The Outdoor Reptiliary in Britain. 2. Amateur herpetologists

As I said in Part 1, the dream of most amateur reptile keepers was to have an outdoor reptiliary in the garden—an enclosed but open space where lizards, snakes and amphibians could live a near-natural life. 

The earliest book published in Britain I have been able to find that describes a reptiliary and its construction is that written by Burgess Barnett in 1934. Barnett succeeded Joan Procter as Curator of Reptiles at London Zoo and, therefore, had charge of the reptiliary.

The construction of an outdoor “Reptiliary”—in other words, the making of a reptile-proof wall round a rockery—is a larger undertaking.

The general design for such a wall is shown in Figure 2. It may conveniently be built of old bricks, capped with breeze blocks, with cement for the inner moat. The height of the walls is determined by the size of the reptiles it is intended to enclose, but a height of 2 ft. with an 8 in. overhang is sufficient in most cases. The object of the overhang on the outer side of the wall is to exclude rats and mice, which otherwise may be trapped in the enclosure and cause havoc amongthe legitimate inhabitants.


An aggregate of stones, broken bricks, etc., below the moat prevents rats from burrowing under the wall.

Most authors of subsequent books on keeping reptiles and amphibians followed, more or less, the same lines with similar diagrams. I am not providing great detail here since the books can be found in DOWNLOADS above.

In the various editions of Animals as Friends and How to Keep Them published between 1939 and 1952, Margaret Shaw and James Fisher (both working at London Zoo in 1939) showed a reptiliary (calling it a terrarium in the text and a vivarium in the diagram). Two ft. 6 in. they said was a good height ‘as people can lean on it and will think twice about climbing over and disturbing the inhabitants’.


Shaw & Fisher

From Animas as Friends and How to Keep Them


Maxwell Knight’s Keeping Reptiles and Fishes (1952) included photographs of the reptiliary belonging to a Colonel Wilkins of Camberley Natural History Society. It was made of house bricks with a narrow overhang and housed snakes.


Colonel Wilkins’s Outdoor Reptiliary and Vivaria [Ron Francis] from Maxwell Knight’s book


Also in 1952, Ernest J.F. Pitman showed a photograph of a reptiliary. He made the point that the overhang on the inner side should be at least 6 inches. He considered the arrangements for hibernation and recommended a wooden box 18 inches below ground level, filled with hay and connected to the surface by a pipe, the mouth of which should be sheltered from rain by an overhanging rock.


From Pitman’s book


The diagram in Ian Harman’s (1952) book is very odd since the reptiliary seems out of scale with the surrounding crazy paving. The wall is so low that any self-respecting snake would be out of there is a matter of minutes. Harman recommended sheet zinc for the inward overhang, a suggestion often followed up in magazine articles. The diagram does though bear a resemblance to L.G. Payne’s ‘reptiliary’ shown in an article in Water Life (21 July 1936); that though was not intended for reptiles at all; it housed small European toads, a different kettle of fish to preventing the escape of snakes and lizards. Indeed Payne later raised the walls to between 2 and 3 ft in order to house lizards (Water Life 13 December 1938).


Harman’s diagram of a reptiliary clearly not intended for snakes or lizards.


L.G. Payne only kept small toads in this low-walled structure


Alfred Leutscher in the 2nd edition of Vivarium Life (1961) reckoned on a barrier not less than 3 feet tall. He had blind-ended pipes leading into the earth as hibernacula. He did, though, warn about water-logging of hibernacula below ground level. By 1976, Leutscher had increased the recommended height of the surrounding wall to 4 feet.

Leutscher VL

Alfred Leutscher’s 1961 diagram

Leutscher 1976

From Alfred Leutscher’s 1976 book.

George Hervey and Jack Hems (1967) described a reptiliary but theirs seemed more suitable for amphibians since they describe the depth of water required for successful hibernation.

Hervey & Hems

The Hervey & Hems version


The redoubtable Kathleen Pickard-Smith’s book of 1961, Living with Reptiles, described the trials and tribulations of an amateur reptile and amphibian keeper. I know from conversations and comments online that she had a considerable influence in encouraging interest in herpetology. Her reptiliary, built on the advice of somebody I suspect as Alfred Leutscher, was 9½  ft by 5½ ft. The 2½ ft high wall was of brick. Under the top brick was a tile, projecting 5 in. inside and 2 in outside. In the shady corner was a pool about 2 ft deep. A hibernation chamber was built above ground (connected by downward-facing piping to the exterior). That was covered by terraced earth and dry walling. Planting finished the job.

Splendid though the structure was it was not lizard proof, as so many people with reptiliaries found to their cost. Mrs Pickard-Smith’s lizards escaped but did return to be fed! Replacing the tlle overhang with zinc sheeting to defeat the escapers was also not fully successful since at first the zinc was brushed with cement mix to lighten the appearance.

Two points are striking about most of the designs shown or actually built. 1. The inside of the walls was often sufficiently rough for lizards, and some snakes, to climb easily. 2. The underside of the overhang was also rough or covered with concrete. Therefore, it was a relatively simple matter for lizards, not averse to clinging on upside down for a few paces to escape. I, and others, realised that the expensive solution of a heavy wall made of bricks, breeze blocks or natural stone was not required, nor often as not could be afforded, for a private collection. Gloss-painted wood or hardboard (Masonite in the U.S.), or better still, the then newly developed heavy plastic sheeting, were the route to success. David Lambert has described on this site his reptiliary built of plastic sheets. For my two reptiliaries built in 1959 and 1960 we used hardboard (smooth face inwards) or plywood on a wooden frame. Hardboard absorbs paint and I remember applying coat after coat after coat. Thus treated it lasted for years.

Although I never had an escape, the lizards would sometimes be seen in summer on the underside of the wire-netting covers we used to protect the reptiliary from cats. They would chase any insects that came into view while running upside-down. To get there, my mother eventually discovered, they executed a sort of back flip from the highest rock or clump of vegetation.

Building the ideal reptiliary on a small budget and with the materials available at the time was not as easy as we may have been lead to believe.

The saddest effort at a reptiliary I ever saw was the one built by Clin and Jill Keeling at Pan’s Garden in Ashover, Derbyshire. The whole episode is recounted in her book Ask of the Beasts (London: Anthony Blond, 1960) written a decade before the whole enterprise ended in personal tragedy and bitter lifelong recriminations.

She described how they set about building their reptilium (the Keelings used that term à la Bristol Zoo, rather than reptiliary) using heavy stones personally gathered and hauled from a public quarry down the road:

At last, we contrived to enclose a space some 15 feet by 4 feet with a wall some 2 feet high…Owing to the restricted spae, we had made the wall very thin by cementing slabs of stone on end rather like a vertical jigsaw puzzle, and this made the finishing touches incredibly difficult…As the top of the wall was nowhere more than a couple of inches or so wide, our technical problems at this stage became acute, but we finally solved them—or so it seemed to us—by firmly cementing small flat stones all the way round with an overhang on both sides to obtain some sort of balance…

     The following morning I came eagerly down to view our new acquisition—and the first thing I saw was a Wall Lizard happily sunning itself on top of the overhang…

Snakes were held better but eventually escaped as the plants grew ‘to give them a “bunk-up”’. The enclosure would only hold terrapins, newts and salamanders but those remaining had to be removed because of the depredations of souvenir hunters. The reptilium, built by hard labour, looked a sorry sight and was a sorry site. 

A problem with a small reptiliary is that the sun in spring and autumn may shine on the ground inside for only a few hours per day, insufficient for lizards to reach their preferred body temperature for much of the time. In the 1950s and 60s we did not have apps on our phone to show the angle of the sun throughout the day and throughout the year together with the length of shadow cast by a hypothetical surrounding wall.

It was not only books and magazines that spurred people into building reptiliaries. Syndicated newspaper articles appeared like this one in the Tamworth Herald of 1 October 1938 under the headline, Your Garden Now!

Can you make and maintain a rockery? can you use cement or concrete? Do you remember those schoolday interests keeping pets? If you can but do those three things with just the ordinary amount of skill and success—then why not make a reptiliary? I mean of course a modern open-air reptiliary?

The article went on to describe how to build and plant a reptiliary, stressing the importance of sunlight.

Some reptiliary owners added then modern technology, blue lights for example to watch amphibians after dark. I added am aquarium heater to a small pool in order to give newly-arrived but underfed terrapins a higher temperature during spring nights. Others I know put an infrared ‘heat’ lamp over basking spots during persistently dull weather.

The old reptiliary has fallen out of favour in zoos and gardens. Bulk importation of European reptiles has long gone and outdoor accommodation for captive breeding projects is now lavish by comparison. However, reptiliaries recognisable as such are still in use (protected by netting covers). For example, I see that the New Forest Reptile Centre has classic reptiliaries housing all the British species.

Reptiliary 27 Wellspringdale ca 1961. 35 mm Ferraniacolor

A view inside one of my old reptiliaries. The lizards are what are now known as Western Green Lizards and a juvenile Eye Lizard. The photograph was taken in spring 1962 since I was in process of fitting an aquarium heater to the pool.


The Outdoor Reptiliary in Britain. 1. London and Other Zoos

Once upon a time, when European lizards and snakes were imported into Britain, the dream of most amateur reptile keepers was to have an outdoor reptiliary in the garden—an enclosed but open space where lizards, snakes and amphibians could live a near-natural life.

I should begin by explaining that the reptiliary is sometimes referred to as a reptilium. However, the latter term had been used extensively for what we would now call a reptile house. The reptile houses in use before the present one at London Zoo were often referred to as the reptilium in press reports. The reptilium at Belle Vue, Manchester was a reptile house. However at Bristol Zoo, what we would now call an outdoor reptiliary was described as an outdoor reptilium. I wondered whether some classical scholar had been trying to avoid a barbarism, a mixture of Latin and Greek but since both words come from Latin roots that cannot be the reason. The extension of housing for birds by some, thus reptiliary, or of fishes by others, hence aquarium, may be the simplest explanation. And, yes, the barbarism, herpetarium, is also used for reptile house.

The early books on keeping reptiles carried no mention of the outdoor reptiliary. Yes, readers were told they could keep ordinary vivaria outside and one showed a photograph of a wired cage for lizards but no mention of what we now call a reptiliary.

The fashion to build a reptiliary, comprising a low wall with inward overhang complete with rockery and pond, seemed to follow the construction of the one at London Zoo in 1928. Like the Reptile House (1927) and the Main Gate the reptiliary was designed by Joan Procter, Curator of Reptiles. There was enormous media interest in the Zoo in the early decades of the last century and The Times (15 March 1930) describes it thus:

The outdoor Reptiliary near the Main Gate of the Zoo was devised to suit hardy reptiles from the colder parts of the world. The rockwork is placed over a core of dry, well-drained rubble with leaf mould, and the rocks were arranged so as to provide a number of deep recesses packed with mould. The deepest part of the pool contains nearly a foot of water under which is more than a foot of coherent mud. When the cold weather came, late last autumn, some of the lizards, snakes and terrapins continued to appear by day although the temperature was clearly too low for them. These were gradually gathered up and taken indoors. Others had found winter quarters to suit them, and it has been a great satisfaction to the Curator of Reptiles, who designed the Reptiliary, to find that these are now reappearing, none the worse for the winter.

The best photograph I have been able to find of the reptiliary was shown in The Illustrated London News of 15 September 1928. The Main Entrance in its original configuration can be seen behind. The caption indicates that the reptiliary was nearing completion which might suggest that it was first stocked in 1929.

London ILN

Plants for the rockery were the responsibility of Clarence Elliott, a nurseryman. Twenty-five years later he wrote in The Illustrated London News:

When the open-air reptiliary was constructed at the London Zoo I was given the task of planting it and, among other things, I put in a young specimen of the twisted nut. With its fantastically serpentine stems it seemed to me particularly appropriate for this particular setting, and the tree has since grown into a magnificent specimen.

The tree, he explained, was a twisted (now usually called corkscrew) hazel.

An obituary of a plant collector, Edward K. Balls, suggests he, as an employee of Elliott, was involved in the construction of the rock garden as well as its planting. Elliott’s article, however, does indicate that they were only responsible for the planting.

During the Second World War, artists toured the country drawing and painting scenes which captured the sense of national identity, which may have been subject to loss by enemy action or by industrial or agricultural change. The scheme, ‘Recording the Changing Face of Britain’ was also intended to find employment and commissions for artists who might have found themselves out of work during war time. London Zoo’s reptiliary and main entrance was the subject of one such work by Walter John Bayes (1869-1956). The whole collection is now held by the Victoria & Albert Museum.

London Reptiliary Art

By Walter John Bayes. Recording Britain Collection, Victoria & Albert Museum


Were any changes made to the rockery over the lifetime of the reptiliary? David Lambert, with whom I have been corresponding on reptiliaries, recalls it being covered with more vegetation than shown in this photograph by Lionel Edward Hedley Day (1900-1968) that was published in Water Life in 1950. However, we do not know if the photograph was contemporary. Comparing that photograph with the one taken in 1928 (above) it would appear that it is from a position to the right. If that is the case then it would appear that the corkscrew hazel had been removed—before the time Elliott noted that it had ‘grown into a magnificent specimen’. My recollection from the late 1950s and early 1960s is that the whole rockery was lower. with large flattish areas covered by low plants. Does anybody have photographs from that time?

Reptiliary London

And in the Children’s Newspaper of May 23, 1959, Craven Hill wrote, “Officials at the Zoo are busy restocking the reptile rock garden…Gardeners have planted it with rock plants and arranged ‘sun cushions’—close growths of herbage on which the snakes and lizards can lie and sun themselves”.

What was kept in the reptiliary? We know from press reports that native Adders, Grass Snakes, Smooth Snakes were introduced. There is also mention of ‘Glass Snakes’, the legless lizard or Scheltopusik from eastern Europe. Aesculapian Snakes, Slow-worms, Green lizards, Wall Lizards’, ‘small lizards’, terrapins, tortoises and frogs are also listed. A snake reported to have hibernated successfully in the reptiliary was ‘a big dark-green snake’. That would be what is now known as Hierophis viridiflavus, from southern Europe. That snake got a mention in The Times of 15 March 1930:

A yellow cat, whose home is in one of the waiting rooms [in the main entrance?] had jumped on to the rockwork, possible in quest of sparrows, and was at once attacked with fury by the snake, which although not poisonous and far too small to make a prey of the cat made pussy cry out for help. Relief came in time.

The inhabitants of the reptiliary are listed in the 1935 guide to London Zoo:

London Reptiliary

The question of how long the Adders survived is difficult to answer. They were caught, along with Grass Snakes, in large numbers for London, other zoos and biological suppliers by a contractor in the New Forest. In the 1930s that was a Mr George Wateridge. The snakes were apparently used as food for King Cobras and other ophiophagous snakes as well as for some birds-of-prey. Whether this was so for Adders I do not know but it does seem clear that London and Edinburgh were topping up numbers of in their reptiliaries each year in what appear to be large quantities, for example, 60 to London, 48 to Edinburgh. Wateridge reckoned he sent 40 or more snakes to London every couple of weeks. Over-collection was attributed by some to the decline in snake numbers in the New Forest.


George Wateridge. Illustrated London News 22 July 1933. Note the astonishing caption: Making the New Forest Safe for Sightseers.


Various media reports suggest Wateridge like the snake catchers before him used a stick to pin the snake to the ground. Malcolm Smith in his New Naturalist series book stated that many Adders in captivity do not feed because this method of capture damages the gullet but that they then take many months to die. Whether that was an observation from the reptiliary at London is open to question. However, he did write: ‘In the large open-air reptiliary at the Zoo, where they live under fairly natural conditions, I have often watched them basking and moving about, and moving about, and sometimes feeding’.

Those still awake this far into the article will realise that the reptiliary housed lizards and frogs that are the normal prey of the snakes. Indeed, that may be the reason I never saw a lizard in the reptiliary in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I was always there in the late summer when a population of Adders could have worked its way through the lizards. I only ever saw Adders in there but what could be seen was so weather-dependent, an occasional visit could be entirely misleading as to the number and variety of animals.

That problem of a large reptiliary—predator and potential prey housed together— is only one of a number that became apparent over the years.

The first was predation. Newspapers reported that a small flock of Cattle Egrets released to fly free in London Zoo made very short work of the small lizards in the reptiliary. And might that ‘yellow cat’ have been searching out lizards rather than sparrows? Over the years, owners of reptiliaries have been plagued by cats, gulls, crows and the like necessitating the use of some sort of cover. The aesthetic appeal of an open-air enclosure is thus compromised.

The second problem for London was litter. The public loved to feed zoo animals and the offerings tossed over the wall for the inhabitants of the reptiliary may have been choice items for monkeys but not for lizards or snakes. Regular patrols had to remove peanuts, biscuits, bread crumbs and cake.

The third was safety. The reptiliary had no bounding fence just the low wall that can be seen in the photographs. A child clambering on the wall could—and probably did—tumble onto the inside. The consequences of landing on an Adder may not have been pleasant. The job of refurbishing the reptiliary (as in the 1959 replanting by gardeners) must have been seen as a challenge. Finding every last one of the venomous snakes in the deep recesses of rockwork and underground cavities cannot have been easy. Perhaps so many rocks had to be shifted that the original configuration was not maintained and that I really do remember a lower structure in the early 1960s.

The fourth was security. It is now well known that small boys could push their way through the boundary fence of the Zoo on a light evening and search the reptiliary for a grass snake or terrapin to take home.

I suspect that by the early 1960s the Zoo had pretty well given up on the reptiliary. I remember talking to Reg Lanworn (1908-2005), resplendent in his uniform of Overseer of Reptiles, one afternoon when I, still at school, went to ask him something about reptiles. We were beside the reptiliary and he indicated that stocking it was not seen as a priority. I also suspect that the annual topping up from the relatively large numbers of reptiles imported by dealers from Italy each spring had ended.

The reptiliary was demolished in 1970 as the area around the old Monkey House was reconfigured for the Sobell primate house. Angus Bellairs and David Ball in their article for the 150th anniversary of the Zoo in 1976 wrote: ‘The practice of keeping European reptiles in an outdoor reptiliary was abandoned some years ago for various reasons’.

But later and potentially confusingly another enclosure became known as the reptiliary in Guillery’s The Buildings of London Zoo (1993). This was the 1922 Otter Pond which housed various animals until it was converted for iguanas. That too now seems to have been demolished.

Other zoos in the 1930s

A number of zoos in Britain soon acquired outdoor reptiliaries. Bristol had one (‘outdoor reptilium’) in 1930. Belfast announced one was in its plans for construction before the zoo opened in 1934. Edinburgh had one by 1937 (when it received Adders from the New Forest); Zoo magazine, later Animal & Zoo Magazine, shows it was built in 1936 and was of the London design with two streams of which one ran into a marsh. The reptiliary at Dudley Zoo was built in 1935-37 in time for the zoo’s opening in 1937. That one is relatively safe from destruction since it has a Grade II conservation listing but it hasn’t held reptiles for decades. It now holds the ubiquitous Meerkat. The reason for its conservation (albeit in bastardised form) is that it was designed (actually pretty much a straight copy of Joan Procter’s) by Lubetkin/Tecton, along with the other Tecton buildings which made Dudley so distinctive. The main adviser to Dudley was Geoffrey Vevers, Superintendent of London Zoo so it is not surprising that Lubetkin, after his iconic (but ultimately wrongly-designed for sub-antarctic species) Penguin Pool and what turned out to be an utterly useless Gorilla House at London, was given the job.

The reptiliary at Dudley can be seen clearly on Google Earth. I must have looked in the first time I visited Dudley in 1954 and in my second and only other visit about five years later but I have no recollection of having done so.

Dudley G Earth

The outline of the reptiliary at Dudley Zoo (adjacent to the later Reptile House)can be seen in this view from Google Earth.


Then Whipsnade had a reptiliary in 1938. Syndicated media reports suggest a London-style structure:

A rock garden, surrounded by a moat, is being built, and it is said to be the hime of the hardy reptiles, such as common adders, grass snakes, slow-worms, and wall lizards, as well as common frogs. There will be no bars separating the exhibits from the public, but the moat will be banked by a parapet, deeply curved on the inner side, so that the snakes cannot climb out.

In the next article I will try to draw together the experiences of amateur herpetologists in building and maintaining a garden reptiliary.

Before I do that I should point out that in the tropics the snake pit was the norm. Below are photographs we took at the Bangkok Snake Farm in 1968. I do wonder whether the idea of a reptiliary at London came from Dr Malcolm Smith who returned from Thailand where was physician to the royal court in 1925. The snake farm, part of the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute for the production of antivenoms, opened in 1923. Smith was a close collaborator of G.A. Boulenger, Joan Procter’s mentor at the British Museum.

Snake Park. Bangkok 1968. Agfacolor CT18. Olympus Pen FT (half-frame)

Snake Park. Bangkok 1968. Agfacolor CT18. Olympus Pen FT (half-frame)


Bellairs Ad’A. 1976. Reptiles. In, The Zoological Society of London 1826-1976 and Beyond. Symposia of the Zoological Society of London 40, 119-132.

Chalmers Mitchell P. 1935. Official Guide to the Gardens and Aquarium of the Zoological Society of London. 32nd edition. London: Zoological Society of London

Guillery P. 1993. The Buildings of London Zoo. London: Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England.

Smith M. 1954. The British Amphibians & Reptiles. Revised edition. London: Collins.

Amended 7 May 2019 and 3 June 2019