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.


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