In my post of 9 October 2015, I mentioned advertisements from the 1950s for Ford’s Zoological Supples Ltd of 186 Woolwich Church Street, Woolwich, London SE18. Ford’s had fish, reptiles, birds and mammals and during the 1950s were regular advertisers in the weekly, Cage Birds, and in Water Life magazine.
I knew absolutely nothing about Ford’s. They did not seem to be very active from the late 1950s onwards and did not get a mention in any of the books that appeared around that time. However, from the late 1940s for about ten years, they regularly advertised what was available, whether it was common foreign birds, ‘Hyacinthine Macaws’. ‘finger-tame hand reared grey parrots, red tailed, selected from our own aviaries in Africa’ or a ‘tame white-faced Chimpanzee, perfectly docile’.
Mellissa Crowley, John Charles Ford’s grand-daughter, read my article and sent me photographs and an article on her beloved grandfather.
The article is from an issue of Water Life from August 1950. It describes how John Ford travelled to British Guiana (Guyana since 1966) to collect freshwater fish and transport them to his premises in Woolwich. At the time, tropical fish-keeping was enjoying a surge of interest in Britain with more and more households setting up heated aquaria and more and more dealers being established to meet that demand. Air transport was being established but was expensive. Moreover, stringent currency exchange and import controls were in place. Post-war Britain was broke, there was real austerity with food and most goods still rationed. British Guiana must then have been an attractive proposition. There were lots of fish; it belonged to Britain and was included in the Sterling Area so there were no difficulties with imports or exchange controls.
The article describes John Ford’s travels in April and May 1950; only three weeks separated the two. In the first he brought back 57 fish (mainly Corydoras catfish). To get to British Guiana he took the ‘banana boat’ Ringdrude from London to Kingston, Jamaica on 9 March; he is shown as ‘naturalist’ in the passenger list. The second trip resulted in many hundreds of fish being successfully transported to London. The fish were transported in five-gallon cans (no polythene bags then); some heating was required and the water was aerated by rubber bladders inflated by a foot pump. Ford thanked the airline staff profusely for assistance at each change of aircraft. There were no long-hail flights then and the journey from Georgetown to London involved stops at Dakar in Senegal, Lisbon, Madrid, Nice and Amsterdam. The cost was very high. Transporting the water alone cost £300 (about £9,000 in today’s money) so it is not surprising that tropical fish in retail shops were far more expensive than they are now.
Among the species collected in profusion was the Marbled Hatchet fish (Carnegiella strigata). The article describes where John Ford collected them and other fishes: ‘up the R[iver] Demerara to Warratilla Creek, a distance of some 150 miles’. Intrigued, since 150 miles up the Demerara would take much longer to reach than John Ford spent in the country, I realised that the place is Waratilla Creek 15 and not 150, miles from Georgetown and, moreover, that I have actually been there and through the waters John Ford collected his fish from.
Waratilla Creek (now the site of a bauxite mine) is a tributary of the Kamuni River (or Creek) which enters the Demerara River opposite the international airport on the other bank. The place looms large in Charles Waterton’s (1782-1865) classic account of the natural history of this region in Wanderings in South America.
Fifty-six years after John Ford was working Waratilla Creek, the Kamuni and Demerara rivers, we were staying as a Naturetrek party at Timberhead, a ‘resort’ no longer in operation it appears, on the Kamuni River. Each morning, fish that had leapt from the water in attempts to foil predators were in the bottom of the boats moored there. The vast majority were Marbled Hatchetfish and I remarked to others in the party that anybody seeking the then highly-prized hatchetfish for aquaria in the 1950s would not have had to look much further than here. I had no idea that John Ford had done just that in 1950.
It would seem that Ford’s Zoological Supplies was a pretty important London animal dealer – wholesale to the ‘pet’ trade as well as retail – in the late 1940s and early- to mid-1950s. My guess, from seeing the photographs below, is that John Ford was a direct importer and possibly an exporter as well. Like a number of individuals in post-war Britain, a burning interest in exotic animals found its outlet in dealing in them and travelling to collect them; some were successful entrepreneurs while others quickly failed. It was an activity that enjoyed public support, press coverage and interest into the 1980s.
John Charles Ford (1908-1985) must have been successful since Mellissa records that he drove a Bentley, later to appear in Downton Abbey. I do not recall, though, advertisements or news of the existence of the company in the early 1960s. I suspect that John Ford was operating at a much lower level in later years because the company was dissolved on 28 July 1965 (London Gazette).
Little is recorded, other than in the popular press or through old advertisements, of the trade itself or of its magnitude. Dealers were pretty secretive especially about their contacts overseas some of whom proved to be reliable exporters of healthy animals, others not. But they were the intermediaries supplying zoos, circuses, pet shops and, in turn, showing real live animals to the public. In those days, travelling and seeing animals in their natural habitat seemed like an impossible dream.
Finally, some more advertising for Ford’s from Cage Birds in the 1950s: