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 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 ponds, 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:
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:
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.
NOTE ADDED 2 and 6 AUGUST 2018
Peter Sutton writes:
I have studied the aquatic life at Beam Brook since the 1980’s and have dedicated a chapter of a book that I am writing about Sussex to this extraordinary site. For a few years, the site went into serious decline, but the ponds have been largely restored (primarily through the kindness of the Plant Hire owner, Bill Kear and his staff) and aquatic life there is now thriving. The Alpine Newts and Italian Crested Newts are still there, as is a healthy population of Grass Snakes, some of which still have characteristics of the eastern race (dorsal stripes, Natrix natrix persa).
Here is one of the Grass Snakes:
*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.