus large animals like the tiger and orang-utan that appeared in some of his advertisements.

This is from Water Life, August 1953:

Ad WL August 1953

This is from May 1954 in Cage Birds:

1954_05_27

Cage Birds, October 1955:

1955_10_13b

Aquarist December 1955:

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 15.44.56 copy

Water Life February 1956 had three separate advertisements:

AR1

AR2

AR3

The last of the three is interesting because it describes the launch of  ‘ARO-Magazine’ as well as leaflets written by Alfred Leutscher. Have any of these publications survived?

I thought I remembered being told by Clin Keeling that Alan Robertson had gone on to work for Ravensden Zoological Company (incorporated I see in 1961 but operating I think from a little earlier). That thought was confirmed when I found an article on a pet skunk which was kept on board one of H.M. warships.

For a week, during duties in the Firth of Clyde, Saintes had on hoard a party of Sea Cadets from East London. They were in the charge of their history teacher – an ex-Major who kept exotic pets as a hobby. He persuaded David to find an unusual mascot for the ship, (the Captain’s kitten, Sylvester, did not count as such), and just happened to have on board a zoological company’s catalogue. David spotted the entry for skunks, and wrote away to the company, Ravensden in Bedford.

     …it was some time before David received the mail from Ravensden saying that no skunks were available – but that one
might turn up. Meanwhile, he had obtained the necessary permission, from his First Lieutenant, to keep a skunk on board.
     The ship’s next tour of duty was to be in the Mediterranean, based at Malta. While the Saintes was berthed at Plymouth, David was staying at Sudbury in Suffolk, with his father, a retired Royal Navy Captain, who had become an accomplished landscape painter. They drove to Bedford to have a look at Ravensden.
     There, they were shown around by Scots manager, Alan Robertson. The animals then in stock included various apes and monkeys, and even baby alligators, but no skunk. Taking a chance, Alan phoned the firm’s Scarborough branch, and found that they had just received a male, North American Striped Skunk, fourteen weeks old. II would cost 15 guineas… As part of the deal,  Alan requested “a bit of publicity”.
     David agreed, and Alan immediately phoned the Sunday Pictorial, who were interested, and asked David to call at their London office. That was convenient, since David had planned a trip to London, and was able to go next day. It was then, in Bedford, that he decided to name the unseen skunk “Alphonse”.

The full story is told in a book I have not read:

David Gunn. Alphonse: The Story of a Seafaring Skunk. London: Peter Davies, 1964.

By the end of the 1950s things were beginning to change and the 1960s saw a increase in keeping reptiles and in the number of reptile dealers, some of whom though soon fell by the wayside.

UPDATED: 24 April 2016