John Romer (1920-1981): A List of Publications from before and during his life in Hong Kong on reptiles, amphibians, mammals, fleas and bird strikes

I have written several times (here and here) on John Dudley Romer (1920-1981) the doyen of herpetology in Hong Kong. Romer’s full-time job was head of pest control for the Hong Kong government. After his death his papers were deposited in the library of the Zoological Society of London. The last time I was there I did not have time to see what that Romer archive held. Then Jack Greatrex of the Department of History in the University of Hong Kong contacted me. As part of his research on the history of pest control he was going to be in London and offered to send me his gleanings from the ZSL library. I of course accepted gratefully and Jack, now at Nanyang Technical University in Singapore, sent me copies of a wealth of material, including a curriculum vitae from around 1979, the time of Romer’s retirement from Hong Kong, and his earlier notebook which included a list of his popular and scientific publications. The list of publications in his CV specifically excludes popular publications. I have used these two sources as the basis of a complete list of John Romer’s publications across all spheres of his activities from 1938 until a posthumous new edition in 1983. A few more publications came to light in searches online but it is possible that further popular publications in newspapers and magazines remain to be found. Some of the detail, like page numbers, is incomplete. A further visit to the ZSL library is needed in order to fill in nearly all of that missing information (marked in red below) but if anybody can help in the meantime I would be most grateful. I do appreciate that not many people are likely to have the Indian Army Ordnance Corps Gazette on their bookshelf.

The List can be downloaded as a pdf on the DOWNLOADS page.


Scans of The Aquarist Online

Peter Capon has contacted me to say that he is putting the entire run of The Aquarist online for free download. There are aleady hundreds of issues completed. If you cannot find an article on herpetology in the Downloads page above, it is well worth searching the link below. For example, in the 1960s there are some articles by Bob Bustard that I did not have copies of.

The link is HERE.

Haig’s Aquatic Farm at Beam Brook and its place in the history of British herpetology. A new article by Peter Sutton

On 22 October 2015 I posted an article on the history of Haig’s Aquatic Farm at Beam Brook in Surrey. From the early 1900s the ‘farm’ imported fish, amphibians and reptiles from Europe each spring. I added  a note later that this site had been studied by Peter Sutton since a number of populations of amphibians and reptiles survived—and some still do survive—after its closure sometime in the 1970s.

Peter Sutton, who has been fasciated by the site and its animals from the age of 8, has recently written an article describing Beam Brook. He covers its history, the introduced animals which have died out over the years and studies on the populations that have survived. Peter has been responsible with others and the help of the landowners for regeneration of the habitat in recent years.

The article is in the the magazine British Wildlife of June 2019, illustrated by photographs and a plate of drawings by Denys Ovenden.

Screenshot 2019-07-11 at 11.22.19

The surviving populations have provided material for what amount to ecological studies as a result of an unintentional ‘natural experiment’. These Peter Sutton has also described in his excellent article.

British Wildlife is now part of NHBS Ltd. More information on buying copies and subscriptions here.

Screenshot 2019-07-11 at 11.21.24

Sutton P. 2019. Beam Brook and its place in the history of British herpetology. British Wildlife 30 (5, June 2019), 353-359.

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

Our Home with a Zoo by David Lambert

David Lambert’s article describes the aspirations and achievements of reptile and amphibian keepers in the 1960s and 70s and complements the other information on this site. I am most grateful to David for providing it.


As a boy I’d always kept fishes or other small animals. When I married there was small scope for them in the pocket-handkerchief garden of our first home, but much more when Wendy and I moved in 1967. Lack of space had kept the lid on my hobby; half an acre helped blow it off with a bang: collecting creatures became almost a mania. In the 1970s we shared the house and its garden in Kent with our daughter Sally’s guinea pigs and a Noah’s ark of reptiles, amphibians and fishes.

They lived in a tortoise enclosure and reptiliary with pond in the garden, a hutch in the shed built onto the house, and about a dozen glass tanks in the back porch and dining room: most on a “sideboard” (a wartime prefabricated bungalow’s wardrobe laid on its side) and shelves along the wall above and beside it. One deep accumulator battery jar on the floor held stick insects, another a Xenopus, or aquatic clawed frog.

A House Bestiary

Of the cold-blooded creatures we kept, I remember these best:

  • The clawed frog had slug-slippery grey skin, huge webbed toes, Struwelpetter-like fingers, and tiny button eyes staring up from the top of a low, flat head. He lay submerged in his tank, feverishly stuffed worms in his mouth with both hands, and trilled when a plane flew past.
  • Kaloula pulchra, our narrow-mouthed toad, reminded us of fat Mr Greedy in a children’s book, so that’s what we called him.
  • Firebellied toads resembling black pickled walnuts. Popeyed and with poisonous skins, they displayed their red bellies to warn off attackers.
  • European tree frogs clung like little green plums to twigs in their tank but would leap about nimbly to capture a moth.
  • The axolotls were salamanders that grew big but not up, keeping their feathery gills and swimmers’ deep tails. Unlike our fire salamanders, these Frankenstein’s monsters spent their entire lives in water.
  • Glossy yellow and black, with large, liquid eyes, adult fire salamanders resembled rubbery toys placed in a mossy tank. Their drab babies had broad, blunt, puppyish heads, prowled underwater in the manner of cats stalking prey, and skittered like eels if you touched them.
  • To dazzle his mate, the mint-green and black male marbled newt swam around, displaying his crested back and waggling his tail like a banner.
  • Green lizards blended with low-growing plants, but the males’ cheeks turned bright blue in spring. One adventurous female escaped from their reptiliary but climbed back in weeks later.
  • An Italian wall lizard that went often AWOL, used to climb up a shed.
  • Spinefoot lizards kept to a gravel strip just inside the reptiliary, its nearest thing to the sand their fringed toes were designed for.
  • A male red-eared terrapin wooed his mate face to face in their pond, extending his hands, palms outward, as if to embrace, then delicately flapping at the sides of her head with his fingers’ long claws.
  • The male marginated tortoise had a shell flared like a Second World War German soldier’s helmet and preferred a more militant courtship, tucking his head in and bashing his mate from one side.
  • The twig-thin rough green snake ate locusts in his tank by the dining room table. Not all our dinner guests seemed to enjoy watching that.

Keeping count

Stock changed as newcomers replaced specimens that had died or escaped. At one time or another we kept nearly 50 kinds of amphibians and reptiles. In August 1977 our creatures totalled more than 100. Five tortoises (three marginated, one spur-thighed, and one Hermann’s) roamed the tortoise enclosure. Two stripe-necked terrapins, two European pond tortoises, a red-eared terrapin, a marsh frog and 23 goldfish swam in the pond in our reptiliary. Its landlubbers included three foot-long green lizards, three wall lizards, two Algerian sand racers, a slow worm, and three common toads. Indoors lived 17 fire salamanders, a Rana erythraea, two white tree frogs from Thailand, two midwife toads, 16 marbled newts, one spinefoot lizard, a Siamese fighting fish, a Pelvicachromis, and many Indian stick insects.

Some of the time I should have spent working went on feeding our zoo. I gave cat’s ears and dandelion leaves, clover, lettuce, and apples to the tortoises; dried fish food, tubifex worms, and daphnia to the fishes; earthworms, maggots, fruit flies, mealworms, slugs, and moths to amphibians; mealworms, crickets, locust hoppers, stick insects, and small insects caught as hedge-sweepings to various reptiles; earthworms, liver, and whitebait to pond tortoises; bran to mealworms; and privet to stick insects. The reptiliary’s inhabitants also snacked on whatever dropped in: a marsh frog grabbed a dragonfly; green lizards cannibalized common lizards that climbed in from the garden; and something disposed of two yellow-bellied toads I had unwisely released into the reptiliary from a tank.

Most of our animals had come from mail-order suppliers. In those unregulated days their price lists were cornucopias of exotic wildlife that you could buy with no questions asked. Just popping a cheque in the post could bring you a caiman, palm squirrel, Alpine marmot, coatimundi, kinkajou, otter, antelope, even a sun bear. In July 1968, W. de Rover in Holland offered 93 species of reptiles and amphibians, many ridiculously cheap: 40p bought a tortoise that might now cost £140. Probably many were scarce and are no longer legally traded or moved from their country of origin. Our Algerian sand racers, spinefoot lizard, and marsh frog were found near Marbella, and the common toads I collected from Holden Pond, Southborough, or toadspawn gathered from there.

Looking back on it all

The longest-lived individuals of some species lasted with us far longer than others: Algerian sand racer and spinefoot lizard under 2 years; Pelvicachromis and Kaloula pulchra about 5; marsh frog and Italian wall lizard (brueggemanni) 6; midwife toad, Thailand white tree, edible frog and European tree frog 7; bullfrog and marbled newt 8; green lizard 10; Xenopus 11; green toad 13; fire salamander and red-eared terrapin 14; stripe-necked terrapin 16; goldfish at least 20; spur-thighed tortoise 24; European pond tortoise 26 (escaped); male marginated tortoise 47; and male Hermann’s tortoise 48 (these last two still living in October 2018). Full grown and with a rather worn-looking carapace, the marginated tortoise could have been old in 1971 when I bought him.

I feel guilty now, looking back on my small part in reducing the world’s stock of wild creatures. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I had managed to breed from them all, but the only successes came with newts, fire salamanders, frogs, shubunkins, some tropical fishes, and the one marginated tortoise egg that we managed to hatch.

London Zoo’s outdoor reptiliary

Slow-moving salamanders and toads settled down well in aquarium tanks, but I had thought that lizards deserved more living space. The ideal set-up would be a big outdoor enclosure for hardy reptiles. London Zoo had a fine one: a semi-wild rock garden maybe 20 yards long and 15 across, inside a concrete ha-ha with an overhang and a moat at its foot to discourage escapes. If the Reptile House was a high-security prison with every inmate on show in its cell, the reptile rock garden looked more like wild countryside. Creatures could hide among its cushion plants, heather, evergreen shrubs, small trees, and ridges of Westmorland stone. You had to peer hard to glimpse more than one or two wall lizards, green lizards, slow worms, grass snakes or adders. Spotting them was like solving a puzzle picture, more fun than just staring at snakes in a tank.

Dozens of grass snakes and adders shared this small plot of ground. Both species bred, but small boys and starlings made off with young grass snakes, and nothing was safe once herring gulls began nesting nearby. Perhaps that’s one reason why workers demolished the reptiliary about 1970 to make way for the Sobell Pavilions. If today’s standards of conservation and safety had applied, the place might never have been there. With the top of its wall at ground level, anyone could have fallen into what was effectively a pit teeming with poisonous snakes.

Our garden reptiliary

I decided our garden reptiliary would not include adders or other vertebrate eaters. It must also be smaller than London Zoo’s, and more cheaply and easily made. Choosing a site proved the easiest bit: I enclosed the herb garden on a south-facing slope created by the previous owners. Sage and thyme gave it a Mediterranean atmosphere that I fancied would make green and wall lizards feel at home.

How to prevent them escaping posed the main problem. Books on designing a reptiliary favoured a brick wall with an overhang. But the time, effort, and cost of building one put me off. Instead, I hit on the idea of a fence of corrugated PVC sheeting supported by wooden posts—cheap, easy to make, and too smooth for lizards’ sharp little claws to grip. Mastic coated with enamel paint sealed the corners, and to discourage burrowing I laid a path of narrow concrete paving slabs along the inside. But corners proved an Achilles heel once weathering had taken the gloss off their paint; if I were starting again I would eliminate corners by making a circular pen, as I did for the tortoises. What’s more this wouldn’t need battens tacked to the top of the sheeting to stop it flexing and sagging.

Reptiliary, Spur House garden, Lamberhurst c1970

The garden reptiliary

My diaries for 1968 and 1969 show that the resulting enclosure was 16 feet long and 9 feet wide, later broadened by replacing the straight eastern side with a curved one, making the whole like a capital D. Because the ground sloped from north to south, to keep the fence horizontal I set its north, west and east sides in trenches. That left the middle of the reptiliary two feet higher than the edges. Inside this hillock I inserted an old shallow stone sink upside down as a frost-free (I hoped) hibernaculum. On top of the hillock and into its side I set sandstone rocks salvaged from a Tunbridge Wells church demolished to make way for a Tesco’s. Across the enclosure’s low, southern end I dug a pond waterproofed by a flexible liner. The last job was furnishing the reptiliary with logs for lizards to bask on.

Lambert Lizards

Green lizards basking in the reptiliary

Reptile Species in Old Books on Reptile Keeping

I gradually realised in the 1950s that many of the species described by the authors of book on keeping reptiles that some of the species described never appeared on the market. Now, by comparing what dealers like Robert Jackson had in the late 1940s and early 1950s when many of the book were written, it is easy to see why. Books reflected what had been available before the books were written. Many species were never imported again.

Several books of the 1950s describe the keeping of South African tortoises like Chersina angulata, Homopus areolatus and even the now critically endangered Psammobates geometricus. They seemed to have been popular because they were much smaller than the Mediterranean species imported in vast numbers by the pet trade. However, it is now quite clear why we never saw them on a dealer’s list. As the Aquarist of March 1950 explained, their export from South Africa was banned:

It has recently been reported that the Cape Government of South Africa, perturbed at the numbers of tortoises leaving that country, and doubtful of the treatment that these are receiving in the hands of overseas buyers, has now decided prohibit further exports.

I have never seen a South African tortoise but I remember Professor Gideon Louw (1930-2004) of the University of Stellenbosch and then the University of Cape Town telling me lots about them when he spent a year working along the corridor from my lab.

Reptiles Imports in the late 1940s and early 50s

I knew that during the years of austerity after the Second World War, the U.K. had import controls to protect the £ Sterling. What I could not understand was how fish keeping and herpetology became so popular under these circumstances and how magazines from that time had advertisements for a fairly wide range of imported reptiles and amphibians. There were large reptile exhibits at amateur fish shows. For example, the Aquarist of November 1949 reported that at the show of the Nottingham and District Aquarist Society held from 15 to 24 September, a reptile room held over twenty species including a four-foot crocodile.

I discovered the answer in the November 1949 issue of the Aquarist:

The recent arrival of fishes from abroad in London shops had encouraged us to think that better things were on the way, and that all the delights of pre-war aquarium keeping were soon to be available to large numbers of new aquarists. But our hopes were shattered when recently we were notified by the Board of Trade’s Import Licensing Department that the licences necessary for the importation of fishes and reptiles are no longer being issued. In special circumstances these animals may be imported on licence for the use of zoological gardens and for scientific research purposes.

The British Herpetological Society were quick off the mark. The March 1950 issue of the Aquarist contained the following:

BHS Aquarist Mar 1950

I still have not found out when these restrictions were eased and finally removed but its imposition probably marks the first major downturn in amateur herpetology—it has always been cyclical since then—in the second half of the 20th Century.